Trimming the Fat: Obama and Nuclear Weapons Cuts

October 18, 2016 | 11:41 am
Lisbeth Gronlund
Former contributor

The White House is considering what concrete steps President Obama could take to change US nuclear weapons policy and reduce the risks of nuclear weapons before he leaves office.

His advisors have apparently abandoned the idea of removing US land-based missiles from hair-trigger alert. Ditto the idea of establishing a no-first-use nuclear policy, which would rule out the first use of nuclear weapons in a conflict. Still on the table: cutting the US arsenal and stockpiles of weapon-usable materials.

What would that mean?

Thousands of weapons

B61 bombs in storage (Source: US Govt)

B61 bombs in storage (Source: US Govt)

The US has some 4,500 nuclear weapons on land-based missiles, on submarine-based missiles, waiting to be loaded on airplanes, and in storage. On top of that there are some 2,500 weapons in the dismantlement queue—weapons the military thinks the US no longer needs.

These 4,500 weapons fall into several categories. There are 4,000 so-called strategic weapons, with 1,750 deployed and 2,250 in storage. The remaining 500 weapons are considered tactical, with 180 deployed in five European countries and 320 in storage in the US.

The US keeps weapons in storage for two reasons: (1) if one type of deployed weapons develops a technical problem, it can replace those with a different type of stored weapon, and (2) if it decided to rapidly increase the number of deployed weapons it could do so.

As our new factsheet shows, the US could cut the current arsenal by at least 1,850 weapons, while still meeting current Pentagon requirements. These weapons would be moved to the dismantlement queue. President Obama should:

  • Reduce the number of deployed strategic US nuclear weapons by roughly 550, leaving 1,200—a level that the administration has already determined is sufficient to maintain US deterrence.
  • Reduce the number of strategic weapons in the hedge by roughly 1,000, leaving 1,250.
  • Eliminate the hedge of 320 tactical weapons.

Tons of Weapon-Usable Materials

The US also has many tons of plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU) left over from its weapon program. While it plans to dispose of some of this material, it still keeps some of it in reserve for military use. As our factsheet shows, President Obama could declare more of this material excess to its military needs. This includes:

  • At least 15 metric tons of plutonium—enough for almost 4,000 nuclear weapons
  • At least 140 metric tons of HEU—enough for more than 5,000 nuclear weapons

So there’re lots of good things the president could do in his final months in office! Now let’s get down to business, Mr. President.