Center for Arms Control

Nuclear Weapons: It Is Important to Continue Drawing Down

Note: A version of this op-ed was published in the Fall 2012 - ELECTION EDITION of VETERANS' VISION (

There are many serious anxieties in today’s world: a war in Afghanistan that has drifted into its second decade, a serious debt crisis facing the United States and many other countries, climate change, the threat of terrorism or a global pandemic.

But 57 years after the beginning of the atomic age, with the possible exception of climate change, it is only the danger of a nuclear holocaust that threatens life on this planet.

Only nuclear weapons have the capacity to obliterate entire cities with one bomb and entire countries in massive nuclear exchanges and perhaps destroy most life on this earth.

Fortunately, Presidents of both parties have recognized the dangers of nuclear weapons, from Reagan, Nixon and both Bushes to Clinton, Carter and Obama.

At the height of the Cold War, there were some 70,000 nuclear weapons across the globe. Today, there are still approximately 20,000 nuclear bombs, most much larger than those that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in 1945.

Over ninety percent of those weapons are in the hands of the United States and Russia.

Plus, there is sufficient nuclear material across the globe that could be fashioned into tens of thousands of additional nuclear weapons.

While the threat of global nuclear war is significantly less than during the Cold War, the risk of catastrophe has not disappeared.

In 2010, the Senate voted to approve the New START treaty negotiated between the United States and the Russian Federation on a bipartisan vote of 71-29. The treaty, which sets lower, verifiable limits on the size of the deployed US and Russian nuclear arsenals, was one of the few bipartisan votes in the last three years, with 13 Republicans joining 56 Democrats and two independents.

It was a treaty unanimously supported by the Joint Chiefs of Staff as well as many former high-ranking national security officials of both parties, including five former secretaries of defense, six former secretaries of state, and seven former commanders of U.S. nuclear weapons.

Now some Members of Congress, particularly some serving on the House Armed Services Committee, are trying to recklessly abrogate the treaty.

They would have the United States slow (and perhaps even stop) nuclear weapons reductions under New START until they are satisfied with the level of spending to maintain and upgrade US nuclear weapons and their supporting infrastructure.

These Members of Congress are doing a disservice to the United States and jeopardizing important national security objectives.

For the treaty is as essential now as it was in 2010 because it makes us safer.

The treaty’s legally binding limits and monitoring and verification provisions curb the Russian nuclear weapons pointed at the United State and provides us with the means to monitor Russian nuclear stockpile composition and location.

As former STRATCOM Commander Gen. Kevin Chilton testified to the Senate in April 2010: “One thing I was pleased to see in the treaty were these limits because as you look to the future though Russia may be close to or slightly below them already, when you look to the future we certainly don’t want them to grow and they would have been unrestricted otherwise without these types of limits articulated in the treaty.”

In 2011, the treaty enabled the United States to conduct 18 on-site inspections of Russian strategic nuclear forces. For those old enough to remember, you can recall the long Soviet resistance to any foreign officials poking through their nuclear facilities.

Under the treaty, the two countries have exchanged over 2,500 notifications on such issues as the location and movement of strategic nuclear forces. Russia is not the enemy any more, but it is the only country that has enough nuclear weapons to destroy the United States.

The treaty permits the United States to deploy 1,550 long-range nuclear weapons with more thousands in reserve, by any measure an adequate deterrent against Russia or any other country on planet earth.

Remember, two small bombs destroyed Japanese cities in 1945. Compare that to the much more powerful and more numerous nuclear stockpiles today.

There are currently congressional disputes over the level of spending on the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Ironically, it was the Republican-led House that first cut the funding for some of these activities in 2011in the face of the enormous federal budget deficit.

And despite the Administration’s proposal to increase spending on the complex 5% from last year, a number of Members of Congress continue to loudly complain.

Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee responded with exactly the right tone in a June 21, 2012 statement:

“In my judgment, both the New START agreement and the nuclear modernization commitments were justified, even without reference to each other. It was essential to continue limits on Russian strategic nuclear forces and to ensure transparent inspections. It also was essential that the United States adopt a plan for badly needed updates of our nuclear infrastructure and arsenal.”
Rather than halting nuclear weapons reductions, the Pentagon is now considering further nuclear weapons reductions. Bipartisan leaders agree that the U.S. arsenal can go much lower and still maintain American security.

General James Cartwright (ret), former commander of U.S. strategic forces, recently joined a bipartisan group of security leaders in saying our nuclear arsenal can safely be cut to a total arsenal of 900 warheads, with only half of them deployed at any one time

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) agreed in a January 26, 2012 media breakfast. Levin said the U.S. needs to rethink its Cold War nuclear force: "The Cold War is over. I just think there's a way over-reliance and cost that goes into our nuclear weapon system."

A recent study by the nonpartisan Stimson Center in Washington D.C. concluded that the United States spent $31 billion to sustain and modernize US nuclear weapons in 2011, using a narrowly defined definition of nuclear weapons that does not include significant nuclear weapons clean up costs or about $10 billion annually on missile defense.These costs could increase significantly over the next decade in light of current plans to build new nuclear weapons delivery systems (i.e. missiles and bombers) and facilities to support warhead production.

Should the Pentagon move toward additional reductions, it could reduce the need for some of this spending, thereby freeing up funding for soldiers pay, operations and maintenance accounts, and weapons and technology to meet the threats of the 21st Century.

In short, nuclear weapons reductions under the New START treaty are clearly in American security interests, and further cuts, ideally negotiated with Russia and eventually other nuclear powers, are squarely in the national interest.

John Isaacs has served as executive director of Council for a Livable World since 1991, headed the Washington office since 1981 and lobbied for the Council since 1978. He also serves as Executive Director of the Council’s sister organization, Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Kingston Reif is the Director of Nuclear Non-Proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and the Council for a Livable World.

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