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Jonathan McLaughlin’s Blog

Obama Mulls Options for Smaller Nuclear Stockpile: Urge the President to seize this moment to make deep reductions in the US nuclear arsenal

Jonathan McLaughlin

Posted March 26, 2012 in Nuclear Weapons, Waste and Energy

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Over the past several months President Obama, in consultation with his top military and national security advisors, has been conducting an analysis of U.S. nuclear forces and strategy, known as the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) Implementation Study. It may result in significant changes in the size of the arsenal and the overall nuclear strategy. The Pentagon will reportedly present the President with a list of options (it’s not clear when), and ultimately he will decide which to implement.

This study presents a vital opportunity for the President to choose the deepest reduction option and considerably reduce the role of nuclear weapons in national security. This step would be in line with the ambitious arms control agenda  he laid out in Prague three years ago, in which he affirmed America’s commitment to “seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

The Campaign for a Nuclear Weapons Free World has launched a petition to the President urging him to follow through on this commitment and “end outdated U.S. nuclear war-fighting strategy, and dramatically reduce the number of U.S. nuclear weapons.” In the coming weeks this petition will be presented to the President to show him that Americans support the arms control Agenda he laid out in Prague. Please click on the petition link here to sign and help reduce the threat posed by nuclear weapons.

The U.S. maintains an arsenal of approximately 1,790 deployed nuclear weapons, in addition to about 2,800 held in reserve and 3,500 awaiting dismantlement. Such a large arsenal is a relic of the Cold War, and we can maintain our security with considerably fewer weapons. The Obama Administration acknowledged this fact in its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR): “The massive nuclear arsenal we inherited from the Cold War era of bipolar military confrontation is poorly suited to address the challenges posed by suicidal terrorists and unfriendly regimes seeking nuclear weapons.” The President understands that the current size of the stockpile represents unnecessary overkill. It’s time that he fixed this problem. The reasons for reducing our nuclear stockpile are numerous and compelling:

Strengthening the nonproliferation regime

Reducing our stockpile helps fulfill our obligations as a nuclear weapons state under Article VI of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which requires us to pursue disarmament in good faith. US pursuit of this objective strengthens the nonproliferation regime, both by reducing the number of nuclear weapons, and by giving us the credibility we need to lead global efforts to stop the spread of these weapons to additional states and terrorist groups.

Reducing the risk of nuclear war

The current nuclear arsenal and accompanying strategy was developed during the Cold War, when the escalation of conventional conflict with the Soviet Union to nuclear war was considered to be a real threat. But with the collapse of the Soviet Empire over 20 years ago, the global military confrontation with the USSR disappeared, while the primary successor state, Russia, is a leading “state-capitalist” oil and gas producer with a growing stake in the global capitalist economy. The United States and Russia are no longer adversaries, but the nuclear arsenals and strategies of both countries still function as though they were. According to a 2001 report by the NRDC, under nuclear war plans prevailing at that time, and that are believed to have changed little over the last decade, even the most precise “counterforce” attack on Russian nuclear forces would kill 8-12 million people. A significant fraction of U.S. and Russian strategic weapons remain on high alert, poised to launch within minutes, increasing the risk of weapons being launched by accident or in response to erroneous warnings of imminent attack. This situation needlessly risks a nuclear exchange between two countries who aren’t even adversaries, which would result in the slaughter of millions and unimaginable environmental devastation. Reducing the number of deployed launch-ready nuclear weapons reduces the risk of this nightmare scenario. And since the NPR Implementation Study will also establish the basis for further arms reduction talks with Russia, we will have a forum to negotiate with Moscow on reciprocal measures affecting their stockpile and strategy. Another round of bilateral U.S. and Russian nuclear arms reductions down to 1000 or fewer total weapons, both deployed and non-deployed, would bring the arsenals of both nations low enough to invite other nations into a multilateral arms control process.  

Fulfilling our budgetary priorities

Reducing the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile and arsenal of costly long-range strategic delivery systems would save billions. The President has committed to spend over $85 billion over the next decade to modernize the nuclear weapons stockpile and the complex that supports it. This is in addition to the Pentagon’s plans to invest $100 billion from FY11-FY20 into sustaining and improving strategic delivery systems. As numerous defense officials have pointed out in recent months, including the head of Strategic Command as well as the Chairman and the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, this situation is unsustainable from a budgetary standpoint. Under the terms of the Budget Control Act (BCA), the Pentagon is required to make over $487 billion in spending cuts over the next 10 years as part of a concerted effort to reduce Federal spending. Another $500 billion in defense cuts over ten years may be pending if the two major parties cannot reach an agreement this year on a multi-year plan for deficit reduction. In such a tight fiscal environment, it makes no sense to continue pouring billions of dollars into a nuclear deterrence complex that actually detracts from our national security. With deeper cuts in the arsenal, this money could be reallocated towards more useful purposes, such as nonproliferation, veterans’ benefits, clean energy, and reducing the federal deficit.

Ample room to cut back

In the past several years a number of expert studies have confirmed that we can safely reduce the size of our nuclear stockpile while maintaining a credible deterrent to nuclear attack on the United States and its allies. A study released last October by the Task Force on Russia and US National Interests argued that in the next round of US-Russian arms reduction agreements the two sides should lower the ceilings on deployed and non-deployed warheads to 1000 or less each. And a 2010 report by three Air Force analysts in the Strategic Studies Quarterly concluded that we could maintain a stable deterrence with as few as 311 deployed warheads, regardless of what Moscow does. These findings from leading national security experts underscore the fact that the current size of our nuclear stockpile is a relic of an outdated Cold War strategy and the institutions and industrial interests it spawned. Most of this apparatus is no longer relevant to the current security challenges we face. With the NPR Implementation Study, President Obama has a chance to transcend this legacy and choose a smaller, safer arsenal and minimize its role in national security. By signing the petition above and letting him know where you stand, you can urge him to reach this decision. 

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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