By now most readers have undoubtedly read Robert Burns’ Associated Press story that as part of the Obama administration’s ongoing review of deterrence requirements, the Pentagon has prepared options for future nuclear force levels that could eventually lead to steep reductions below the New START level of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads. Burns alleges that one of the options under consideration calls for a reduction to 300 deployed warheads. Predictably, the usual Republican suspects freaked out, because that’s what they do when anyone suggests altering the unsustainable nuclear status quo.
Others have noted that the timing of this leak is suggestive, given that it came days before scheduled speeches by Rep. Michael Turner (R-OH) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ) on U.S. nuclear weapons policy.
Our Dear Leader has already weighed in on this issue. You can read his article entitled “The Dawn of Nuclear Sanity” here. For other contributions from friends of NoH, see here, here, here, here, and here. Below are a few of my observations…
First, some background.
The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) was not meant to be the last word from the Obama administration on nuclear weapons policy. While it stated that the U.S. and Russia “still retain many more nuclear weapons than they need for deterrence, the NPR largely punted on the question of the desirability and feasibility of deeper reductions below New START levels, directing instead a follow-on analysis of deterrence requirements to set a goal for future reductions with Russia. As the Brookings Institutions Steve Pifer notes, “Several options for what that guidance would look like, along with illustrative strategic nuclear force structures, are being prepared for the president’s review.” The ongoing study is affectionately known by some as the “NPR Implementation Study.”
The President didn’t order the Pentagon to study specific force levels.
Most of the media and Republican depictions of the ongoing review allege that President Obama ordered the Pentagon to study a force structure option of 300 deployed strategic warheads. Mounting evidence suggests that this is not the case. Last Friday, Pentagon Press Secretary George Little stated that “While the details are classified, the president asked DOD to develop several alternative approaches to deterrence and stability, to include illustrative force size and postures to best support those alternatives.” Little added that “No decisions have been made.” In fact, it’s my understanding that the President has yet to review any of the proposed options. What appears to have happened is that the White House likely gave the Pentagon some general guidance, which the Pentagon then translated into some specific force structures, ranging from something close to the New START levels to something in the low hundreds.
The Strategic Posture Commission knows best.
Pentagon officials involved in authoring the NPR have often proclaimed that they used the May 2009 final report of the bipartisan Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States as a starting point for their analysis. Thus it should come as no surprise that the ongoing NPR-mandated deterrence requirements review is once again following in the footsteps of the Commission, which during the preparation of its report tasked one its supporting working groups to set out force posture options it thought should be studied in the future, including options for deep cuts. As the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Stephen Young notes, “The person selected by the Commission to lead that effort to establish the options to study was none other Jim Miller, who now is directing the Pentagon’s study for the Obama administration. (See Chapter 12 of the Commission’s In the Eyes of Experts.)” Republicans often cite the conclusions of the Commission as the authoritative word on nuclear policy. Except, apparently, when the administration actually follows the advice of the Commission.
As John observes, “An obvious but important fact about the politics of nuclear weapons is that Republicans seem to oppose only nuclear reductions (bilateral or otherwise) proposed by Democratic Presidents.” The Federation of American Scientists’ Hans Kristensen reminds us that the George H.W. Bush administration reduced the size of the U.S. nuclear stockpile was by nearly 50 percent from 22,217 to 11,511 warheads. Likewise, George W. Bush cut the stockpile by nearly 50 percent from 10,526 to 5,113 warheads. I don’t recall Republicans grumbling very loudly when these Republican presidents were unilaterally decimating our deterrent. Fortunately the press has begun to pickup on the GOP’s hypocrisy.
Hamstringing Democratic Presidents.
Last year Rep. Turner included language in the House version of the defense bill that would have constrained the Pentagon’s ability to implement New START and condition reductions below New START levels on several onerous conditions. While the provisions were not included in the final version of the bill, Turner has already announced that he plans to offer similar legislation again this year and no doubt feels emboldened by the news that the administration is evaluating further reductions in the deployed arsenal. As I’ve written previously, such legislation mirrors Republican efforts in the mid/late 1990s to impose legislative constraints on the ability of President Bill Clinton to reduce the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal below the limits in the START I treaty, which forced the Navy and the Air Force to spend money to keep weapons, including 4 Trident submarines and 50 Peacekeeper missiles, that they no longer needed, when the resources could have been better used elsewhere. While this constraint barred President Clinton from making reductions, it was removed without Republican opposition in the FY 2002 defense bill in part to accommodate President George W. Bush’s desire to unilaterally eliminate the Peacekeeper missiles and remove the Trident submarines from the nuclear force.
Lower is Better
On January 5 President Obama, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, and other high-ranking defense officials previewed the results of the recently completed strategic defense review at a press briefing at the Pentagon.
The new strategy document states that “It is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force, which would reduce the number of nuclear weapons in our inventory as well as their role in U.S. national security strategy.” Outgoing Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michelle Flournoy was more forward leaning at the rollout, noting that “it’s…our judgment…that we can maintain deterrence at lower levels of forces, but I will defer any discussion of specific programmatic details to the budget when it rolls out.” Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Jim Miller echoed similar sentiments last week, stating that “I do believe that there are steps that we can take to further strengthen our deterrence posture and assurance of allies, and that I believe we can do so with lower numbers.”
These statements suggest that while the U.S. not likely go as low as 300 deployed warheads anytime soon, some key Pentagon officials are in favor of reducing the arsenal below New START levels (the flavor of the moment appears to be 1,000, which is one of the options the Pentagon has reportedly considered). This is as it should be. As we’ve argued on countless occasions, maintaining existing nuclear force levels in perpetuity makes neither strategic nor financial sense. Its long past time we abandoned Cold War era assumptions about nuclear warfighting as a key organizing principle of U.S. nuclear posture (doing so would pave the way for a much smaller arsenal). Moreover, current plans for replacing all three legs of the nuclear triad are unaffordable and pose significant opportunity costs, especially in light of the current budget environment.
Bilateral or Unilateral?
Assuming the ongoing nuclear guidance review lays the groundwork for deeper cuts, a key question is whether reductions ought to be implemented bilaterally with Russia or unilaterally. Administration officials have suggested that they believe further reductions should be negotiated. However, whether the Russians will be interested in such reductions remains an unanswered question for the time being, though their force is likely to shrink over the next decade regardless. Alternatively the U.S. could pursue some reductions unilaterally, in the hopes that Russia might follow suit. An intriguing development to keep an eye over the next year is the fate of the Pentagon budget given the looming threat of sequestration. Budget cuts could end up forcing cuts to the arsenal with our without the blessing of the guidance review or Russian reciprocity.