Nuclear Arms Control Opportunities: An Agenda for Obama’s Second Term

Steven Pifer and Michael O’Hanlon

With his re-election secured, where should President Barack Obama head on matters of nuclear arms control? Some would now consider it a back-burner issue, with his big Prague speech on the long-term goal of nuclear disarmament (see box) already given and a New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) secured in his first term.

In fact, arms control provides an opportunity to achieve multiple important goals: further reducing nuclear arsenals and enhancing U.S. security, reinvigorating the U.S.-Russian relationship, stabilizing some aspects of broader U.S.-Chinese interaction, and saving money in a cash-strapped defense budget. Also, it may give a shot in the arm to global nonproliferation norms that, although unlikely to directly sway leaders in Tehran or Pyongyang, could better position the United States to mobilize pressure on those countries and to exert leverage on other proliferators in the coming months and years.

For these reasons, the Obama administration should pursue a New START II that would cut deployed strategic weapons from the New START level of 1,550 warheads apiece to 1,000. This would be a sublimit embedded in an aggregate limit of 2,000 to 2,500 total nuclear warheads each, which would also limit tactical and reserve warheads. This level strikes a balance between making meaningful cuts and avoiding overly dramatic measures that cannot be fully verified yet. Such an accord would lead to the development of monitoring provisions in the U.S.-Russian context that later could be applied to other treaties mandating deeper cuts and including additional countries.

It is too soon to set a fixed path to “nuclear zero,” and attempting to do so in Obama’s second term would be counterproductive. Yet, this is an opportune moment to bring nonstrategic systems into the formal bilateral process as a first step toward exploring the viability of more-robust cutbacks down the road.

As for the other countries that have nuclear weapons, there are steps they can take in the near term. These steps, which would not be part of a formal treaty with Russia and the United States, would include greater transparency regarding their nuclear weapons capabilities and political pledges not to increase their arsenals in coming years or at least not to let them grow very much.

Ideally, these political pledges would be complemented by an agreement by the four most important countries that have not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT)—China, India, Pakistan, and the United States—to support the treaty. Another valuable addition would be some type of fissile material cutoff accord. That would admittedly be an ambitious agenda. Obama’s second-term goals should include the CTBT and a fissile material cutoff treaty (FMCT), but not be dependent or centered on them.

Lower Warhead Ceilings

A New START II should limit each side to no more than 2,000 to 2,500 nuclear warheads of all types combined. In other words, it would cover deployed and nondeployed, strategic and tactical, active and reserve—everything except those in the dismantlement queue, which would be handled separately. Within this overall pact, there would be a sublimit to reduce deployed strategic warheads to no more than 1,000.

In such an agreement, the United States could accept a limit of 500 for deployed strategic delivery vehicles and 575 to 600 for the combined total of deployed and nondeployed launchers and heavy bombers. Although a prohibition on new heavy intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) would be desirable, it would require negotiating capital that U.S. negotiators could better apply elsewhere. Moreover, an agreement along the lines suggested here might lead Moscow to conclude that a new heavy ICBM made no sense in terms of strategic stability or cost because the Russians would not need to replace all their aging systems that will have to be retired soon in order to maintain the New START limit of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads.

Counting rules should be modified in such an accord to make the actual number of allowed weapons approximate more closely the treaty-limited number. New START treats bomber warhead loadings very leniently. Bombers may continue to merit preferential treatment, but as overall limits are reduced, it is more difficult to justify counting each deployed nuclear-capable heavy bomber as only one weapon. (This was the main “loophole” in New START, which otherwise counts actual warhead loadings.) The number should be increased to three or four at least.

Such an agreement as a follow-on to New START would leave the United States with a nuclear deterrent that would be safe, secure, effective, and capable of deterring any potential adversary from a major attack on the United States, its allies, or its forces. Negotiating this agreement would take time, likely two to three years, but it would position the United States to demonstrate at the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference the seriousness of its commitment to nuclear reductions and could set the stage for a U.S.-Russian push for more-direct involvement in the nuclear arms reductions process by other nuclear-weapon states.

Moving toward New START II soon would have major advantages for Russia and the United States in the defense budgeting realm. The United States already is beginning to ramp up plans and expenditures as it considers replacing all three legs of the strategic nuclear triad in the next one to two decades. New START II would mean that the United States could build fewer new weapons systems as it modernized its strategic deterrent.

