Trimming Nuclear Excess

Daryl G. Kimball

In the 20 years since the end of the Cold War, successive U.S. and Russian presidents have gradually reduced the size and salience of their enormous nuclear stockpiles. Nevertheless, the size of each country’s arsenal far exceeds what might be considered necessary to deter nuclear attack. Both sides can and should go lower.

Even under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), each country is allowed to deploy 1,550 strategic nuclear weapons on 700 missiles and bombers. Thousands of additional warheads are held in reserve. Unless they adjust their thinking, both countries will spend scarce resources to modernize and maintain similar nuclear force levels for 20 to 30 years to come.

This year, as the Obama administration reviews decade-old presidential guidance on nuclear force structure and nuclear employment policy, the president has an unprecedented opportunity to discard outdated targeting assumptions, open the way for deeper reductions of all warhead types, and redirect defense dollars to more pressing needs.

The 2010 “Nuclear Posture Review Report” outlines the national security rationale for reducing the role and number of U.S. nuclear weapons and eliminating outdated Cold War policies. The document asserts that “the fundamental role of U.S. nuclear forces is to deter nuclear attacks against the U.S. and our allies and partners.”

At the same time, the report acknowledges that the United States and Russia "each still retain more nuclear weapons than necessary for stable deterrence." Given that no other country deploys more than 300 strategic warheads and given that China possesses 40 to 50 warheads on intercontinental-range missiles, the United States and Russia could reduce their overall nuclear stockpiles substantially—to 1,000 warheads—while retaining sufficient firepower to deter nuclear attack by any current or potential adversary.

As the 2007 Arms Control Association report “What Are Nuclear Weapons For?” suggests, the United States could move to a smaller force of 500 deployed and 500 nondeployed strategic warheads on a smaller, mainly submarine-based triad within the next few years. A 2010 study by three Air Force analysts in Strategic Studies Quarterly concludes that the United States could "draw down its nuclear arsenal to a relatively small number of survivable, reliable weapons dispersed among missile silos, submarines, and airplanes." They argue that such a force might number only 311 nuclear weapons.

Maintaining and modernizing U.S. strategic forces at current, higher levels is not only unnecessary, but prohibitively expensive. If Congress and the White House are serious about reducing defense expenditures by $400 billion by 2023 to reduce the ballooning federal deficit, they should start by deferring or curtailing the Pentagon’s ambitious plan to upgrade and replace the strategic triad, which is projected to exceed $100 billion over the same period.

The Navy is seeking to begin construction of 12 new ballistic missile submarines—each with 16 to 20 launch tubes—beginning in 2019 to replace the existing 14 Trident boats that currently carry 336 ballistic missiles armed with more than 1,100 thermonuclear bombs. Research and development costs are estimated at $29.4 billion between 2011 and 2020; each new sub would cost an average of $8 billion to build.

Under New START, the Air Force will retain up to 420 single-warhead Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The Pentagon plans to spend $6-7 billion to extend the missiles’ service through 2030 and is seeking funding for research on a follow-on ICBM. The Air Force also will retain 60 nuclear-capable, long-range bombers, including B-2s and B-52s. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wants funding for research on a new nuclear-capable heavy bomber, which would carry a new air-launched, nuclear-capable cruise missile. These items would cost billions more.

For its part, Russia will be hard pressed to deploy 1,550 strategic warheads unless it undertakes an expensive ballistic missile modernization effort. Rather than induce Russia to build up, it is in the security and financial interests of both countries to pursue further, parallel reductions in their strategic nuclear forces and to cut the size of their nondeployed reserve stockpiles.

The upcoming nuclear policy review also gives President Barack Obama the chance to eliminate the Cold War practice of keeping nuclear weapons ready to launch within minutes. During his 2008 presidential campaign, Obama said the practice is “outdated” and “increases the risk of catastrophic accident or miscalculation.” Indeed, a reliable and credible U.S. nuclear deterrent does not require the ability to retaliate immediately if U.S. nuclear forces and command and control systems can survive an attack.

Obama can and should make it clear that the United States no longer will develop or exercise plans for rapid launches and will replace such plans with new ones that would allow the president to delay a response to a nuclear attack for days. He should invite Russia to make reciprocal changes to its nuclear posture.

Now is the time for U.S. and Russian leaders to further reduce their costly nuclear arsenals and purge their military strategies of obsolete Cold War thinking.