Bush Plans to Cut Atomic Arsenal

Wade Boese

After a long internal debate, the Bush administration told Congress June 1 that it intends to cut the U.S. nuclear arsenal in half by 2012. The United States currently deploys approximately 6,000 strategic nuclear warheads, out of a total nuclear force of roughly 10,000 weapons.

Approved by the president, the classified nuclear stockpile plan establishes the size and preferred state of readiness of all U.S. nuclear forces, not just those deployed.

Congress and arms control groups have been pushing for a detailed stockpile plan since Russia and the United States concluded the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) two years ago to reduce their operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads each by the end of 2012. But differences between the Departments of Defense and Energy over how many nondeployed warheads the United States should retain held up the plan. (See ACT, May 2004.)

In a public cover letter attached to the secret plan, Linton F. Brooks, who heads the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), told Congress that the plan will result in a U.S. nuclear stockpile that “will be the smallest it has been in several decades.” Brooks declined to provide a specific figure, but he has since stated the U.S. arsenal would be cut “almost in half.”

Even after the cuts, the United States will still possess a nuclear arsenal far surpassing any other country but its Cold War rival, Russia. Moscow currently fields about 5,000 strategic nuclear warheads and possesses an estimated 15,000 other nuclear warheads. The combined nuclear weapons holdings of all other countries, many of which are U.S. allies or friends, are estimated to be around 1,300 warheads at most.

One purpose of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is to “dissuade potential adversaries from trying to match our capabilities or from engaging in strategic competition,” Brooks said in a June 21 speech at the Carnegie International Non-Proliferation Conference in Washington. Other goals include assuring U.S. allies that the United States can protect them, deterring future threats, and, if necessary, defeating potential adversaries.

In addition to having extra weapons available for routine maintenance work, the Bush administration contends a reserve force of nondeployed warheads is needed to provide a hedge against new threats as well as technical problems with deployed warheads that might demand wholesale replacements. This reserve force will be divided into two categories of warheads: those that are prepared for a relatively quick return to service and those stored in lower states of readiness.

Tentative Pentagon plans two years ago envisaged keeping up to 2,400 warheads in a so-called responsive force that could be redeployed from storage within weeks, months, or three years at most. Although the precise number of warheads the plan assigns to this category is not public, the number of warheads to be kept at higher stages of readiness reportedly is larger than those to be mothballed at lesser stages.

Also unclear is the dismantlement schedule for the thousands of U.S. warheads that will no longer be retained. Although warheads may be designated for dismantlement, it could take years for the work to be completed because the primary facility for disassembling warheads—the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas—is busy with ongoing warhead refurbishment projects.

The administration further remains undecided on how it will complete its SORT reductions. The current interim goal is to reduce current deployed strategic warheads down to roughly 3,500 by 2007, but there is no fixed plan on how to trim the additional 1,300 warheads to meet the treaty limit, which is only binding for one day, Dec. 31, 2012.

Preserving flexibility in how and when reductions occur is a key feature of the administration’s nuclear weapons policy. Warning that the future is uncertain, the administration contends the United States must be ready for a variety of contingencies that might require modifying or building up its nuclear forces.

Brooks explained that such options are being kept open by creating a “responsive infrastructure” based on three main initiatives: planning to build a new facility to make additional nuclear warhead cores, researching new types of nuclear weapons, and halving the amount of time required to initiate a nuclear test if the president chose to do so. The administration says it has no current plans to conduct a nuclear test.

If successfully developed, a responsive infrastructure would eventually permit the United States to “consider going much further in reducing the size of the reserve stockpile we must maintain,” Brooks stated June 21.

Still, some congressional Democrats, foreign governments, and former U.S. officials criticize the Bush administration’s hedging approach, particularly its unwillingness to forswear future nuclear testing by ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, as at odds with global nuclear nonproliferation efforts.

International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei gave the Bush administration plan qualified praise in a June 21 speech at the Carnegie conference. The plan “is encouraging, if the intention is to eliminate the warheads in question in a verifiable and irreversible manner,” ElBaradei said.

SORT did not require any warheads or delivery vehicles to be destroyed and hence did not establish any mechanisms or procedures for destruction activities to be verified.