Report on Nuclear Review Stirs Debate

Daryl G. Kimball

The White House is “weighing options” for sharp reductions in U.S. nuclear forces as part of its study of how to implement the results of its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the Associated Press reported Feb. 14.

The report, which cited unnamed congressional and former administration sources, said the administration is considering “at least three options for lower total numbers of deployed strategic nuclear weapons cutting to around 1,000 to 1,100, 700 to 800, or 300 to 400.” The United States reported that it deployed 1,790 strategic nuclear warheads as of Sept. 1. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) allows Russia and the United States to deploy as many as 1,550 warheads apiece through 2021.

National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor called the Associated Press report “wildly overwritten,” noting that “[a]s part of the NPR implementation study, [the Department of Defense] used a range of policy criteria to develop options for the presidential guidance that will be used to develop force structure, force postures, and stockpile requirements. The implementation study is still underway, and the Department of Defense has not yet presented the study to the president.”

In recent weeks, senior administration officials have indicated that the presidential review will open the way for further nuclear reductions. According to the Pentagon’s new defense strategy, released Jan. 5, “It is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force.”

At a Nov. 2 hearing of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Miller said that based on options developed by a Pentagon study completed at the end of 2011, President Barack Obama would issue new guidance on nuclear weapons employment, force levels, and alert posture. (See ACT, December 2011.)

In a Feb. 15 session with reporters, Acting Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller said the NPR implementation study was necessary “homework” to help determine the contours of future negotiations with Russia on deployed, nondeployed, strategic, and nonstrategic nuclear weapons.

Some congressional Republicans were quick to react to the leaked account of the secret administration deliberations and the possibility of reductions to 300-400 deployed strategic warheads.

In a letter sent to Obama a day after the publication of the Associated Press story, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.), strategic forces subcommittee chairman Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), and 32 other House Republicans wrote, “We seek your assurance…that you will cease to pursue such unprecedented reductions in the U.S. deterrent and extended deterrent.”

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who opposed New START, told the Associated Press, “A 300 number would [mean] the Chinese would have more than we have. I mean, this is a number where anybody that wanted to could build up to that number and be a peer with the United States.”

Currently, the only other nuclear-armed adversary of the United States other than Russia with nuclear warheads on intercontinental-range missiles is China, with an estimated stockpile of 40 to 50.

Miller said at a public forum on Feb. 15 that one of the options under consideration will be to remain at the 1,550 New START limit, but he suggested that getting below 1,550 is more likely, according to the Associated Press. The presidential review is expected to be completed this year.