Like the United States, Russia has incentives to avoid the need for expensive recapitalization, as much of its nuclear arsenal moves even more quickly toward retirement. Indeed, this financial incentive is one of the main reasons to believe Moscow may in fact be attracted to another round of arms control, as long as the resulting agreement allows Russia to sustain a major lead over any country other than the United States.

A ceiling of 2,000 to 2,500 warheads per nuclear superpower strikes the right balance in this regard. It would allow enough weapons to maintain the status of Russia and the United States as the only two superpowers, far ahead of the rest of the field. No lower outcome would presently be acceptable to either country. Yet, it also would represent a big reduction by both sides.

Limiting tactical and nondeployed strategic nuclear warheads is an idea whose time has come. This would constitute a big change in a New START II and would represent a historic achievement if feasible. Unfortunately, it also would pose major verification challenges. The U.S. intelligence community has confidence in its ability to monitor the New START limit on deployed strategic warheads because those warheads sit on ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), which are large. Tactical and nondeployed warheads are small, typically weighing only several hundred kilograms or less, and have radioactive signatures of limited range. The two sides therefore should consider a requirement that all such weapons must be maintained at declared storage facilities that would be subject to inspection.

Even if they adopt this approach, monitoring warheads themselves will be a work in progress, requiring constant learning and improvement. It is feasible for the United States to accept a lower degree of confidence for monitoring limits on nonstrategic and nondeployed strategic nuclear weapons in the context of this overall agreement because the U.S. and Russian arsenals would remain enormous compared to the requirements of deterrence or the nuclear inventories of any third countries. Were one side to have 200 to 300 undeclared nonstrategic or nondeployed strategic nuclear warheads, that would be hugely damaging to arms control and bilateral political relations, but it would not significantly affect a nuclear balance in which each side had 2,000 to 2,500 total nuclear weapons.

If the rest of the terms could be worked out satisfactorily, the United States should be prepared, in consultation with NATO, to accept what would be an almost certain Russian demand for a provision requiring that all nuclear weapons be based on national territory. That would require removal of U.S. nonstrategic nuclear weapons from Europe, a condition the United States should be willing to accept in conjunction with very significant Russian reductions.

In deciding its arms control policy on nonstrategic nuclear weapons, the U.S. government must be mindful that the need for close consultation with NATO and Asian allies continues and that the reasons that U.S. nuclear weapons remain deployed in Europe have far more to do with assuring allies than with deterring outside aggression. A strong process of consultation, as occurred in the NATO Special Consultative Group during the negotiations on intermediate-range nuclear forces in the 1980s and the discussions with allies in the run-up to the completion of the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), can strengthen alliance cohesion and confidence, thus bolstering the U.S. negotiating approach with Moscow.

Finally, as New START II talks began, it would make sense for both sides to accelerate implementation of New START limits. In particular, the United States should accelerate implementation of the deployed strategic warhead limit. (As of September 2012, the Russians already were below 1,550.) This would demonstrate good faith without prejudging the result of New START II negotiations while supporting efforts to cut U.S. defense spending. Acceleration of reductions to reach the New START limits surely would be consistent with the Obama administration’s forthcoming nuclear guidance decisions, which will flow from the NPR implementation study, because New START force levels are consistent with the administration’s assessment of what constitutes adequate deterrence.

Dealing With Missile Defense

Offensive arms control cannot occur in a vacuum. Any willingness Moscow might have to reduce its numerical advantage in tactical warheads for a chance to cut back on expensive strategic modernization and get U.S. nuclear weapons removed from NATO territory would likely dissipate unless the two sides reached an improved understanding on missile defense.

That does not mean the United States should forgo programs it needs for its own security. Following the example of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and his successful effort early in the Obama administration to come up with a new architecture for European missile defense that had greater technical capabilities while causing fewer problems with Russia, the United States might now craft a new and better approach without sacrificing needed capability.

A cooperative NATO-Russian arrangement for territorial missile defense of Europe is in the U.S. interest. Access to early-warning data from the Russian-owned or -operated radars at Armavir in southern Russia and Gabala in Azerbaijan would usefully augment the data from NATO sensors, in part by providing earlier radar warning and tracking of ballistic missile launches from Iran. A cooperative missile defense thus would offer a better defense of Europe than NATO alone could provide.

