Taking Another Look at the Nuclear Arsenal

February 21, 2012

As a bipartisan majority of living secretaries of defense and state as well as national security advisers encourages the president to make another round of cuts in our nuclear arsenal, the White House has tasked the Pentagon with a nuclear posture review of the kind carried out by its predecessors. Reports indicate that the Pentagon has not yet sent the president options, but already hysterical opposition has emerged in some quarters of Congress. The facts are that many within the Pentagon seek to free up funds in today’s lean fiscal environment to spend on capabilities that are more likely to be used; that China’s nuclear arsenal remains tiny compared with the U.S. arsenal; and that nuclear weapons make less and less sense in a 21st-century strategy focused on terrorism, the Asia-Pacific and the global commons. Finally, as partisan attacks try to paint the president as weak for cutting nuclear weapons, it’s important to check the record: the vast majority of cuts to the nation’s nuclear arsenal have come under Republican presidents.

Following bipartisan precedent, the administration tasked Pentagon to consider a range of nuclear posture options. Steven Pifer, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes, “The [review] process now underway is examining alternative approaches to deterrence. It will conclude with the president deciding on guidance as to what is needed for deterrence, on how and to what end nuclear weapons would be used, should that be necessary. The Department of Defense and Strategic Command will then translate that guidance into a specific nuclear force structure and number of weapons. Several options for what that guidance would look like, along with illustrative strategic nuclear force structures, are being prepared for the president’s review. Those force structures reportedly run from something like the current structure to options that would cut the number of deployed strategic warheads to levels well below those in New START.”

As Stephen Young of the Union of Concerned Scientists notes, these sorts of policy reviews are standard procedure. “The new study falls well within the normal range of activities any administration undertakes. Time and again, the Pentagon, its various defense boards and affiliated think tanks have been tasked with looking at a range of stockpile sizes. Those who think it is surprising simply do not know the history. In fact, the congressionally mandated 2009 Strategic Posture Commission, often cited by Republicans as an unimpeachable source on nuclear policy, specifically set out options for deep cuts that it thought should be studied in the future. The person selected by the Commission to lead that effort to establish the options to study was none other Jim Miller, who now is directing the Pentagon’s study for the Obama administration.” [Steven Pifer, 2/16/12. Stephen Young, 2/16/12]

Study after study says U.S. has more than enough weapons for the 21st century – while still deploying them as made sense in the 20th  century. Brookings’s Pifer writes, “[T]he security of the United States and its allies could be safely maintained with fewer nuclear weapons than we have today. The current U.S. force structure, while significantly smaller than what the United States maintained 20 years ago, still looks awfully Cold War-like. The president and his senior national security advisors need to work through the complex deterrence questions, but it seems that we have more than we need to deter a rational potential adversary. And if an irrational potential adversary is not deterred by 1550 nuclear warheads, we should look at some other deterrence mechanism, since 5000 or 10,000 warheads likely will not deter him either.”

China’s nuclear capacity is real, but dwarfed by the U.S.: As the AP reports, “Actually, the Chinese may have as many as 300 nuclear weapons but that is their total stockpile. If the U.S. cut to 300 deployed weapons it would still have many hundreds, if not thousands, of others on standby status for use in a crisis. At present the U.S. has about 1,790 deployed long-range nuclear weapons, and the total stockpile stands at about 5,000. To put the numbers in perspective, the U.S. and Russia have about 90 percent of all nuclear weapons in the world.” [Steven Pifer, 2/16/12. AP, 2/18/12]

The world has changed – and with tradeoffs necessary in a tight fiscal environment, the military itself finds spending on nuclear weapons tough to justify. Nonproliferation expert and Ploughshares Fund President Joseph Cirincione notes that, “The debate under way at the Pentagon, State Department, and White House could result in a smarter nuclear strategy, one that keeps us safe and is cost-effective too. Cutting the nuclear force to even 1,000 weapons would save hundreds of billions of dollars that could be devoted to the equipment that U.S. troops need to fight terrorists, not Soviets.” James Traub of Foreign Policy magazine explains that, “[W]ith half a trillion dollars in Pentagon budget cuts scheduled for the next decade, senior military officials are engaged in triage, and they will be prepared to get rid of weapons they never expect to use in order to preserve ones, like aircraft carriers and new-generation fighters, they believe they need.” [Joseph Cirincione, 2/17/12. James Traub, 2/17/12]

Right-sizing our arsenal is a bipartisan project – indeed, Republicans have overseen the biggest reductions in nuclear weapons. Proposals to reduce or eliminate entirely our nuclear arsenal “have garnered the support of a large majority of the still-living former U.S. secretaries of state, defense secretaries, and national security advisors, including James Baker, Colin Powell, Madeleine Albright, Frank Carlucci, and Melvin Laird,” writes Cirincione. The AP reports, “The Obama administration’s consideration of severe cuts in nuclear weapons generated a flurry of GOP criticism – ‘reckless lunacy’ in the words of Arizona Rep. Trent Franks. But the historical record shows that in the two decades since the Cold War ended, Republicans have been the boldest cutters of the nuclear arsenal. ‘Republican presidents seem to have a thing for 50 percent nuclear reductions,’ says Hans Kristensen, a nuclear arms specialist with the Federation of American Scientists, a think tank founded by many of the scientists who built the first atomic bombs.”

AP continues, “For example, on President George H.W. Bush’s watch, the number of deployed weapons as well as those held in reserve was nearly cut in half, from 22,217 to 13,708 warheads, according to official U.S. government figures. The number of deployed strategic warheads dropped from 12,300 to 7,114 in that same period, by Kristensen’s calculations. As part of that move, taken as fears of a nuclear Armageddon at the Cold War’s end were diminishing, the Republican president announced in September 1991 that he unilaterally was retiring all ground-based U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe and South Korea and removing all nuclear weapons from U.S. naval surface ships… President George W. Bush went further, cutting the total stockpile by 50 percent, from 10,526 to 5,273 warheads. By Kristensen’s count, the number of deployed warheads fell to 1,968 by the time Bush left office in January 2009.” [Joseph Cirincione, 2/17/12. AP, 2/18/12]

What We’re Reading

Eurozone finance ministers approved a new $173 billion bailout for Greece.

NATO officials in Afghanistan apologized for the “improper disposal” of Islamic materials, including Korans, as protests have swelled in the country.

Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s 33-year rule formally ended as voters elevated the vice president to head of state.

Iran warns that it may take pre-emptive action against perceived enemies if it concludes that its national interests have been threatened.

Rebels in Darfur detained three civilians from a United Nations and African Union peacekeeping force, accusing them of being spies.

Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe turned 88 and said he will continue to stay in power.

Gunmen believed to be from the Nigerian militant group Boko Haram killed 30 people at a market in Nigeria’s northeastern city of Maiduguri.

South Korea conducted live-fire military drills near the disputed border in the Yellow Sea, prompting threats of retaliation from the North.

Burma will consider accepting observers from neighboring countries to oversee elections scheduled for April.

Mexico and the U.S. signed a cooperation agreement to develop oil fields in the Gulf of Mexico.

Commentary of the Day

Carlos Alberto Montaner outlines opposition leader Henrique Capriles’ possible path to the Venezuelan presidency.

Paul Krugman believes European austerity measures have failed.

Martin Dempsey endorses the current cautious multilateral approach to Syria, a nonmilitary solution in Iran and the recent U.S. defense strategy and budget.

Andrew Bacevich examines the arc of the so-called war on terrorism.

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