Keep Cutting Nukes

Four reasons why presidents have pushed for nuclear cuts for decades -- and why there's no reason to stop now.

National Archives/Department of Defense
National Archives/Department of Defense

In June, President Barack Obama announced plans to seek modest reductions in U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear weapons. Critics, including Matthew Kroenig in a recent Foreign Policy article, are calling these plans extreme, but they are not. The president is simply moving to retire weapons that U.S. military leaders have already determined we do not need. Such reductions can help reduce the nuclear threat we face from Russia, build international support for U.S. nonproliferation policies, and save billions of dollars.

In fact, Obama’s policy is based on 40 years of bipartisan agreement that lowering excess nuclear firepower makes the United States and the world safer. Presidents Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush all embraced this approach — and it still makes sense today.

Kroenig’s central critique of Obama’s call for further arms reductions is his simplistic and historically inaccurate assertion that "leaders with fewer nukes at their disposal will be more likely to cave during a crisis." Kroenig argues that during the 1962 showdown over Soviet missile deployments in Cuba, "American nuclear superiority helped compel Moscow to withdraw its missiles from the island."

At the time, the United States had 25,540 nuclear weapons, compared to Russia’s 3,346. The United States deployed about 3,500 warheads capable of hitting Russia; the Soviets had about 400 capable of reaching the United States — a 9-to-1 margin.* However, the U.S. numerical nuclear "advantage" did not stop Soviet Premier Khrushchev from deploying nuclear weapons in Cuba in the first place. In fact, it was part of the reason he took the risk.

Furthermore, Khrushchev was not the only leader who backed down to avoid nuclear Armageddon. The Soviet leader agreed to withdraw his medium-range nuclear-armed missiles from Cuba in exchange for Kennedy’s private promise to remove U.S. Jupiter nuclear-armed missiles from Turkey and to not invade Cuba.

Far from supporting Kroenig’s thesis, the Cuban missile crisis demonstrates that nuclear brinkmanship is too dangerous and should be avoided. Kennedy’s defense secretary, Robert McNamara, concluded in 2002, "[W]e’re damn lucky to be here. We were so close to a nuclear catastrophe."

Given the catastrophic effects of even a "limited" nuclear attack, a country with a larger nuclear force cannot count on coercing a country with a smaller one. In a nuclear crisis it is much more important to seek stability and mutual security than to seek advantage and risk mutual destruction.

With these lessons in mind, it did not take long for U.S. and Russian leaders to realize that it is in both of their interests to build a more stable nuclear relationship. Seeking to move away from the nuclear brink, they negotiated the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963, the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty of 1972, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987, the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), and the 2010 New START agreement, among other measures.

Fast forward to 2013: President Obama said on June 19 in Berlin that "we can ensure the security of America and our allies, and maintain a strong and credible strategic deterrent, while reducing our deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third" below New START levels of 1,550, to about 1,000-1,100 warheads. These reductions have the support of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Strategic Command, and the secretary of defense.

Even so, Kroenig states that the United States should "strive to maintain clear nuclear superiority over its adversaries" and "refrain from additional reductions." He glibly writes that "you don’t bring a knife to a gun fight" and that Obama should not bring "a crippled nuclear arsenal to the second nuclear age."

Far from crippling U.S. nuclear forces, President Obama’s plans would maintain a devastating, invulnerable nuclear force while modestly reducing excess weapons. The approach is fully consistent with U.S. policy over the last four decades, during which the United States has reduced its stockpile of nuclear weapons by more than 80 percent. Every administration since Nixon has contributed to this effort for four main reasons. They still hold true today.

1. Nuclear overkill. Since 1967, when the size of the U.S arsenal peaked at some 31,000 nuclear weapons, American presidents and military leaders have determined time and again that the country’s nuclear stockpile was larger than needed for the deterrence requirements of the United States, its allies, and friends.

During George H. W. Bush’s four years in office, the total U.S. arsenal shrunk from about 22,200 weapons to 13,700 — a 38 percent cut. In George W. Bush’s eight years, the total U.S. arsenal dropped from about 10,500 weapons to just over 5,000 — about 50 percent fewer.

Still, the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals remain by far the largest of any of the world’s nuclear-armed states. Together, the United States and Russia possess approximately 90 percent of all nuclear weapons. Even under New START, the United States and Russia would be allowed to deploy as many as 1,550 strategic nuclear weapons with thousands more in reserve.

After an extensive review of nuclear deterrence requirements completed in June, U.S. military leaders found that the nuclear arsenal will be "more than adequate" to meet security objectives when New START is fully implemented in 2018, and thus the force can be reduced by up to one-third.

Even at 1,000 strategic deployed warheads, the United States and Russia would retain excess nuclear firepower and each would still have much larger stockpiles than all other nuclear states combined. But moving to 1,000 makes more sense for U.S. security than 1,550, as explained below.

2. Cutting Russian weapons. U.S. arsenal reductions have encouraged corresponding reductions by Russia, via treaties or informal understandings, thereby lowering the nuclear threat we face. Arms control put the Cold War’s arms race into reverse. Tens of thousands of warheads that were once deployed and aimed at the United States have been eliminated.

Yes, 1,000 Russian nuclear weapons aimed at the United States is still too many, but we are moving in the right direction. It would mean fewer weapons on high alert that could be launched in error, and more weapons on their way to dismantlement, ultimately reducing the chance they could be seized by a terrorist group.  

Today, Russia is already below the deployed warhead limit for New START, five years ahead of schedule. Russia’s stockpile is expected to decline further as its delivery systems reach the end of their lifetimes. To discourage Moscow from building back up to New START levels and from deploying new delivery systems, it is important keep the reduction process moving. This could happen through a new treaty or a less formal bilateral understanding, similar to President George H.W. Bush’s 1991 initiative to slash U.S. tactical nuclear weapons.

