Ending Cold War Nuclear Thinking

Daryl G. Kimball

Within his first 100 days in office, President Barack Obama delivered a stirring address in Prague on the steps necessary to move toward a world free of nuclear weapons. On April 5, 2009, he pledged to “put an end to Cold War thinking” by “reduc[ing] the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.”

Obama’s 2010 “Nuclear Posture Review [NPR] Report” established the broad vision for reducing the role and number of U.S. nuclear weapons. In contrast to the Cold War-era strategy of being prepared to “prevail” in a nuclear war with the Soviets and use nuclear weapons to counter conventional threats, the new strategy clarifies that “the fundamental role of U.S. nuclear forces is to deter nuclear attacks against the U.S. and our allies and partners.”

Obama soon will make decisions that could put those words in action. His review of the post-NPR options developed by his national security staff and the Pentagon should lead to a fundamental rewrite of previous presidential guidance on nuclear employment policy, nuclear targeting, and the size and structure of U.S. nuclear forces. Reports indicate the White House is considering options that could open the way for U.S. proposals for “steep cuts” in deployed nuclear weapons.

Changes are in order. The current size of the U.S. arsenal, and Russia’s, far exceeds what is necessary to deter nuclear attack. Both sides can and should go much lower.

Even under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which was negotiated on the basis of George W. Bush-era nuclear targeting plans, the United States and Russia will each still be allowed to deploy 1,550 strategic nuclear weapons on as many as 700 missiles and bombers until 2021 or beyond. Thousands of additional warheads are held in reserve. Unless they adjust their thinking, both countries will spend hundreds of billions of dollars to modernize and maintain similar nuclear force levels for decades to come.

Obama should not settle for marginal adjustments. Given that no other country deploys more than 300 nuclear weapons and that China possesses just 40 to 50 warheads on intercontinental-range missiles, he should implement a significant reduction of the overall U.S. nuclear stockpile—to 1,000 deployed and nondeployed warheads or fewer—in the coming years. This would still provide more than sufficient firepower to deter nuclear attack by any current or future adversary.

To do so, Obama should eliminate entire target categories from the current nuclear war plan, which now includes a wide range of military forces, nuclear weapons infrastructure, military and national leadership targets, and war-supporting infrastructure, mainly in Russia. These targeting assumptions were developed decades ago to deplete an opponent’s war-fighting assets after the outbreak of hostilities rather than to ensure there is a sufficient retaliatory capability to deter nuclear attack in the first place.

Obama also should seek to lower current requirements for how much damage must be accomplished to ensure that a target is destroyed. To deter a nuclear attack, adversaries need only realize the United States is capable of reducing key targets to radioactive rubble rather than a fine dust.

In other words, not only is the chance of a bolt-from-the-blue nuclear attack by Russia near zero and far less likely today than it was during the Cold War, but the size of the nuclear force required to deter such an attack is far less than it was then. Joseph Stalin might have been willing to sacrifice tens of millions of Russians in a nuclear exchange, but Vladimir Putin would not. Just one U.S. nuclear-armed submarine could devastate an entire country and kill millions.

As the 2007 Arms Control Association report “What Are Nuclear Weapons For?” by physicist Sidney Drell and former negotiator James Goodby suggests, the United States can deter any potential aggressor by moving to a smaller force of 500 deployed and 500 nondeployed strategic warheads on a much smaller, mainly submarine-based triad.

A reliable and credible U.S. nuclear deterrent does not require the ability to retaliate immediately but only the assurance that U.S. nuclear forces and command-and-control systems would survive an attack. Nevertheless, there still is a presidential requirement to do just that. As Obama correctly said in 2008, this requirement for prompt launch is “a dangerous relic of the Cold War. Such policies increase the risk of catastrophic accidents or miscalculation.”

Eliminating the prompt-launch requirement would allow for a reduction in the number of nuclear-armed submarines on station, saving billions of dollars and reducing the risk of miscalculation by the United States or its adversaries during a crisis.

By discarding outdated nuclear thinking, Obama can open the way for lower U.S.-Russian force levels, either through a new treaty or reciprocal and parallel cuts. The reductions also would enhance prospects for mutual, verifiable nuclear reductions involving other nuclear-armed states and bring the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons closer to fruition.