Death by Cuts to a Thousand

Obama's plan to reduce nuclear weapons does too little and will take too long.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

In a powerful speech in Prague fewer than 100 days after his 2009 inauguration, President Barack Obama warned that "the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up." He argued that the United States has a "moral responsibility" to prevent nuclear weapons use and proliferation, and took action on a step-by-step plan to move closer to "the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons."

Within weeks, Obama and his team rolled up their sleeves and got to work, and a great deal was accomplished over the next two years. They negotiated the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia and won Senate approval of the pact, helped secure an action plan to strengthen the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, accelerated global efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism, completed a top-to-bottom review of the U.S. nuclear weapons posture, and took steps to re-engage Iran in negotiations on its nuclear program and build international pressure on North Korea to meet its nonproliferation commitments.

But since early 2011, the administration’s nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation effort has lost energy and focus. Talks with Russia on deeper nuclear cuts have not begun and the implementation of the 2010 U.S. nuclear posture review was delayed. The president’s pledge to "immediately and aggressively" pursue Senate approval of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was not met, off-and-on talks with Iran on its nuclear program did not produce tangible results, and North Korea has accelerated its nuclear weapons pursuits.

On Wednesday in Berlin, Obama returned to the themes of his 2009 Prague address and sought to jumpstart progress on his second-term nuclear risk reduction agenda. The president declared that "so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe. Peace with justice means pursuing the security of a world without nuclear weapons, no matter how distant that dream may be." 

"Complacency is not in the character of great nations," Obama noted.

Indeed, doing nothing in the face of grave nuclear weapons threats is not an option. Since Kennedy, every U.S. president has taken steps to slow the nuclear arms race and reduce nuclear stockpiles.

Obama’s centerpiece announcement was that he — along with the Pentagon, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and State Department — had completed a review of nuclear weapons employment guidance and determined that the United States can reduce the number of strategic nuclear weapons it deploys by "up to one-third" — from 1,550 under New START to 1,000-1,100.

While his remarks are overdue and welcome, the pace and scope of his proposals for further nuclear reductions are incremental at best and changes in the U.S. nuclear war plan are less than meets the eye.

The "one-third" cuts outlined by the president are a good start, but 1,000-1,100 is only 200-300 warheads fewer than the United States was prepared to agree to during the New START negotiations four years ago — if Russia had not insisted on setting a ceiling of 1,550.

Clearly, 1,000 deployed strategic warheads is still more than enough nuclear firepower to deter any current or potential nuclear adversary. Other than Russia, China is the only potential nuclear-armed adversary capable of striking the United States and it has 75 single-warhead strategic missiles.

Former military officials, policymakers, and experts agree that a deployed strategic arsenal of 1,000 nuclear weapons is more than sufficient to guarantee the security of the United States and its allies against nuclear attack. In April 2012, Gen. James Cartwright, commander of U.S. nuclear forces under President George W. Bush, suggested moving toward a nuclear force of 450 strategic weapons by 2022.

Even that many warheads can pose a grave and unnecessary threat. An analysis conducted in 2002 by Physicians for Social Responsibility showed that a Russian attack with only 300 thermonuclear warheads hitting U.S. urban areas would kill 77 million Americans in the first half hour from blast effects and firestorms, to say nothing of the subsequent radioactive fallout. A U.S. attack of similar size would have the same devastating impact on Russia.

Joseph Stalin may have been willing to sacrifice tens of millions of innocent Russians in a nuclear exchange during the Cold War, but even President Putin would not.

Unfortunately, Obama’s formula gives Putin the ability to stall further reductions in unnecessary and expensive U.S. (and Russian) strategic nuclear weapons. Despite the March 2012 cancellation of U.S. plans to station more-advanced missile interceptors in Europe, which Russia had cited as a potential threat to its strategic missile forces, Russian leaders appear reluctant to move forward. Even if they do, this negotiation, which may involve not just deployed but non-deployed and tactical warheads, will be more complex and time consuming than New START.

U.S.-Russian nuclear reductions need not wait for a formal follow-on treaty. As the secretary of state’s International Security Advisory Board, which includes Bill Perry and Brent Scowcroft, noted in its November 2012 report, the two presidents could achieve similar and more rapid results through parallel, reciprocal reductions of strategic warheads. Reductions to 1,000 weapons or below could be achieved within the next five years and could be verified under the mechanisms established by the 2010 New START treaty — and they would not require the lengthy and difficult process of winning Senate approval for a new treaty.

By acting now, Obama could also begin to scale back unaffordable, overly ambitious Pentagon plans for building a new generation of strategic subs, bombers, and missiles, which could cost $180 billion over the next decade, and rebuilding five types of nuclear warheads at a cost of more than $61 billion over the next two decades.

A 2013 assessment by the Arms Control Association identifies $39 billion in taxpayer savings over the next 10 years if the United States right-sizes its nuclear force to 1,000 or fewer strategic deployed nuclear warheads.

Before another round of nuclear reductions, Congress needs to be consulted, but it should not be allowed to become a roadblock to a more cost-effective and appropriately sized nuclear force. On Capitol Hill, probably half of the senators support further reductions and reduced spending on nuclear weapons. In fact, a subgroup of 23 senators wrote the president in March urging him to pursue deeper cuts.

But a few senators are reluctant to pursue further reductions, particularly the members of the self-described "ICBM Caucus," who fear a loss of jobs and federal largess in their states, which host the country’s land-based nuclear missiles. Republican members of the group ignore the fact that the Pentagon and Joint Chiefs agree with Obama that the United States has more nuclear weapons than is necessary for reasonable deterrence requirements. In a statement released June 19, they made the wild accusation that the White House is taking "unnecessary strategic risks" with "a shortsighted policy that was decided without input from Congress."

Congress clearly needs some help understanding why the Pentagon and Joints Chiefs agree that U.S. nuclear posture should be guided by emerging 21st century threats, not old Cold War thinking. The president, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and others must follow-up the Berlin speech to make their case with the Senate — and with Putin.

In Berlin, Obama also pledged to "work with our NATO allies to seek bold reductions in U.S. and Russian tactical weapons in Europe."

While useful, this call to action on tactical nuclear arms control is a reiteration of a two-year-old formula that shows little promise of success without stronger U.S. leadership and creativity. For the past year, NATO has been unable to reach agreement on new proposals for transparency and confidence-building involving the U.S. tactical bombs that are stationed in five NATO countries, while Russia remains reluctant to discuss limits on its far larger stockpile of tactical nukes until all U.S. weapons are withdrawn from Europe. 

More than 20 years after the end of the Cold War, there is no military rationale for Russia to maintain some 2,000 tactical nuclear warheads, half of which are on obsolete naval and air defense systems. Nor is there any military requirement for the United States to keep 180 air-delivered nuclear bombs in Europe, which could cost $8 billion or more to refurbish. Rather than give in to NATO bureaucratic inertia, Obama should call Russia’s bluff and announce he is prepared to withdraw the remaining U.S. tactical bombs within five years and put pressure on Russia to take reciprocal action.

A world free of nuclear weapons will not be accomplished quickly or easily. Obama’s call for further reductions to the U.S. nuclear arsenal is an important first step, but a modest one. To overcome the obstacles and accelerate the pace of progress toward a world free of nuclear weapons during his time in office, President Obama and his team will need to devote far greater energy, creativity, and determination than we’ve seen over the past two years.

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