Obama’s Arms Control Goals

In a speech in Prague on April 5, 2009, President Barack Obama laid out his administration’s nuclear weapons policy. As illustrated by the excerpts below, the speech included near- and long-term goals.

First, the United States will take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons. To put an end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, and urge others to do the same. Make no mistake: As long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies…. But we will begin the work of reducing our arsenal.

To reduce our warheads and stockpiles, we will negotiate a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the Russians this year…. And this will set the stage for further cuts, and we will seek to include all nuclear weapons states in this endeavor.

To achieve a global ban on nuclear testing, my administration will immediately and aggressively pursue U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

[T]o cut off the building blocks needed for a bomb, the United States will seek a new treaty that verifiably ends the production of fissile materials intended for use in state nuclear weapons.

[T]ogether we will strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as a basis for cooperation.

Iran has yet to build a nuclear weapon. My administration will seek engagement with Iran based on mutual interests and mutual respect. We believe in dialogue. But in that dialogue we will present a clear choice.

As long as the threat from Iran persists, we will go forward with a missile defense system that is cost-effective and proven. If the Iranian threat is eliminated, we will have a stronger basis for security, and the driving force for missile defense construction in Europe will be removed.

[F]inally, we must ensure that terrorists never acquire a nuclear weapon.

[T]oday I am announcing a new international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years.

Source: White House Office of the Press Secretary

Moreover, by engaging in missile defense cooperation, the two sides could defuse a difficult issue that now appears likely to undermine the broader U.S.-Russian and NATO-Russian relationships. At a time when the West needs Moscow’s help on issues such as providing key supply lines to U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan and pressuring Iran to abandon its program aimed at putting Tehran in position to have a nuclear weapon, Washington should look for ways to minimize problems on the agenda with Russia. Finally, genuine NATO-Russian missile defense cooperation holds the potential to alter Cold War stereotypes about the alliance that linger in Russia.

A legally binding U.S.-Russian agreement limiting missile defense is politically unattainable; under current circumstances, the Senate would not consent to its ratification. Therefore, Obama should instead provide a political commitment not to direct U.S. missile defenses against Russian strategic forces, along the lines of the recent NATO assurances to Russia, and should offer to regularize and maximize transparency regarding U.S. missile defense programs and plans. This would include jointly staffed NATO-Russian missile defense centers, annual notifications of the numbers of key missile defense elements—such as missile interceptors (broken down by type and block), launchers, associated radars, and ships equipped with missile interceptors—currently deployed and projected to be deployed for each year over the next 10 years, and the opportunity for Russian experts to observe flight tests of Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptors.

NATO might offer to limit the cooperative arrangement time, say, for a period of four years. That would allow the Russians to “test drive” the arrangement and see if the enhanced transparency that would come from day-to-day missile defense cooperation eased their concerns. If not, they could walk away, and NATO would acknowledge that possibility up front. The timing of that kind of interim arrangement should not be a problem. In his November 2011 statement on missile defense, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev indicated that Moscow had six to eight years before U.S.-NATO missile defenses posed a threat.[1]

NATO should revise its current position, which suggests that cooperation would lead to no change in NATO missile defense plans, and make clear that it would fully consider Russian proposals for a cooperative missile defense. This increased receptiveness would include considering Russian proposals that might alter NATO plans, provided that the proposals did not degrade the ability of NATO missile defenses to protect NATO members. Washington should state that the term “adaptive” in its European Phased Adaptive Approach envisages the possibility that development and deployment of the SM-3 Block IIB interceptor, which gives Moscow the greatest concern because of its projected capabilities against ICBMs, might be slowed if it appeared that the Iranians were not progressing toward an ICBM capability.

These ideas build on what Washington and NATO already have said, but go further by offering greater transparency and greater flexibility—in particular, the possible deferment of deployment of the SM-3 Block IIB interceptor in Europe—than does the current position.

