On Monday the AP’s Robert Burns published another story on the administration’s review of deterrence requirements and nuclear weapons guidance. You may remember Burns’ February 14 story on the review, which leaked some of the force level options allegedly under consideration, including a possible reduction to 300-400 deployed strategic warheads.
Burns’ latest article focuses on the apparent consensus in the interagency about reducing to 1,000-1,100 deployed warheads (Kyodo News reported something similar a few weeks ago). If you believe the rumors that the Pentagon assessed that it could go to 1,300 deployed warheads under the Bush administration’s guidance, this doesn’t seem like that radical of a change.
It’s not clear whether the President has made a final decision on new guidance and force levels. Once he does, STRATCOM will translate that into specific operational plans, and the interagency will consider what force limits might be proposed in a future negotiation with Russia. In other words, the administration doesn’t appear to be contemplating unilateral reductions, at least not to the deployed force. Many observers aren’t optimistic about the prospects for further US-Russia arms control in the near term, which is why much of the discussion in Washington recently has focused on what transparency and confidence-building steps the two sides might pursue to lay the groundwork for the next negotiated agreement.
It will also be interesting to observe the extent to which a requirement for 1,000-1,100 warheads impacts strategic force modernization plans. Last November, then-Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Miller stated that “no decisions have been made with respect to future force sizing or the modernization plans for nuclear delivery systems; such decisions will be informed by the Administration’s ongoing review of deterrence requirements.” A smaller arsenal could obviate the need to build as many new delivery systems and free funds for more essential Pentagon programs. In other words, the Navy might not get 12 new SSBN(X)s.
In fact, as others have noted, sequestration or similarly sized reductions to the Pentagon budget could force changes to force structure and modernization plans that are more far reaching than the conclusions of the guidance review.
Separately from what the President decides, the administration is no doubt grappling with whether and/or how to roll out the announcement of his decision. The folks in Chicago may have a different view on this than the folks in the White House.
No matter what the President decides, Mitt Romney is likely to excoriate him on the campaign trail for allegedly seeking to unilaterally disarm the United States. Recall that Romney virulently opposed the New START treaty, and didn’t exactly distinguish himself in doing so.
But the reality is that it is prudent to periodically reexamine the assumptions that drive the structure, size and targeting requirements of the US nuclear arsenal. These assumptions have 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.
It’s also clear that maintaining 1,550 deployed warheads in perpetuity is neither strategically nor fiscally sustainable. For example, such an arsenal provides Russia with an incentive to maintain a similarly bloated force.
In a recent report calling on the United States to reduce its arsenal to 900 total nuclear weapons over the next decade, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright writes: “The capability in peacetime or crisis circumstances to deliver many hundreds of nuclear warheads to targets in any prospective aggressor country in retaliation to a nuclear attack satisfy reasonable requirements of nuclear deterrence even under worst-case Cold War-like conditions.”
This sentiment reflects a robust and growing bipartisan consensus among national security leaders in support of a smaller nuclear arsenal pegged to the 21st century security environment. There is simply no scenario in today’s world where it would make sense for the United States to use 1,550 nuclear warheads (indeed, it’s difficult to conjure up a scenario where it would make sense to even use a handful). Or as McGeorge Bundy famously observed: “A decision that would bring even one hydrogen bomb on one city of one’s own country would be recognized in advance as a catastrophic blunder; ten bombs on ten cities would be a disaster beyond history; and a hundred bombs on a hundred cities are unthinkable.”
Moreover, spending money on nuclear weapons takes money away from other, more pressing national security priorities that support our troops and undermines the credibility of US efforts to mold the cooperation it needs to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
This shouldn’t be a tough sell.