The President's Nuclear Options

Last week, hopeful news of potential cuts to the U.S. nuclear arsenal floated through Washington. A classified report from the Pentagon is being prepared for President Obama’s review, which has been reported to provide three ranges for possible nuclear reductions: 1,100 to 1,000, 800 to 700, or 400 to 300.

Under New START, we have already reduced the arsenal to 1,790 deployed strategic warheads, and are projected to reach the treaty’s upper limit of 1550 before 2018. But those numbers only account for the deployed strategic weapons. Counting weapons sitting here at home and tactical weapons in Europe, we actually have approximately 5,000 warheads in the active stockpile and 3,500 more warheads awaiting dismantlement.

Why the need for such massive arsenals? Russia, no longer a threat to the United States, is the only other state with such a large stockpile. France, China and the U.K. each possess 300 warheads or fewer. Pakistan, India, and North Korea have less than a hundred each.

These cuts are in line with the gradual draw down of the nuclear force made by previous Presidents, notably the last two Republican administrations. Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists reports that George H. W. Bush cut the stockpile from 22, 217 to 11,511 warheads. Similarly, George W. Bush reduced from 10,526 to 5,113. Both cuts eliminated almost 50% of the total stockpile of nuclear weapons.

Such reductions make sound, strategic and budgetary sense. Experts agree.

Richard Rhodes, one of the most renowned nuclear scholars wrote an open letter to the President advising significant reductions to the 300 level.

“I am the author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, which won a Pulitzer Prize, and three other narratives of the Nuclear Age, most recently The Twilight of the Bombs. I write to urge you to reduce the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal to 300 weapons (or fewer), as a recent AP news story reports you are considering.”

Joe Cirincione, our President, published an article for Foreign Policy that explains why deep cuts to the nuclear arsenal are the best choice.

“Sound strategy is about matching resources to threats. 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. It's about time we buried yesterday's threats and focused on those of the here and now.

Some of the best experts in the field presented sensible analysis arguing that the administration should move forward along this path.

• Steven Pifer, Brookings—President Obama, Deterrence and Nuclear Weapons

“I personally believe that the 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.”

• Daryl Kimball, Arms Control Association—Start Cutting U.S. Nuclear Weapons Down to 1,000

“The United States (and Russia) could reduce their overall nuclear stockpiles substantially-to 1,000 warheads each-- and still retain sufficient firepower to deter nuclear attack by any current or potential adversary.”

• Stephen Young, Union of Concerned Scientists—Doing Your Homework

“The fact is, nuclear weapons are now a security liability for the United States, rather than an asset for our defense. More and more military leaders, foreign policy and defense experts are recognizing that not only can we reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons, but for our own security we must.”

In a story published by James Traub of Foreign Policy, he argues “Obama now has the chance -- perhaps his last chance -- to finally make good on his Prague pledge.”

Adam Weinstein of Mother Jones also weighed in.

“Beyond the knee-jerk emotions on top national security issues, there's an awful lot of defense pork—not just missiles, but also bombers, submarines, and scientific research—bound up in our nuclear program.

If the White House and Pentagon push one of their more modest proposals—cutting the number of bombs to, say, 700 or 1,000—that could represent a reasonable compromise that still offers compelling financial savings and progress toward greater global stability. Faced with a plan like that, resistant congressmen might end up looking like just a bunch of Dr. Strangeloves.”

Perhaps, it was best said by John Isaacs of the Council for a Livable World.

“Could 1,000 or 500 or even 300 nuclear bombs serve as an adequate deterrent force to prevent a nuclear attack on the United States and its allies? Most assuredly.”

Why are we are holding on to these expensive, outdated weapons and the notion that they make us safer when, in reality, they do just the opposite? It is time to let go.

For a comprehensive packet of these responses, click here

Photo by The White House