by Kingston Reif and Usha Sahay
Outside of Congress, there is a strong consensus among security experts of both parties that the U.S. arsenal of approximately 5,000 nuclear weapons, deployed and in storage, greatly exceeds American security requirements. Inside of Congress, however, nuclear weapons have been subject to the same grinding partisanship as most important policy issues.
Take, for example, the Congressional debate about reducing the size of the nuclear arsenal.
In a June speech in Berlin, Germany, President Obama, with the support of the U.S. military, proposed to reduce the size of the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals by up to one third below the 2010 New START treaty limit of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads.
Critics lambasted Obama not only for proposing nuclear reductions, but also, more specifically, for allegedly considering unilateral reductions – that is, reductions outside of agreement with Russia. In response to the President’s address, a group of 24 Republican Senators expressed their view “that any further reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal should only be conducted through a treaty subject to the advice and consent of the Senate.”
The draft final version of the FY 2014 National Defense Authorization Act includes a Sense of Congress provision that further cuts in the arsenal below New START should be pursued via a formal treaty with Russia. The House and Senate are slated to consider the bill the weeks of December 9 and December 16. The Republican-controlled House included much stronger, legally-binding restrictions on further reductions in its version of the defense legislation earlier this year.
Attempts to constrain executive power on further nuclear reductions are a solution in search of a problem. The Obama administration has repeatedly stated that it seeks to pursue another round of nuclear reductions with Russia, reductions it intends to implement via a formal treaty. But the administration, rightly, has not ruled out other options.
Previous Presidents have adjusted the number and types of nuclear weapons via multiple avenues, including formal treaties, non-treaty reciprocal measures, and independent actions. In fact, treaties have been the exception rather than the rule. Republican Presidents in particular have been prone to cutting nuclear weapons without treaties – and weren’t criticized for doing so. There are good national security and financial reasons to continue to keep all options for reducing the nuclear stockpile on the table.
Since the end of the Cold War, the size of the U.S. nuclear stockpile has dropped steadily – from about 22,000 warheads to roughly 5,000 today. But perhaps the best kept non-secret of U.S. nuclear policy is that most of these reductions haven’t been codified in treaties. Consider the following: since the beginning of the nuclear age, only four treaties have been implemented that limit or reduce offensive nuclear forces. Moreover, treaties generally mandate changes to only a very small portion of U.S. nuclear forces.
With the exception of the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty, which eliminated all ground-launched nuclear missiles with a range between 500 kilometers and 5500 kilometers, no arms control treaty has dealt with nonstrategic (or shorter-range) nuclear weapons, or with non-deployed weapons (those held in reserve). Together, these two categories of weapons make up the majority of the U.S. arsenal, meaning that most of the nuclear stockpile is, and has always been, governed by independent presidential discretion, not treaties.
This is a reflection of a simple reality of American government: as the commander in chief, the President has authority to make changes to U.S. military posture in order to align it with changing national security needs. And the nuclear arsenal is no exception.
In the post Cold-War era, as the utility of nuclear weapons has dwindled, both presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush eagerly seized on their authority to set nuclear force levels to make major reductions to the arsenal. Notably, they believed that it was unnecessary to defer to either Russia or Congress before determining the appropriate size and structure of U.S. nuclear forces.
As the Soviet Union began to crumble in 1991, George H.W. Bush announced the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, which were a series of non-treaty-based reductions to the size of the arsenal (most notably non-strategic weapons) and other changes to U.S. nuclear policy. Bush believed that the rapidly shifting global security context merited these reductions, regardless of what Russia did. He invited Russia to reciprocate by making parallel reductions – which it eventually did to a large extent – but his administration intended to reduce this weaponry regardless of whether Russia followed along.
All told, between 1988 and 1992 Bush reduced the total size of the U.S. nuclear stockpile (both strategic and non-strategic warheads) by nearly 50%, from 22,217 to 11,511 warheads.
Similarly, George W. Bush supported nuclear reductions without a formal treaty with Russia. In a November 2001 press conference with Vladimir Putin, Bush announced that pursuant to a recently completed nuclear posture review, the United States would reduce its arsenal of deployed strategic warheads from approximately 6,000 to 1,700-2,200 as a matter of national policy without a formal arms control agreement with Russia. “We don’t need arms control negotiations,” Bush said, “to reduce our weaponry in a significant way.”
The Russians, however, preferred to implement further cuts through a treaty with the United States. Ultimately, Bush was persuaded by Secretary of State Colin Powell and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to codify reductions in a treaty, which he did in 2002 in the form of the Moscow Treaty. Still, the Bush team remained unilateralists to the end. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told the Senate as it was considering the Moscow Treaty that “we would have made these cuts regardless of what Russia did with its arsenal.”
Beyond the deployed arsenal, President Bush also authorized unilateral reductions to the arsenal of US non-deployed warheads and non-strategic warheads deployed in Europe. From 2001 to 2009, Bush, like his father, cut the total nuclear stockpile by approximately 50%. No treaty explicitly governed these enormous reductions. And there was nary a peep of opposition from Republican members of Congress.
Today, as the Obama administration mulls its options for eliminating weapons our military leaders have determined we no longer need, neither it nor Congress should rule out the possibility of operating outside the auspices of a treaty. As a 2012 report by the Secretary of State’s International Security Advisory Board put it, “Treaties are an important, but not always necessary, method for reducing nuclear arsenals.”
In an ideal world, the United States and Russia would negotiate a new round of nuclear reductions via a treaty that limits not only deployed strategic forces, but also non-deployed and nonstrategic nuclear warheads, which aren’t currently limited by any treaty. But Russia does not appear interested in another round of negotiated treaty cuts. And given the current partisan climate in Congress, it is highly unlikely that a new arms control treaty with Russia would receive a fair hearing in the Senate. As Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) put it, “If George Bush said I think we could get to 1000, 1100 nuclear weapons and I believe we can still defend America, that’s one thing.” The implication, of course, is that he, and probably most of his Senate Republican colleagues, would oppose any reductions proposed by Obama.
Moreover, the negotiation of a treaty that limits all types of warheads will be far more time-consuming and complex than the New START negotiations, which lasted about a year. In the meantime, Russia, which is already under the New START limits on deployed warheads and deployed delivery systems, could deploy a new heavy ICBM that is currently under development to build back up to the New START levels, stalling the momentum for further reductions.
To avoid these outcomes, the United States and Russia could set the stage for a more comprehensive treaty by informally agreeing to reduce reciprocally their deployed strategic arsenals to 1,000 warheads. According to the International Security Advisory Board, this lower level could be verified using the New START verification provisions and reduce Russia’s incentive to deploy the new heavy ICBM. Such reductions could also save money by reducing the required scope of current U.S. plans to rebuild its nuclear triad – plans whose cost could exceed $300 billion over the next quarter century. In addition, Washington and Moscow should continue to attempt to lay the groundwork for reductions in non-strategic nuclear weapons.
Still another reason the President should retain all options for reducing the nuclear arsenal is that the congressional mandate for major reductions in military spending could force reductions to the stockpile with or without Russian reciprocity. Reshaping our outdated nuclear posture via reasoned planning and preparation is far preferable to cutting back through financial default.
While treaty-based reductions are – rightfully – the Obama administration’s strong preference, both the current political outlook and the history of nuclear reductions suggest that a treaty is far from the only available option. As the experience of both Bush presidents shows, if Obama were to make his proposed reductions outside of a formal arms control treaty, he would be exercising legitimate presidential authority.