Last Call! Obama’s Final Actions on Nuclear Weapons

December 20, 2016 | 9:17 am
Lisbeth Gronlund
Former contributor

At the beginning of his presidency, President Obama gave a soaring speech in Prague, promising that the US will “put an end to Cold War thinking” and “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.”

His record so far has been somewhat mediocre—but it’s not too late to make a little more progress. Obama could reduce the hedge stockpile of weapons the US keeps in storage, and the amount of highly-enriched uranium and plutonium that the US keeps in case it wants to build even more weapons. It’s surprising that he hasn’t already taken these incremental steps. But their incremental nature also means that the Trump administration is unlikely to object.

The record so far

President Obama in Prague (Source: White House)

President Obama in Prague (Source: State Dept.)

Those of us who have been working to change US nuclear weapons policy were delighted by the Prague speech. While reducing arsenal size is important, so is reducing the potential that US weapons will be used. The US practice of keeping its land-based missiles on high alert creates the risk of an inadvertent launch in response to a false warning of an incoming Russian nuclear attack. And under US policy, the purpose of its nuclear weapons is not just to deter the use of nuclear weapons by other countries. Rather, US plans include options for the deliberate first use of nuclear weapons.

But frankly, it’s been a pretty disappointing eight years.

The US did negotiate the New START agreement with Russia, which will limit deployed long-range (“strategic”) nuclear weapons to 1,550 by 2018. Actually, because the treaty’s rules count all the weapons on an aircraft as just one, the real number will be more like 1,750 nuclear weapons. When Obama entered office, the US deployed some 2,200 strategic weapons, which is the upper limit permitted under the US-Russian Moscow Treaty negotiated by President Bush. The difference—450 weapons—amounts to a 20% reduction. That’s good.

And Obama did reduce the number of countries the US would attack first with nuclear weapons. The 2001 Nuclear Posture Review conducted by the George W. Bush administration named as potential targets Russia, China, Iraq, Iran, Libya, North Korea and Syria. At that time only Russia and China had nuclear weapons; North Korea did not conduct its first nuclear test until 2006.

Obama’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review states that the US reserves the right to use nuclear weapons first against countries with nuclear weapons or not in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). While the document doesn’t name names, this currently amounts to three countries: Russia, China, and North Korea. (The U.S. is presumably not in the business of using nuclear weapons against the other countries with nuclear weapons—Britain, France, Israel, Pakistan and India.) So Iran, Iraq, Syria and Libya are no longer on the target list. That’s also good. But Obama’s failure to decide that the US would never use nuclear weapons first is a big disappointment.

And that’s pretty much it when it comes to reducing the US nuclear arsenal and changing US nuclear weapons policy.

What about removing land-based missiles from hair-trigger alert? Before Obama was elected to his first term, he wrote that “Keeping nuclear weapons ready to launch on a moment’s notice is a dangerous relic of the Cold War. Such policies increase the risk of catastrophic accidents or miscalculation. I believe that we must address this dangerous situation…” But he left this Cold War practice in place.

What about further cuts to the deployed arsenal? In 2013, following a comprehensive review, the administration concluded that the United States could safely reduce by an additional third from New START levels—even if Russia did not make similar reductions. Again, Obama did not move forward.

Remaining steps

As noted above, there are two remaining things Obama could do. They are mundane enough that it’s likely the Trump administration won’t care, especially if they are not accompanied by excessive self-congratulation. But they are still steps in the right direction.

First, he could cut the hedge stockpile of weapons the US keeps in storage. Currently the hedge is actually 50% larger than the deployed arsenal. The US keeps weapons in reserve for two reasons: (1) in the unlikely event that an entire class of deployed weapons experienced a technical problem, weapons of a different type could be deployed from the hedge to replace the faulty ones; and (2) if political leaders decided to rapidly increase the number of deployed weapons, weapons from the hedge could be added to existing delivery systems.

Leaving aside the merits of these rationales, the current hedge is larger than it needs to be to fulfill its purpose, as my colleague Eryn MacDonald explains. Obama could cut it by almost half, from 2,750 weapons to 1,400—and move the rest into the queue to be dismantled.

Second, he could cut the amount of weapon-usable fissile material—plutonium and highly-enriched uranium (HEU)—that the US originally produced for weapons and still keeps on hand. Ultimately, weapons cuts will only be meaningful if this material is disposed of. Previous administrations have declared that tons of this material is excess to weapons purposes and slated it for disposal, but much remains. As Eryn discusses here, the US produced almost 100 metric tons of plutonium, and has declared about 2/3 of it excess. Obama could declare an additional 15 metric tons as excess. The US stockpile also includes some 600 metric tons of HEU, of which 250 is available for weapons. Obama could declare an additional 140 metric tons of HEU excess.

This amount of plutonium and HEU—15 and 140 metric tons, respectively—would be enough to build several thousand nuclear weapons.

By cutting the hedge and declaring more fissile material excess, Obama would go a little further in fulfilling the promise he made in 2009.