Obama’s Nuclear Legacy #1: 1,000 Deployed Warheads

December 23, 2014 | 2:00 pm
Stephen Young
Senior Washington Representative

As I outlined in a previous piece, President Obama has the opportunity to make significant changes in nuclear policy in the remaining two years of his presidency—changes that would make every American more secure, while also saving money and enhancing his legacy.

The first item on the list is to reduce U.S. deployed long-range weapons to 1,000 warheads. This reduction can be made independent of any reductions by Russia, although ideally Moscow would follow suit.

The list of reasons why such a cut makes sense is impressive:

  1. Based on a Pentagon analysis, the administration has already concluded that the United States can safely reduce its deployed long-range forces to this level without requiring Russia to make similar reductions. This was the outcome of the implementation study for the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review. One thousand deployed weapons are more than enough to ensure a strong, stable nuclear deterrent.
  2. Verification provisions in the existing New START arms control agreement can be used to corroborate these reductions, without requiring the negotiation of a new treaty or any Congressional action. While an executive agreement between Washington and Moscow would be preferable to ensure this happens, it is not required.
  3. By making these reductions now, the administration can begin to plan for that smaller nuclear stockpile in the future. This should lead to significant costs savings, as on the present course the United States could spend upwards of $1 trillion over the next 30 years to replace the entire nuclear triad. (One must note, however, that most of those savings will come after 2020, when the big bills for the triad start to come due.)
  4. Despite Moscow’s aggressive actions and angry rhetoric, the most likely result of a U.S. decision to reduce to 1,000 deployed strategic warheads is a Russian decision to follow suit. Moscow’s current economic troubles increase the likelihood of this outcome.
  5. This step would significantly improve the chances for a successful outcome at the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, the cornerstone of the nonproliferation regime. As a nuclear weapon state, the United States has an obligation under Article VI of this treaty to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament.” Cutting its arsenal further would be a good step in this direction. As it stands now, many other states that are parties to the treaty are growing increasingly impatient with the United States and other nuclear weapons states for what they perceive as a lack of sincere effort to live up to their commitments.

Getting the Ball Rolling

The first step in these reductions would be to announce that the United States will implement the cuts required to meet the New START warhead limits as soon as it is feasible, rather than waiting until the last moment, as the United States currently plans to do. There is no reason to delay these reductions, as the extra warheads do not contribute to U.S. security.

Given the length of time it took to decide how the United States intended to implement New START, it may take some additional planning to decide how to reach 1,000 deployed warheads. But there is enough time to do that work before New START levels are reached.

Challenges to the Approach

If Obama undertakes this reduction, the risk is not that Russia or any other country will respond in ways that will decrease American security.  That’s because they can’t. There is no plausible threat that justifies maintaining more than one thousand deployed long range nuclear weapons, and no reason to link the size of U.S. nuclear forces to those of any other country.

No, the risk is that the U.S. Congress will seek to prevent these cuts, potentially by trying to prevent any money being spent to implement them. President Obama may end up vetoing Congressional spending bills. But the decision to make these reductions is entirely within the president’s authority, and given the military has already endorsed these cuts, he should be able to win this battle.

The unfortunate reality is that most of the objections to further reductions are politically motivated, rather than security-driven. When Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush made far more significant cuts in the U.S. nuclear stockpile than we are proposing here, with far less input from the military, Congress was essentially silent. Both Bush 41 and Bush 43 decided on their changes and instructed the military to find a way to implement them. In Obama’s case, the military itself developed a revised nuclear strategy based on guidance from the president, then evaluated how to implement it, and concluded that 1,000 deployed long-range weapons are enough.

This will not be good enough for critics of the president, but sadly that is how Washington operates these days.

Of more importance, some U.S. allies, in particular countries once a part of the Soviet Union that are now in NATO, may be concerned that fewer U.S. deployed weapons will further embolden Russia. But just as U.S. nuclear weapons did nothing to prevent Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, they would do nothing to prevent further incursions elsewhere. Russia is more likely to be deterred by U.S. and NATO conventional military forces and economic sanctions.

For all the reasons articulated above, President Obama should declare his intention to reduce the U.S. deployed long-range arsenal to 1,000 weapons as rapidly as sensible, and invite Russia to join in those reductions.