Air Force Chief Acknowledges Room to Cut Nuclear Forces

The US military isn’t known for refusing big guns or new toys. So it’s a telling sign when one of the nation’s top military leaders proposes serious cuts to the nuclear arsenal.

Today, an article in the Boston Globe revealed that a sitting U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff publicly recognized that the current level of “reserve” bombs in the U.S. nuclear arsenal is unnecessary.  General Norton Schwartz, in responding to questions about U.S. nuclear strategy, stated that,

“We have more backup systems in terms of weapons systems than we actually have deployed.  Some of that is a reasonable hedge [but] there is probably room for reductions.’’

Schwartz’s comments address the “active reserve” stockpile: the roughly 2,800 nuclear warheads that sit in storage, ready to be deployed quickly to replace faulty warheads or augment the deployed arsenal if need arises.  Our currently deployed arsenal is an additional 1,800 weapons (or so). Such high numbers are a Cold War hold-over. Despite several rounds of steep reductions, the U.S. continues to maintain one of the largest nuclear arsenals on earth – more firepower than any reasonable military expert thinks that we could ever justify using.   

Schwarz’s public statement is remarkable. Though there has been a growing list of high-level and bipartisan national and international security elites calling for reductions in nuclear weapons – and outright global elimination – it is rare for a sitting military commander to do so. 

Recently retired military leaders have been more specific and frequent critics of the oversized nuclear arsenal. A recent Global Zero report chaired by Gen. James Cartwright, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, found that the U.S. could meet its security needs with 900 warheads total – 450 active, with 450 in reserve. That is 80% fewer reserve warheads than the U.S. has now, and a one-to-one ratio of reserve to deployed.

When trusted military experts say we do not need to deploy even 1,000 warheads, what possible argument can there be for keeping a force more than twice that size in the basement? That is precisely the point that General Schwartz is making, and it is one that our elected officials should listen closely to. 

Nuclear weapons are an increasingly useless tool in our security toolbox, and military leaders know it. What’s worse, they are stealing resources from the programs our military actually needs.

Schwartz’s statement recognizes this dilemma. Gone are the days of immunity for wasteful military programs that do little to defend us. Today, decisions about spending and national defense must be made based on a clear mix of threats, value, and affordability. We have to prioritize our spending based on the most urgent threats and those weapons and programs that truly address them.  Nuclear weapons cost a lot. We spend billions to field them and are spending billions more to extend the “life” of others. General Schwartz is correct: an easy first step would be to cut the thousands of bombs in the basement that serve no purpose.

Photo by US Secretary of Defense