Given the complicated nature of U.S.-Russian relations, Moscow may not choose to follow U.S. reductions immediately. But that should not stop Obama from retiring weapons that we do not need, nor should we give President Putin veto power over U.S. policy.

According to a 2012 Defense Department report to Congress, even if Russia were to go "significantly above" New START limits, this would have "little to no effect on the U.S. assured second strike capabilities," including strategic submarines at sea. The report finds that Russia would not be able to achieve a military advantage "by any plausible expansion of its strategic nuclear forces, even in a cheating or breakout scenario."

Kroenig and others worry that any further U.S. reductions could lead to a possible "sprint to parity" by China, which is estimated to have nearly 300 warheads, some 75 of which are on long-range ballistic missiles. In reality, China has never shown an interest in seeking parity with the United States or Russia, but instead has sought a minimal, survivable force that can carry out a second strike. By clarifying our intentions to go lower and limiting our missile defenses, U.S. reductions could help induce China to restrain the size of its relatively small nuclear stockpile — over which the United States has a 12-1 advantage.

Maintaining an unnecessarily large U.S. nuclear arsenal, combined with increasingly capable ballistic missile defenses, on the other hand, could push China to increase the size of its strategic force.

3. Curbing proliferation. Today’s most pressing security threat is not nuclear war with Russia or China, but nuclear terrorism and proliferation. As Obama noted in March 2012, "The massive nuclear arsenal we inherited from the Cold War is poorly suited for today’s threats, including nuclear terrorism."

The United States needs to sustain a strong international coalition to secure nuclear materials across the globe and turn back nuclear programs in Iran, North Korea, and elsewhere. Continued U.S. and Russian arms reductions are essential to demonstrate that the major nuclear powers are holding up their end of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty bargain, which includes "an unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear-weapon States to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament to which all States parties are committed under Article VI."

Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Miller said in June that, "as we think about our nonproliferation goals," demonstrating additional progress on arms reductions "is in our interest as we look to put pressure particularly on North Korea and Iran … having a strong coalition in support of us will be vital."

For example, the United States needs international support at the United Nations for economic sanctions against both North Korea and Iran to slow down their nuclear programs. The United States will also need U.N. support for the Sept. 14 deal with Russia to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons, or for sanctions if the Assad regime does not meet its commitments.

Furthermore, maintaining excess nuclear forces does not deter nations, such as Iran or North Korea, or terrorist actors from seeking these weapons, and only provides them with a cynical excuse to sidestep their nonproliferation commitments.

Kroenig writes that he could find no historical correlation between "the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal" and "measurable nonproliferation outcomes." However, his search was too narrow. The 1995 vote to indefinitely extend the Nonproliferation Treaty was one such outcome, and it was aided significantly by political commitments from the nuclear powers to negotiate a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) by 1996.

Similarly, the U.S. Senate’s failure to approve the CTBT in 1999 had a negative effect on international efforts to strengthen nuclear inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. According to Mohamed ElBaradei, who headed the agency at the time, the Senate’s vote on the CTBT was a "devastating blow" to these efforts.

4. Saving taxpayer dollars. Now that military planners have determined that nuclear reductions are possible, an important side benefit is that they can save money. The United States currently plans to maintain a "triad" of nuclear delivery systems into the foreseeable future. The U.S. Navy wants 12 new ballistic missile submarines that would cost $90 billion to build. The Air Force is seeking up to 100 new, nuclear-armed strategic bombers for at least $68 billion, as well as a new fleet of land-based ballistic missiles and air-launched cruise missiles, for billions more. The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) plans to spend more than $60 billion for a new family of "interoperable" warheads for the arsenal over the next decade.

These costs are simply not sustainable in the age of budget sequestration. The good news is that with a strategic arsenal down to 1,000 warheads, we can cut these programs back.

But instead of engaging in an honest debate about how best to scale back the nuclear budget, Kroenig and others sidestep the issue by claiming that nuclear weapons are "cheap." However, independent estimates of total spending on nuclear weapons, which include significant costs borne by the NNSA, run to about $31 billion per year.

Kroenig writes that savings from a proposal our organization produced to scale back nuclear programs, which could add up to $45 billion over 10 years, are "trivial" compared to the overall defense budget of $500 billion per year.

But given the budget crunch, every dollar counts. For example, the Navy cannot afford to pay for the 12 new ballistic missile submarines out of its projected budget. So the Navy is asking Congress to set up a special $4 billion annual fund to pay for the costs outside of the Navy’s budget.

Does the Navy think this amount is "trivial?" No. The Navy estimates that if it receives only $2 billion in supplemental funding instead of $4 billion, the service would lose 16 ships it would otherwise have bought over a 15-year period.

Significant savings are possible, especially with smart nuclear reductions. It makes no sense to retain and build more nuclear weapons than we need, especially when other defense needs are going unmet.

Further reductions to the U.S. nuclear stockpile would bring a variety of benefits, including the prospect of a smaller Russian arsenal and engagement with China on nuclear arms control, a stronger international coalition against nuclear terrorism and proliferation, and billions of dollars that could be saved or spent on higher priority defense needs. Reducing excess nuclear stockpiles has made sense to seven presidents over five decades. It still makes sense today.

Correction:This article originally stated different figures for the number of U.S. and Soviet deployed warheads at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. These numbers have been adjusted to reflect the most exhaustive and accepted estimate, as presented by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Tom Z. Collina is Director of Policy at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation in Washington, DC.

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