Center for Arms Control

by Kingston Reif [contact information]

Fact Sheet: President Obama’s Berlin Speech and New Nuclear Weapons Policy Guidance

Updated August 19, 2013


-The President in 2009 and the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) articulated the goal of reducing the role and number of nuclear weapons in US security strategy to comport with the 21st century security environment. In 2011 the President asked the Pentagon to lead an interagency review to develop several alternative approaches to nuclear deterrence and stability, to include illustrative force size and postures to best support those alternatives. While this NPR Implementation study was originally slated to be a “90-day” study, it took approximately two years to complete and receive the approval of the President.

-In a June 19, 2013, speech in Berlin, Germany President Obama outlined a series of initiatives he plans to pursue in his second term to advance the nuclear threat reduction agenda he first laid out in Prague over four years ago. The most notable announcement from the speech was that the President has updated high-level nuclear weapons policy guidance and determined that the United States can safely pursue up to a one-third reduction in deployed strategic nuclear weapons below the New START limit of 1,550 warheads. According to one report, the administration considered even lower warheads numbers in support of a "deterrence-only" posture but decided that it was not feasible at the current time.

-A White House fact sheet released on the day of the President’s Berlin speech declared that the President’s new guidance:

  • affirms that the United States will maintain a credible deterrent, capable of convincing any potential adversary that the adverse consequences of attacking the United States or our allies and partners far outweigh any potential benefit they may seek to gain through an attack.
  • directs DOD to align U.S. defense guidance and military plans with the policies of the NPR, including that the United States will only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners. The guidance narrows U.S. nuclear strategy to focus on only those objectives and missions that are necessary for deterrence in the 21st century. In so doing, the guidance takes further steps toward reducing the role of nuclear weapons in our security strategy.
  • directs DOD to strengthen non-nuclear capabilities and reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks.
  • directs DOD to examine and reduce the role of launch under attack in contingency planning, recognizing that the potential for a surprise, disarming nuclear attack is exceedingly remote. While the United States will retain a launch under attack capability, DOD will focus planning on the more likely 21st century contingencies.
  • codifies an alternative approach to hedging against technical or geopolitical risk, which will lead to more effective management of the nuclear weapons stockpile.
  • reaffirms that as long as nuclear weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal that guarantees the defense of the U.S. and our allies and partners. The President has supported significant investments to modernize the nuclear enterprise and maintain a safe, secure, and effective arsenal. The administration will continue seeking congressional funding support for the enterprise.

-In addition to the White House fact sheet, the Pentagon released to Congress a more in-depth report on the new nuclear policy guidance. The report reaffirmed that the United States will continue to maintain a triad of nuclear delivery systems, a capability to forward-deploy non-strategic (or tactical) nuclear weapons in Europe, and significant counterforce capabilities against potential adversaries.

-The President stated in his speech that his intent is to seek further negotiated nuclear weapons reductions with Russia. The administration has already begun initial outreach to Moscow on the possibility of further mutual reductions within the framework of New START. Previously the administration has indicated that it would like the next arms control agreement with Russia to limit not only deployed warheads, but non-deployed and non-strategic warheads as well.

-While the new Presidential guidance would allow reductions in deployed strategic warheads below the New START levels, the guidance does not direct any changes to currently deployed U.S. forces. It could take at least a year for the new guidance to begin impacting U.S. policy and plans.

Key Points

  • Updating US nuclear strategy to comport with the realities of the 21st century is long overdue, and if implemented the new guidance and accompanying force reductions proposed by the President will strengthen US national and could free up scarce defense resources for more important defense priorities.
  • The new guidance was the result of a careful Pentagon-led interagency review that has the full support of the US military and US STRATCOM. It updates guidance that had not been reexamined in over a decade, since the beginning of the George W. Bush administration. Since then the international security environment has changed dramatically.
  • There is an emerging bipartisan and military consensus that a significantly smaller stockpile would meet our security needs and those of our allies. Former US military leaders such as Gen. James Cartwright and Gen. Dirk Jameson argue that the assumptions that dictate our current arsenal of approximately 5,000 weapons were devised for a bipolar conflict with the Soviet Union that no longer exists. Such a large arsenal does nothing to address 21st century threats such as terrorism and cyberattack. It also provides Russia with an incentive to maintain a similarly bloated force. Apart from the United States and Russia, no other nuclear-armed state is believed to possess more than 300 nuclear weapons. Further bilateral nuclear weapons reductions with Moscow would reduce the Russian nuclear threat and set the stage to include other nuclear powers such as China in the arms control process.
  • Current plans for replacing all three legs of the nuclear triad and refurbishing nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure are unaffordable and unrealistic in light of the current budget environment. A smaller arsenal could obviate the need to build as many new delivery systems and free funds for more essential defense programs. According to one estimate, the United States could save nearly $40 billion over the next decade if it reduced its arsenal to the still-enormous level of 1,000 deployed strategic warheads.
  • The President's new guidance is an important step toward updating US nuclear strategy to comport with the realities of the 21st century. But it is a modest change and the President conditioned additional reductions on negotiations with Russia that might not be forthcoming anytime soon - even though the military has already determined the United States has more weapons than it needs to meet security requirements. Some experts point out that long-term U.S. force planning decisions that are being made now and the current budget environment will lead to reductions with or without Russian reciprocity. While enshrining further reductions with Russia in a formal treaty would be ideal, the two sides could also choose to pursue additional cuts in deployed weapons via politically binding, reciprocal steps and use the New START monitoring provisions to verify this lower level. Non-treaty-based reductions have been a long-standing feature of US defense policy under both Republican and Democratic presidents.

Kingston Reif 202-546-0795 ext. 2103

Kingston Reif is the Director of Nuclear Non-Proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, where his work focuses on arms control, nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear weapons, and preventing nuclear terrorism. He has published letters and articles on nuclear weapons policy in such venues as the Washington Post, Washington Times, Wall Street Journal, Survival, Defense News, and Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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