What fan of the hapless Chicago Cubs doesn’t look at a sunny day and think of Ernie Banks? His “Let’s play two!” expressed optimism in the face of fatigue, off-field worries and the inevitability that a doubleheader meant the luckless Cubs would receive two merciless drubbings by the visting team.

Come to think of it, Ernie was sort of masochist, wasn’t he?

A lifetime rooting for the bumbling Chicago Cubs is perfect preparation for a career in arms control, where the successes are few and far between, and always a bit too little, too late.

Yet hope springs eternal!  So, while bruised Administration politicos despair at the thought of going another round with the Russians and Jon Kyl, those of use in the arms control community are thinking: What should the next nuclear arms reduction treaty look like?

A kind of consensus is forming around the idea that the next treaty will include a further reduction in deployed strategic nuclear weapons (the ones covered by START) as well as a limitation on the total number of nuclear weapons (everything else including reserve and tactical nuclear weapons).

Former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry described such an approach in his testimony on New START, albeit somewhat elliptically.  (For a nice articulation of this view, see Steve Pifer, The Next Round: The United States and Nuclear Arms Reductions After New START and After New START: What Next?)

People seem to like the numbers 1,000 (deployed strategic) and 2,500 (total), though I think 1500/3000 would be a monumental achievement.  Current US levels, for reference, are 1,968 and 5,113.

The advantage of this approach — lets call it 1500/3000 — is that a single category of nondeployed warheads offers a solution to the disparity in tactical nuclear weapons, which currently “favors” Russia.  As it happens, the Russian advantage in tactical nuclear weapons is offset by the US advantage in strategic “reserve” or “hedge” warheads.  Here is how Bill Perry explained the situation:

Dr. PERRY. Yes. In my testimony I express the hope that the confidence-building that would develop from this treaty and the ongoing dialogues it would have would lead to improvements in many other areas, not just further nuclear treaties, but in the other areas of disagreement between the United States and Russia, but in particular it would lead to a follow-on treaty dealing with the tactical nukes and also dealing with the thousands of reserve warheads that we have. I might mention that the asymmetry in tactical nuclear weapons is primarily in favor of the Soviet Union, but the asymmetry in strategic weapons in reserve is primarily in the favor of the United States and is a very sore issue with the Russians that I speak to. We have the capability of rapidly uploading thousands of nuclear weapons onto our strategic forces if we choose to do so.

“Very sore.”  That’s octogenerian for “pissed off.”

The main reason for the asymmetrical force structure is technical: As former Secretary of Defense (and Energy) Jim Schlesinger pointed out twice in the same hearing, the United States keeps a large reserve when Russia does not because of differing approaches to stockpile stewardship.  We maintain existing weapons indefinitely — so we like to have lots of backups.  The Russians appear to just keep churning out replacement warheads before the old ones go bad — “turning over” the entire force every 10 years or so.  (I like our approach better.)

If US-Russian relations took a turn for the worse — “Joe Stalin comes back to life” in Arnie Kanter’s colorful phrase — we could also upload those  same reserve warheads on our missiles and bombers, giving us a pretty serious breakout capability that Moscow can’t match.  Which is what pisses off the Russians.  Er, makes them “very sore.”

So we each keep thousands of reserve weapons for different reasons: The US as a strategic hedge against technical and geopolitical uncertainty; the Russians as a tactical option in the event that things turn south with NATO or, more probably, China.

This isn’t as well understood as it ought to be.  For example, the New York Times, in an otherwise sensible editorial, noted that “Russia and the United States are each estimated to have around 2,000 stored weapons.”  I don’t know who made that estimate (passive voice!), but I am pretty sure that’s not the US IC estimate.  The Russians MIRV the hell out of their missiles and probably only have a few hundred strategic warheads in reserve to finish off an upload.  US officials don’t usually come out and say it, but you can sort of see it in various US documents.  There is, for example, the tendency to report the number Russian operational strategic warheads, rather than deployed warheads.  And the number (4,000 in 2004) turns out to be a bit lower than the number of START accountable warheads.  It makes sense when you think about it: If Moscow doesn’t have a bunch of upload and is regularly remanufacturing warheads, why bother with a hedge?

As a result, I would guess US and Russian nuclear stockpiles after the New START reductions (in 2017) will probably look something like this:

Warhead Type United States Russia
Strategic Deployed ~1,500 ~1,500
Strategic Nondeployed ~2,500 ~500
Tactical (All Nondeployed) ~500 ~3000-5000
Total ~4,500 ~5,000-7000

Now, these numbers are purely illustrative.  I probably ought to have just have written a “few thousand” and “few hundred” for non-deployed US and Russian strategic nuclear weapons and “several hundred” and “several thousand ” US and Russian tactical nuclear weapons.

Two other cautions: This accounting doesn’t use the New START accounting fiction for bombers — instead, I tried to depict what the actual stockpile will look like and placed the bomber warheads as nondeployed. And, then, of course, there are the weapons in queue awaiting dismantlement — a status differentiated in the US largely by absence of batteries and other so-called “limited-life components” that could be restored to return the weapons to active status.

But the bottom line is this: Any agreement that constrains all nuclear weapons is probably  going to allow the US and Russia to retain thousands of non-deployed nuclear weapons for their respective national reasons.  We might trim the hedge, as it were, but there is little prospect of eliminating either it or Russia’s tactical nuclear weapons stockpile in the next round of negotiations.

The implications of this are interesting.  In the near-term, one wonders if this approach will discourage efforts to transform the “hedge” from extant weapons to a “responsive” production capability (virtual Swords, anyone?).  After all, if we plan to use the hedge as a bargaining chip, why make unilateral stockpile reductions beyond implementation of the Bush Administration’s last cut in December 2007?

On the other hand, an effort to reduce the hedge means having to prepare the technical option to consolidate the stockpile of backup warheads.  So the W88/W78 FrankenLEP looks like an inevitability, even if it seems to be a solution in search of a problem.  And, for at least the foreseeable future we might end up with both: lots of interest in newish warheads and a big backlog of old ones while Antonov attempts to slowly talk Rose to death in Geneva.

The verification challenges with this approach are also intimidating.  The United States, early on in New START negotiations, sought to actually count warheads in storage at bomber bases.  (The Bush Administration had been chagrined to learn that the Russians didn’t consider any of their bomber warheads under the Moscow Treaty to be “operationally deployed.”) The Russians said “nyet,” which is how we ended up with the accounting fiction that each bomber counts as just one nuclear weapon. Given the very large number of general purpose forces that could employ tactical nuclear weapons — the US plans to procure 2,457 F-35s — any scheme for limiting tacnukes will have to make an actual count of warheads.  That means learning if the Russians have a word for “yes” with on site inspections of airbases, among other sensitive locations.

Then, of course, there is the question of what to call this new treaty.  START, SALT and SORT, all started with S because these treaties concerned strategic nuclear weapons.  I suppose we can’t call it the Comprehensive Arms Reduction Treaty, without Heritage accusing arms control proponents of putting the CART before the horse.  And, for obvious reasons, the Follow-on Arms Reduction Treaty is inappropriate.

So here is a novel idea: Let’s dispense with the cute nicknames.  Other treaties are named after places (Geneva and The Hague do well for themselves, though even Dayton got an agreement), saddled with lame acronyms (NPT, ABM, INF) or just called what they are (Outer Space Treaty, Open Skies Treaty).  I don’t care if we call this next one the Reykjavik Treaty, the NWSR or the just the Nuclear Stockpile Reduction. But the details will be hard enough without spending a lot of time on clever names.