National Security

Published — February 8, 2013 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Obama administration embraces major new nuclear weapons cut

A Trident II, D-5 missile is launched from the submerged submarine USS Tennessee in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida. AP

Advisers reach consensus that current arsenals are larger than needed to target foes


Senior Obama administration officials have agreed that the number of nuclear warheads the U.S. military deploys could be cut by at least a third without harming national security, according to sources involved in the deliberations.

They said the officials’ consensus agreement, not yet announced, opens the door to billions of dollars in military savings that might ease the federal deficit and improve prospects for a new arms deal with Russia before the president leaves office. But it is likely to draw fire from conservatives, if previous debate on the issue is any guide.

The results of the internal review are reflected in a draft of a classified decision directive prepared for Obama’s signature that guides how U.S. nuclear weapons should be targeted in the future against potential foes, according to four sources with direct knowledge of it. The sources, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to a reporter about the review, described the president as fully on board, but said he has not signed the document.

The document directs the first detailed Pentagon revisions in U.S. targeting since 2009, when the military’s nuclear war planners last took account of a substantial shrinkage — roughly by half from 2000 to 2008 — in the total number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal. It makes clear that an even smaller nuclear force can still meet all defense requirements.

Although the document offers various options for Obama, his top advisers reached their consensus position last year, after a review that included the State Department, the Defense Department, the National Security Council, the intelligence community, the U.S. Strategic Command, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the office of Vice President Joseph Biden, according to the sources.

Several said the results were not disclosed at the time partly because of political concerns that any resulting controversy might rob Obama of popular votes in the November election. Some Republican lawmakers have said they oppose cutting the U.S. arsenal out of concern that it could diminish America’s standing in the world.

The new policy directive, which formally implements a revised nuclear policy Obama adopted in 2010, endorses the use of a smaller U.S. arsenal to deter attack or protect American interests by targeting fewer, but more important, military or political sites in Russia, China, and several other countries. This can be accomplished by 1000-1100 warheads, the sources said, instead of the 1,550 allowed under an existing arms treaty.

The 2010 policy called for reducing the role of nuclear weapons, arguing that they are “poorly suited to address the challenges posed by suicidal terrorists and unfriendly regimes seeking nuclear weapons.” But many critics have charged that not much of the policy has been implemented. Obama himself even joked in a video message to the Jan. 26 annual dinner of Washington’s exclusive Alfalfa Club, that he could not recall why he won his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize [the Oslo committee attributed it partly to his stimulation of “disarmament and arms control negotiations”].

With the election behind him and a new national security team selected, Obama is finally prepared to send this new guidance to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and to open a new dialogue with Russia about corresponding reductions in deployed weapons beyond those called for in a 2011 treaty, according to two senior U.S. officials involved in the deliberations.

“It is all done,” said one. “We did so much work on that there is no interest in going back and taking another look at it.” The second official said completion of the new directive would become public in coming weeks, when Obama may mention the issue in his State of the Union address on Feb. 12, or in another speech specifically dedicated to the subject, similar to the April 2009 Prague address in which he promised to “take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons.”

Arms talks now being explored

While the draft directive opens the door to scrapping a substantial portion of the U.S. arsenal, it does not order those reductions immediately or suggest they be undertaken unilaterally, the officials said. Instead, the administration’s ambition is to negotiate an addendum of sorts to its 2010 New Start treaty with Russia, in the form of a legally-binding agreement or an informal understanding. Officials said the latter path could be chosen if gaining the assent of two-thirds of the Senate to a treaty is not possible.

Preliminary discussions about this ambition occurred in Munich on Feb. 2 between Vice President Biden and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, and additional talks are slated in Moscow this month with acting undersecretary of state Rose Gottemoeller and White House national security adviser Thomas Donilon. Obama “believes that there’s room to explore the potential for continued reductions, and that, of course, the best way to do so is in a discussion with Russia,” deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said on Jan. 31.

