Considering Reductions to the U.S. Nuclear Arsenal

March 15, 2012

The Obama administration is in the midst of a once-in-a-decade study of the nuclear arsenal and nuclear war plans, which will explore how to implement the results of its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review. As the New York Times editorial board writes, “This is President Obama’s opportunity to reshape the post-cold-war world to make it fundamentally safer. He needs to seize it.” The review should take into account four realities of today’s international security landscape. First, nuclear weapons are less central to U.S. security in a 21st-century, post-Cold War world—which means we can achieve deterrence goals with fewer weapons. Second, the costs of maintaining a bloated nuclear arsenal take away from more relevant investments. Third, we can make changes to how we deploy the weapons—our force posture—that will increase security for America and our allies. And finally, bipartisan experts say the U.S. can maintain deterrence and nuclear security at levels smaller than what’s being considered.

Below NSN summarizes the military, expert, legislative and media support for those core ideas. This support cuts across partisan and political lines. When it comes to nuclear security, the stakes are too high for political posturing—and the attacks have little expert support behind them.

The post-Cold War international landscape calls for a new approach to nuclear security, one that requires fewer nuclear weapons:

Lt. Gen. Robert Gard (ret.), chairman, Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation: “With the end of the cold war, the world has changed, and those who ardently defend massive spending on nuclear weapons are either unaware of, or unwilling to consider, the changed strategic landscape. Our current nuclear force structure is a holdover from an era where the overarching goal was deterring a Soviet nuclear attack on the United States or an invasion of Europe. Every submarine in our fleet today can single-handedly destroy every major city in either China or Russia and completely obliterate smaller nations. If the essence of deterrence is a credible threat, then it’s safe to say we can make significant reductions with no impact whatsoever on our deterrent or security capacity.” [Robert Gard, 2/22/12]

Gen. Robert Kehler, commander, U.S. Strategic Command: “It is prudent to consider any actions that have the potential to improve the security of the United States and its allies by enhancing deterrence and maintaining strategic stability. I will always evaluate any such actions [further nuclear reductions] carefully and provide my best military judgment accordingly… Reviewing nuclear employment guidance following a NPR [Nuclear Posture Review] is a logical follow-on step, given past precedent and today’s dynamic security environment.” [Robert Kehler, 5/11]

Juliette Kayyem, Boston Globe columnist and former assistant secretary of homeland security: “America’s nuclear posture no longer needs to be death by annihilation; there is no “winning’’ nuclear war, and that hardly seems a radical notion. Instead, almost every review of a post-Cold War deterrence suggests that the numbers should reflect a strategy of proportional deterrence: having enough weapons to threaten our enemies and their strategic interests, and to guarantee nuclear security to our allies. Sadly, a reduction of nuclear weapons would have almost no impact on the most pressing nuclear issues of our time: nuclear proliferation by unsavory nations and nuclear terrorism. Neither can be discouraged by the sheer threat of the massive nuclear arsenal maintained by the United States or Russia. Ironically, fears about Iran acquiring such weaponry are a case study in how just a few bombs (or none at all) can alter the course of foreign policy.” [Juliette Kayyem, 2/27/12]

Richard Burt, former U.S. ambassador to Germany and chief negotiator for the START Treaty in the George H.W. Bush administration: “In a new international landscape, the role of nuclear weapons has changed. For better or for worse, nuclear weapons contributed to stability through deterrence, but now there is the competition between the forces of integration and the forces of disintegration, making the world a more dangerous place.” [Richard Burt, 2/8/10]

Cold War-era weapons come at an opportunity cost to American security, crowding out other investments:

Colin Powell, former secretary of state, national security advisor and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “We have every incentive to reduce the number. These [nuclear weapons] are expensive. They take away from soldier pay. They take away from O[perations] and M[aintenance] investments. They take away from lots of things. There is no incentive to keep more than you believe you need for the security of the Nation.” [Colin Powell, 07/09/02]

Maj. Gen. Paul Monroe (ret.), who served more than 46 years in the U.S. Army and the California Army National Guard, from 1999 to 2004, he was adjutant general of the California National Guard: “In an era in which our most serious threats are terrorism, weapons proliferation and cyberattack, it would be irresponsible not to evaluate whether maintaining a large nuclear arsenal is relevant to addressing those threats, and whether some of the hundreds of billions spent on that large arsenal would be better spent on other defense priorities. We are in a time of tightening budgets, and our troops require the very best possible equipment. We must evaluate the relative value of committing billions of dollars to Cold War nuclear weapons programs against the needs of equipping and training our troops for 21st-century threats. While it may have made sense to maintain a large arsenal in 1962, many of the justifications for maintaining an arsenal of as many as 1,500 nuclear weapons look a little flimsy in 2012, especially when weighed against the other needs of our troops… It is in our nation’s interest to take a hard look at the nuclear force we really need.” [Paul Monroe, 2/26/12]

Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK): The Washington Post writes, “Coburn wants to reduce the nation’s deployed nuclear warheads to the levels specified in the recently ratified New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty and reduce the number of warheads in reserve, which is not part of the pact with Russia. He also wants part of the reductions to be in deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles, going down to 300 from today’s 450, and even below the treaty-allowable 420. He also wants to reduce the number of strategic nuclear submarines, from today’s 14 to 11. He still wants to maintain 40 strategic bombers, but to delay purchase of any new bomber until the 2020s. The changes, he said, would save up to $8 billion a year.” [Washington Post, 6/27/11]

The New York Times Editorial Board: “Twenty years after the end of the cold war, the United States still has about 2,500 nuclear weapons deployed and 2,600 more as backup… Altogether, these and other nuclear-related programs could cost $600 billion or more over the next decade. The country does not need to maintain this large an arsenal. It should not be spending so much to do it, especially when Congress is considering deep cuts in vital domestic programs… Reducing the number of weapons, scaling back unnecessary modernization programs, and delaying or scrapping plans to replace some delivery systems will save billions and help make the world safer.” [NY Times Editorial Board, 10/30/11]

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), member of the Senate Armed Services Committee: “I’m willing to put the nuclear arsenal on the table for reform and restructuring and maybe downsizing,” [Lindsey Graham, 2/15/12]

Moving away from threatening force posture increases security for America and allies:

Former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry, former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and former Senator Sam Nunn: “It is clear, however, that the U.S. and Russia—having led the nuclear buildup for decades—must continue to lead the build-down. The U.S. and its NATO allies, together with Russia, must begin moving away from threatening force postures and deployments including the retention of thousands of short-range battlefield nuclear weapons… This will make America, Russia and Europe more secure. It will also set an example for the world.” [George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn, 3/7/11]

Council on Foreign Relations Task Force Report on U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy, co-chaired by former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft: “The Task Force strongly supports the substantial nuclear arms reductions that the United States has accomplished since the end of the Cold War and believes that the new administration, in the forthcoming nuclear posture review, has a strong interest in assessing what further reductions can be made by the United States alone and what reductions would need to occur in parallel with comparable Russian reductions… The Task Force calls on the administration to determine where the United States can exert even more leadership by reducing, via unilateral action, the amounts of nuclear weapons and fissile material deemed excess to defense needs.” [CFR Task Force Report, 4/09]

Final report of the bipartisan Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States: “1. Pursue a step-by-step approach with Russia on arms control. This is a process that will play out over years and decades. 2. Make the first step on U.S.-Russian arms control modest and straightforward in order to rejuvenate the process and ensure that there is a successor to the START I agreement before it expires at the end of 2009. The United States and Russia should not over-reach for innovative approaches. 3. Begin to characterize and study the numerous challenges that would come with any further reductions in the number of operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons.” [SPRC Final Report, 5/09]

Bipartisan Task Force on Russia and U.S. National Interests Report “Russia and U.S. National Interests: Why Should Americans Care?” “The next round of U.S.-Russian nuclear arms reduction should combine deployed and non-deployed weapons to lower the ceiling of strategic warheads to 1,000 or fewer.” [Task Force on Russia and U.S. National Interests Report, 10/11]

Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security advisor: “[T]he United States ought to energize its commitment to significantly reducing its nuclear arsenal and embrace the eventual goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.” [Zbigniew Brzezinski, 1/12]

U.S. can maintain military deterrence and nuclear security at levels far beyond likely cuts:

Air Force analysts in the journal Strategic Studies Quarterly: “In fact, the United States could address military utility concerns with only 311 nuclear weapons in its nuclear force structure while maintaining a stable deterrence.” [Strategic Studies Quarterly, Spring 2010]

Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee: “The Cold War is over. I just think there’s a way over-reliance and cost that goes into our nuclear weapon system… It’s like the nuclear weapon, it’s totally useless. It can’t be used except to accomplish some other goal, then it’s used, used to deter. … I’ve always believed that nuclear weapons are way overdone, we have way more than are needed to carry out their mission. Their mission can’t be to use them. They can only be to deter, or to achieve some form of deterrence… People point to North Korea. North Korea would be deterred by the prospect that if they used the nuclear weapon, they would be immediately wiped out… I don’t know if would take one or two to deter them from threatening to use a nuclear weapon… I’d much rather focus on overall numbers, say there are way more than we need and try to find ways that are achievable to reduce the numbers and reliance on nuclear weapons.” [Carl Levin, 1/26/12]

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