Getting to Zero

If Obama does cut the U.S. nuclear arsenal by 80 percent, it won't endanger national security. It also won't be enough.

Michael Smith/Getty Images
Michael Smith/Getty Images

U.S. President Barack Obama’s conservative opponents in the media and on Capitol Hill whacked him hard this week after someone leaked details of a classified Pentagon-led review of options for reducing the U.S. nuclear arsenal by as much as 80 percent. The Associated Press story published late Tuesday, Feb. 14, claimed that the review contained "at least three options for lower total numbers of deployed strategic nuclear weapons cutting to around 1,000 to 1,100, 700 to 800, or 300 to 400."

"Can you believe that the American people will stand by for this … so clearly putting the nation’s defense at risk?" said Liz Cheney on Fox News. Radio host Rush Limbaugh called it "downright scary" and a shift in the balance of power toward Russia "by design." Equating reducing nuclear weapons with reducing American power, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said, "The idea that making ourselves weaker will somehow lead to increased global security and stability is ridiculous."

The administration has responded with a procedural defense. "This was all part of a nuclear posture review mandated by law," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday. "There are a number of options. One is to maintain the status quo. It is a process of discussion within the national security team."

Officials have thus far not discussed the strategic basis of any new policy. But it’s worth asking, would it really be so crazy to reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal to 300 deployed weapons?

First, a few numbers. There are an estimated 20,500 nuclear weapons in the world. The United States and Russia hold over 95 percent of them, or about 19,500 weapons. (The United States has about 5,000 weapons in its active stockpile, with 1,790 counted under the New START treaty as deployed strategic weapons, plus about 3,500 weapons waiting to be dismantled.) The other seven nuclear-armed states together account for about 1,000 weapons, with only one — France — having more than 300. North Korea, a potential adversary, has fewer than 10. China, the only other conceivable adversary, has about 200, only 30 to 40 of which are on missiles capable of hitting the continental United States.

Since 1986, global arsenals have declined from their Cold War peak of some 65,000 weapons, reflecting changing global threats. Historically, Republicans have taken the initiative on making some of the biggest nuclear cuts. Ronald Reagan, working with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, cut intermediate-range weapons held by the United States and the Soviet Union by 100 percent, retiring thousands of missiles. George H.W. Bush reduced the total stockpile by 50 percent, thanks primarily to his unilateral decision to retire all the nuclear weapons deployed by the Army and the Navy’s surface fleet. George W. Bush also intended to make unilateral reductions, but was convinced by Congress to negotiate a treaty with the Russians instead. By the time he left office, Bush, like his father, had cut the total stockpile by another 50 percent.

"I don’t recall too many Republican complaining or fretting about those reductions, the latter of which took place during a period when we were fighting two wars, when North Korea conducted two nuclear tests, and when Iran expended its nuclear operations, " Stephen Schwartz of the Monterey Institute of International Studies told me.

Today, there is widespread consensus among policymakers and experts on both sides of the aisle on the need to refocus U.S. nuclear policy from the permanent maintenance of an immense nuclear arsenal with multiple missions to the reduction and eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons. It is based on a growing bipartisan consensus of former security and military officials. George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn are the leading proponents of this shift, embodied in their series of Wall Street Journal editorials calling for "a world without nuclear weapons."

The four have garnered the support of a large majority of the still-living former U.S. secretaries of state, defense secretaries, and national security advisors, including James Baker, Colin Powell, Madeleine Albright, Frank Carlucci, and Melvin Laird. "Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, the most important characteristic of the nuclear problem is not the size of the arsenals," Carlucci and Perry wrote in a 2010 report, "but a fundamental change in the relative risks and benefits of their continuing existence."

Reflecting this consensus, the April 2010 Nuclear Posture Review — a congressionally mandated study on the purpose, structure, and size of the nuclear arsenal — unequivocally concluded: "The massive nuclear arsenal we inherited from the Cold War era of bipolar military confrontation is poorly suited to address the challenges posed by suicidal terrorists and unfriendly regimes seeking nuclear weapons." James Miller, acting undersecretary of defense for policy, reflected the Pentagon consensus with his Feb. 15 comment: "I do believe that there are steps that we can take to further strengthen our deterrence posture and assurance of allies, and … I believe we can do so with lower numbers."

How low? Recommendations for right-sizing the arsenal vary. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has proposed cutting back to 1,220 deployed strategic warheads. The Cato Institute argues that 500 warheads are sufficient. A 2010 study by Air Force analysts concluded that "America’s nuclear security can rest easily on a relatively small number of counterforce and countervalue weapons totaling just over 300."

Even here, it is difficult to image a military mission that would require the United States to use 300 hydrogen bombs, each 10 to 80 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. During all the years when the United States and the Soviet Union built up their arsenals to tens of thousands of weapons and then brought them down to thousands, China has felt secure with a deterrent force of just dozens. Analysts are now looking at this minimum deterrent strategy to see whether it indeed reflects military needs more accurately than the current U.S. and Russian postures.

As former National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy wrote 43 years ago in Foreign Affairs:

[A] decision that would bring even one hydrogen bomb on one city of one’s own country would be recognized in advance as a catastrophic blunder; ten bombs on ten cities would be a disaster beyond history; and a hundred bombs on a hundred cities are unthinkable.

Bundy’s views did not prevail then, but the options that the Pentagon and the White House national security staff are reportedly preparing for the president’s consideration are well within the mainstream of today’s strategic thinking. It is those defending the existing nuclear complex and arguing for its expansion who occupy fringe.

Sound strategy is about matching resources to threats. The debate under way at the Pentagon, State Department, and White House could result in a smarter nuclear strategy, one that keeps us safe and is cost-effective too. Cutting the nuclear force to even 1,000 weapons would save hundreds of billions of dollars that could be devoted to the equipment that U.S. troops need to fight terrorists, not Soviets. It’s about time we buried yesterday’s threats and focused on those of the here and now.

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