White House spokesman Tommy Vietor declined comment on Feb. 6 on the draft directive.

The New Start treaty limits each side to deploying no more than 1,550 strategic nuclear weapons by 2018, but uses a counting rule that pretends strategic bombers carry only a single warhead, instead of up to 20. So the actual arsenals after the treaty takes effect are likely to be closer to 1,900, a number that Obama’s advisers now think is too high.

New Start also imposes no limits on nuclear weapons in each country that are held in storage or considered of “tactical” or short-range use — a number estimated by independent experts as roughly 2,700 in the United States and 2,680 in Russia. Under the new deal envisioned by the administration, Russia and the United States would agree not only to cut deployed warhead levels below 1,550 to around 1,000 to 1,100 but also — for the first time — begin to constrain the size of these additional categories.

Several officials said that as a result, the total number of nuclear warheads could shrink to less than 3,500 and perhaps as low as 2,500, or a bit more than half the present U.S. arsenal, without harming security or requiring a major reconfiguration of existing missiles or bombers.

A much steeper reduction, to around 500 total warheads, was debated within the administration last year, but rejected, sources said. Known as the “deterrence-only” plan, it would have aimed U.S. warheads at a narrower range of targets related to an enemy’s economic capacity and no longer emphasized striking the enemy’s leadership and weaponry in the first wave of an attack.

Nuclear weapons experts have long considered the latter “warfighting” goal destabilizing because it arouses fears among all the combatants of a decapitating, preemptive strike that could obstruct a significant retaliation, but it has been a salient feature of the U.S. nuclear policy for half a century. China, in contrast, has adopted a “deterrence-only” strategy, keeping only a minimal arsenal of missiles aimed partly at targets in or near large cities.

Some officials at the State Department, the NSC staff, and Vice president Biden’s staff urged consideration of the smaller arsenal and new targeting policy, officials said. But “a small brake” was applied by the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, who worried that making such a major policy change was too risky at a moment of upheaval in conventional military strategy, and would create too much uncertainty among allies, said one of the sources with knowledge of the discussion.

Obama, who followed the deliberations intermittently, “decided we did not need to do deterrence-only targeting now,” but did not rule it out, the source added.

Air Force Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, who as head of the Global Strike Command oversees the operations of bombers and land-based missiles capable of carrying more than a thousand nuclear warheads to foreign targets, said at a breakfast with reporters on Feb. 6 that if asked, “can you go below 1,500” treaty-accountable weapons, his response is, “Yeah, I think there is some headroom in there.” But he warned that shrinking the force to well below 1,000 would require “major structural changes in how we do this business.”

Additional cuts will save billions of dollars

The financial savings from even the modest reduction now being contemplated could be substantial, according to officials and independent experts. Already, to comply with New Start, the Pentagon has been pulling warheads from land-based missiles and making plans to decommission some of the missiles themselves; it is also planning to reduce the number of missile tubes aboard its Trident submarines.

By pushing the arsenal size even lower, it could close perhaps two of its three land-based missile wings and cut at least two of the 12 new strategic submarines it now plans to build — saving $6 billion to $8 billion for each one. Eliminating a single wing of 150 missiles would save roughly $360 million a year, or more than $3 billion over a decade, according to Tom Collina, research director at the Arms Control Association, a nonprofit research group in Washington. Modernization of the remaining land-based missiles might also be deferred, bringing additional savings.

Russia, meanwhile, has been phasing out three older missile types that loomed large during Cold War tensions — the SS-18, the SS-19, and the SS-25 — and is replacing them with a more modern missile, the SS-27, in three forms. It is also planning to build a costly, larger missile, capable of carrying multiple warheads. Pentagon officials are not alarmed by that possibility, but say that a new arms deal could give Russia reason to scale back its own spending.

