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Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
June 1, 2018
Transforming U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy
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Daryl G. Kimball

Effecting change in Washington, and nuclear weapons policy in particular, is exceedingly difficult, requiring strong presidential leadership and a working bipartisan majority. Yet, recent congressional actions and trends will give the next occupant of the White House a rare opportunity to initiate sweeping changes in outdated U.S. nuclear weapons and arms control policies.

Congress in December struck down the Bush administration’s ill-conceived plan for new “replacement” nuclear warheads and an additional plutonium pit production facility to help build them. Although President George W. Bush may try to revive these projects and insist that the nuclear arsenal is as small as possible, there is growing support and a strong security rationale for fewer, not newer, nuclear weapons.

Rejecting administration arguments for new replacement warheads, appropriators led by Reps. Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.) and David Hobson (R-Ohio), Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), and others denied the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) $89 million request for the program. In a July 2007 paper, the administration claimed the delays in the replacement warhead program would “raise the prospect of having to return to underground nuclear testing to certify existing weapons.”

In an August letter, Visclosky and Hobson shot back, saying “[i]t is irresponsible for the administration to make such an assertion.” They correctly noted that that “there is no record of congressional testimony or reports sent to Congress by the Administration claiming…that a resumption of testing to verify the performance of warheads would be a necessity.” Indeed, the latest studies on warhead aging show that weapons plutonium lasts for 80 or more years without significant degradation.

NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino acknowledged he was “concerned…about some misunderstandings…about our views on the possible need for nuclear testing.” In a December letter to Congress, he wrote, “Let there be no doubt: today’s nuclear stockpile is safe and reliable and has not required post-deployment nuclear testing to date, nor is nuclear testing currently anticipated or planned.”

Bottom line: The existing Stockpile Stewardship Program works. Through regular surveillance and periodic upgrades of the conventional explosives and non-nuclear components, the weapons labs can reliably maintain a smaller U.S. arsenal under the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which should be reconsidered by the Senate and ratified in the next presidential administration.

Reflecting bipartisan frustration with Bush’s nuclear policies, Congress also mandated a top-to-bottom review of the role and size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal by the end of 2009. This represents an opportunity that the next president must not squander.

Previous Bush and Clinton administration nuclear posture reviews fell woefully short. Each version only slightly modified previous Cold War targeting plans and policies. As a result, the number of deployed nuclear weapons were trimmed, but the force is still enormous. The 1994 nuclear posture review endorsed a force reduction from 3,500 deployed strategic warheads to 2,500. Bush’s 2001 review called for a force of 1,700-2,200 such warheads by 2012.

Breaking with past policy, the Bush administration also embraced the idea that the U.S. arsenal should not be governed by any new treaty-mandated timetables and verification arrangements. The emphasis on flexibility has lessened predictability and increased Russia’s sense of vulnerability, adding to U.S.-Russian friction on a range of arms-related issues.

Washington’s reluctance to pursue deeper reductions, definitively end new warhead production, and ratify the CTBT has also eroded confidence that the nuclear-weapon states intend to fulfill their nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty commitments to take concrete steps toward disarmament. This has complicated efforts to repair the beleaguered nonproliferation system.

These policies can and must change. The current U.S. nuclear posture does not match the post-September 11 threat environment in which nuclear weapons are a greater security liability than an asset. The next administration must recognize that there is no plausible threat scenario that justifies the possession of more than a few hundred nuclear warheads, let alone 2,200. New nuclear weapons are unnecessary and provocative. The United States should not be threatening terrorists or non-nuclear-weapon states with nuclear weapons, but rather should be doing all it can to keep nuclear weapons material and technology out of their hands.

Early on, the next president must begin work with Russia to negotiate a new treaty that locks in far deeper, verifiable reductions in each nation’s nuclear and missile forces before START expires at the end of 2009. As Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) said last October, “[T]he administration must reject the arguments from some that suggest the U.S.-Russian relationship has moved beyond the need for legally binding treaties.”

These and other developments open the way for the next president to pursue a new approach to nuclear weapons policy and restore U.S. global leadership that is needed to win support from other states to bolster nonproliferation efforts and eliminate the nuclear weapons threat.

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