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Obama's Nuclear Challenge

Daryl G. Kimball

In his June 19 address in Berlin, President Barack Obama sought to jump-start progress on his second-term nuclear risk reduction agenda. The president declared,”[S]o long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe. Peace with justice means pursuing the security of a world without nuclear weapons, no matter how distant that dream may be. Complacency is not in the character of great nations.”

Doing nothing in the face of grave nuclear weapons threats is not an option. Obama’s renewed call to action for further nuclear cuts and U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is welcome and overdue.

Obama’s centerpiece announcement was that he had completed a review of nuclear weapons employment guidance and determined that the United States can reduce the number of strategic nuclear weapons it deploys by up to one-third—from 1,550 under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) to between 1,000 and 1,100—and would seek reciprocal Russian reductions through negotiations.

Unfortunately, the scope of Obama’s nuclear disarmament proposals is too modest and the pace of action too slow. The cuts outlined by the president are a good start, but a level of 1,000 to 1,100 is only 200 to 300 warheads below the number to which the United States was prepared to agree during the negotiations on New START four years ago if Russia had not insisted on setting a ceiling of 1,550 through the year 2021.

In the 21st century, 1,000 deployed strategic warheads provide more than enough nuclear firepower to deter any current or potential nuclear adversary. In April 2012, former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who now is secretary of defense, endorsed a study recommending the United States move toward a nuclear force of 450 deployed strategic weapons by 2022.

In the weeks ahead, the president must follow up on his Berlin speech by making a stronger case for why much deeper strategic nuclear reductions improve U.S., Russian, and global security.

Although a healthy majority of the American public and most U.S. senators support further reductions of nuclear weapons deemed in excess of deterrence requirements, some senators oppose reductions of any kind, while others insist that any further nuclear cuts should be made only through a new, formal agreement subject to Senate approval.

Congress surely needs to be consulted, but it should not put unnecessary roadblocks in the way of a more cost-effective and appropriately sized nuclear force. The Joints Chiefs of Staff, the Pentagon, and the White House already have determined that at least one-third of the current deployed strategic nuclear force is superfluous to U.S. nuclear military requirements.

Republican senators need to recognize that, by insisting on new treaty negotiations, they could give Russian President Vladimir Putin a veto over cuts of unnecessary and expensive U.S. strategic nuclear weapons. Even after the cancellation in March of U.S. plans for more-sophisticated missile interceptors in Europe, Moscow is reluctant to begin formal treaty talks. If talks do begin, they will be more complex and time consuming than New START.

U.S. and Russian leaders need not wait for a follow-on treaty. As they explore options for a new treaty, Obama and Putin should announce parallel, reciprocal reductions to 1,000 or fewer strategic deployed warheads within the next five years, to be verified using the monitoring provisions established by New START.

This strategy would help compel Russia to build down rather than build up its strategic nuclear forces. Russia, whose nuclear force already is below the New START limits, is developing a new, heavy intercontinental ballistic missile to match U.S. force levels. More-rapid reductions of U.S. and Russian nuclear forces, which comprise 95 percent of global stockpiles, also would increase pressure on China and other nuclear-armed states to join the nuclear disarmament enterprise, an objective that leaders in Russia and United States say they support.

By scaling back its nuclear force to 1,000 deployed strategic warheads, the United States can trim $39 billion from the Defense Department’s costly plan for new strategic submarines, missiles, and bombers over the next decade, according to a 2013 Arms Control Association analysis.

In Berlin, Obama pledged to “work with our NATO allies to seek bold reductions in U.S. and Russian tactical weapons in Europe.” Unfortunately, NATO has been unable to reach agreement on new proposals for tactical nuclear arms control. For its part, Russia says it will not consider limits on its far larger stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons until all such U.S. weapons are withdrawn from Europe.

More than 20 years after the end of the Cold War, there is no military rationale for Russia’s arsenal of 2,000 tactical nuclear warheads, nor is there any military requirement for the 180 U.S. nuclear bombs in Europe. Bolder action is required to break the impasse. Obama should call Russia’s bluff and announce he is prepared to withdraw the remaining U.S. tactical bombs within five years and put pressure on Russia to take reciprocal action.

To overcome the challenges standing in the way of a world free of nuclear weapons, Obama and his team will need to devote greater energy, creativity, and determination to the cause.