“The Russian Federation…would not be able to achieve a militarily significant advantage by any plausible expansion of its strategic nuclear forces, even in a cheating or breakout scenario” because it cannot destroy U.S. missile-carrying submarines at sea, the Defense Department said in a May 2012 classified report to Congress, partially declassified and released last month to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS).

Three participants in the targeting policy review said Russia nonetheless remains the sole U.S. target that still requires potential use of a large number of nuclear warheads to achieve damage that military planners deem adequate, even though Obama famously said last September at the Democratic National Convention that “you don’t call Russia our number one enemy — not al-Qaeda, Russia — (laughter) — unless you’re still stuck in a Cold War mind warp.”

U.S. nuclear targets include China, North Korea, and Iran, officials have said. But the list of predictable enemies has been steadily shrinking: Iraq was once on the list — as recently as 1997, the Defense Department studied radioactive fallout distribution patterns from a potential U.S. attack there — but it now poses no threats, and Syria — another perennial listee — is in the midst of imploding and unable even to muster a response to Israel’s recent bombing of an arms factory in its capital.

Russian arms reductions taken to date make U.S. targeting revisions feasible now, according to Hans Kristensen, a nuclear arms expert at FAS. A decade ago, the U.S. military was targeting 660 Russian missile silos with multiple warheads, he said; now, the number of such silos is less than half that, and in a decade, it is unlikely to exceed 230. Several officials also pointed out that Russia presently fields a smaller and weaker conventional military force than it once did, also allowing U.S. targeting to be scaled back.

Obama’s new appointees are on board

Key members of Obama’s new national security team are on board with the reduction strategy.

“There’s talk of going down to a lower number,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry said during his confirmation hearing on Jan. 24. “I think, personally, it’s possible to get there if you have commensurate levels of — of inspections, verification, guarantees about the capacity of your nuclear stockpile program, et cetera.”

Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel drew fire from Republicans at his Jan. 31 confirmation hearing for signing a report last summer that said current stockpiles “vastly exceed what is needed to satisfy reasonable requirements of deterrence” and that nuclear weapons are arguably “more a part of the problem than any solution.” An appropriately modernized force, the Global Zero report said, would consist of just 900 total strategic weapons on each side, not 5,000, and get rid of land-based missiles subject to accidental or unauthorized launch.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) told Hagel that cuts of that magnitude would “create instability, rather than confidence and stability; create uncertainty in the world among our allies and our potential adversaries.” He said the current U.S. arsenal projects “an image of solidity and — and steadfastness” to citizens around the globe.

Hagel responded at the hearing that the report simply provided illustrative scenarios, not recommendations. But he affirmed the report’s conclusion that “we have to look at” the value and cost of continuing to keep land-based missiles and made no promise to build all 12 new missile-carrying submarines sought by the Navy.

The United States is not the only nuclear weapons state considering a retrenchment. A senior British treasury official told the London Guardian several weeks ago that given fiscal pressures in London, the country needs a wide debate “over the approach we take to nuclear deterrence” and should consider scaling back either its purchase or deployment of costly new nuclear missile-carrying submarines. Michael Portillo, the defense minister under Conservative prime minister John Major in the 1990’s, told the Financial Times last month that Britain maintained its arsenal “partly for industrial and employment reasons, and mainly for prestige.” He called it “a tremendous waste of money.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon is among those urging a major shift. In a speech last month in California, he called for all nuclear-armed states to “reconsider their national nuclear posture,” and said the United States and Russia had a special obligation to undertake deeper cuts. “Nuclear disarmament is off-track,” he said. “Delay comes with a high price tag. The longer we procrastinate, the greater the risk that these weapons will be used, will proliferate or be acquired by terrorists.”

Some senior U.S. officials are skeptical that Russian president Vladimir Putin would agree to a new treaty, because his government claims to depend more heavily than Americans on nuclear arms for security; others worry that Republican opposition in the Senate may obstruct ratification of any new treaty. But there remains high interest, officials said, in at least exploring a new joint, lower limit.

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