On July 25 the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee held a hearing on the appropriate size of the US nuclear weapons stockpile to maintain a credible deterrent. Former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright headlined the witness panel, which also included former US Ambassador to Russia Tom Pickering and NoH favorite Keith Payne.
Cartwright and Pickering briefed the findings and proposals of the Global Zero U.S. Nuclear Policy Commission, on which they both served. The Commission’s recent report (titled “Modernizing U.S. Nuclear Strategy, Forces and Posture for the 21st Century”) calls for significant changes to nuclear strategy and posture, headlined by an illustrative recommendation to reduce the size of the US arsenal to 900 total nuclear weapons by 2022, 450 of which would be deployed on an ICBM-less dyad of submarines and bombers. Cartwright and Pickering clarified that 900 total nuclear weapons should be the aim of the next round of arms control negotiations with the Russians, though they did not rule out unilateral steps or parallel reciprocal steps to help jumpstart the process.
In his opening testimony and during the Q/A, Payne expressed concern that the reductions called for by Cartwright would pose grave risks to US security. According to Payne, a much smaller, ICBM-less force would render the United States vulnerable to a nuclear first strike by reducing the number of aim points an adversary would need to hold at risk. Payne outlined a scenario whereby a first strike against the notional Global Zero force structure would leave only 135-180 surviving US warheads on ballistic missile submarines that were already at sea when the attack occurred.
Gen. Cartwright, no stranger to the devastating effects of US thermonuclear weapons and the intricacies of the current US nuclear war plan, had this to say in response:
Key — could you sneak in in the middle of the night and attack? The idea that only 300 nuclear weapons or 200 or whatever…is insignificant if they’re launched against somebody is wrong. It’s just patently wrong. Any president — it doesn’t matter whether they call it tactical or strategic, if it blows up, it is a catastrophic event in this world. And we shouldn’t under-characterize that, you know. And so the likelihood of somebody launching 300 missiles over the pole at us and whatnot should not be dismissed, but the retaliation capability that we’re preserving here — and you can mix and match it; you can have more ICBMs and less of some — but the retaliatory capability of 300 nuclear weapons on anybody’s territory is catastrophic – catastrophic. [emphasis mine.]
In other words, even a few hundred nuclear weapons would provide a devastating deterrent (whether such a force would be able to wipe out a nuclear-armed adversary’s ability to wage nuclear war in a preemptive first strike is another matter). Given Cartwright’s knowledge of the factors that drive the size and structure of the US nuclear arsenal, as well as the threats the US military must be prepared to combat, it’s clear he believes that the 1,550th, 964th, and 451st deployed US warheads are redundant and would not provide an additional deterrence benefit that can’t otherwise be provided by other US military capabilities.
The Global Zero report is yet further evidence that there is a growing consensus among former US military leaders and government officials from both parties in support of a smaller nuclear arsenal pegged to the 21st century security environment, even if there is still some disagreement about how low we can go and how a smaller arsenal should be postured. The current US arsenal of approximately 5,000 nuclear weapons does nothing to address contemporary threats such as terrorism, cyber-attack, and weak/failing states. It also provides Russia with an incentive to maintain a similarly bloated force. The more nations that have nuclear weapons and material around the world, the greater the chances weapons or material could be stolen by terrorists and the greater the risks of the unauthorized, miscalculated, or accidental use of nuclear weapons.
Moreover, the financial commitment required to recapitalize such a large force is unaffordable and takes money away from other, more pressing national security priorities that support our troops.
In short, the world has changed. Our current arsenal and the assumptions that dictate it, such as the capability to wage nuclear war and the requirement for prompt launch, were devised for a bipolar conflict with the Soviet Union that no longer exists. A recent GAO report starkly illustrated the degree to which US deterrence objectives have remained largely consistent since the end of the Cold War despite significant changes to the international security environment.
Per the recommendation of General Cartwright and others, we should update our nuclear posture and spending accordingly.