Multilateralizing the Process

To have true historic significance, stabilize the U.S.-Chinese military relationship in the nuclear realm, and create the possibility of further bilateral and multilateral arms accords (perhaps on a road to eventual elimination of nuclear weapons, perhaps not), Obama’s second-term arms control agenda should seek to draw in the other nuclear powers, declared and undeclared. A broader, more informal multilateral effort should be juxtaposed with the formal bilateral process aimed at concluding New START II. Such a process could build on the ongoing discussions among the five NPT nuclear-weapon states on those countries’ disarmament obligations under the treaty.

At present, France is believed to have almost 300 warheads, a level that is lower than in the past, mostly deployed on ballistic missile submarines. China has an estimated 240 nuclear warheads, with about 55 to 65 deployable on long-range missiles able to reach the United States. Its arsenal has been essentially steady in size for three decades, although China is moving toward a more mobile and survivable force. The United Kingdom has perhaps 225 warheads (like France, a lower number than in the past), all on SLBMs. London is reducing its number further. India is believed to have 80 to 100 warheads and Pakistan 90 to 110, and both countries are seeking to put some of those warheads on medium-range missiles. India recently tested the Agni-5 missile, capable in theory of reaching eastern Chinese cities. Israel’s arsenal reportedly is between 100 and 200 warheads. North Korea has perhaps six to eight.[2]

Some would argue that it is unfair of Russia and the United States to have more nuclear warheads than other countries and that any path to zero must include as an interim step a requirement for those two countries to relinquish their nuclear superiority and come down to the level of the other nuclear-armed states. That is unrealistic.

Creating a process by which superpower drawdowns create uncertainty as to who holds the nuclear trump cards in any crisis could well create the possibility of more crises and more-dangerous crises. It makes little sense to radically revise the existing global nuclear architecture, which, at least in great-power terms, appears relatively stable and stabilizing. At the same time, it is too soon to ask other countries to join in arms reduction efforts formally when the holdings of each of the nuclear superpowers still exceed those of any other state by a factor of well more than 10.

The medium nuclear powers—China, France, and the United Kingdom—should make political commitments not to increase their current nuclear warhead holdings and to provide greater transparency regarding their nuclear arsenals. Ideally, they should take this step in association with the next U.S.-Russian nuclear arms reduction treaty. India and Pakistan should be encouraged to take the same step.

Because these would all be unilateral statements, they would not imply any formal recognition of new nuclear-weapon states by the rest of the international community. If needed, however, this first step could be undertaken without India and Pakistan (or Israel or North Korea). There would be a certain logic and perhaps greater simplicity in negotiations in beginning with the five official NPT nuclear-weapon states.

Nuclear Testing

The multilateral nuclear arms control agenda need not and should not end there. CTBT implementation and some serious movement toward a fissile material cutoff would very usefully complement the core arms control agenda laid out above, further stabilize nuclear arms relationships besides the one between Russia and the United States, and shore up the international consensus against proliferation, which is so important in gaining leverage to mobilize third countries to pressure proliferators.

When the CTBT came before the U.S. Senate in 1999, it fell 18 votes short of the two-thirds majority necessary for advice and consent. The outcome of that effort was a net negative, and it is better not to try a second vote than to fail so miserably again. The substantive case for CTBT, however, has only strengthened in the last 13 years.

The status quo policy on nuclear weapons testing amounts to an open-ended moratorium on U.S. testing, juxtaposed with similar moratoriums observed by the other NPT nuclear-weapon states, although not necessarily by India, Pakistan, or North Korea. The degree of consensus behind this de facto policy has only grown with time, even as bomb designers with experience in actual warhead design and testing retire from the weapons laboratories in droves. Only North Korea has tested in this century, and it has paid a rather high price for doing so.

It would be optimal that the CTBT enter into force to lock in the international norm against testing and thereby make it much more difficult for other countries to develop or modernize their arsenals without paying a major price for their decision. Testing is not needed to ensure the viability of today’s U.S. nuclear arsenal or a future U.S. arsenal. It cannot be justified on the basis of its importance in developing new and improved types of warheads because the case for new capabilities is weak. In addition, U.S. nuclear verification capabilities have detected the Indian, Pakistani, and North Korean nuclear tests—even the small, relatively unsuccessful ones—in the last 15 years and would be able to do so with high confidence for tests from those or other countries in the future. Verification capabilities are not airtight or perfect, but their limitations are not reason to oppose a test ban treaty, as any nuclear tests that these capabilities could not detect would be very unlikely to have military significance.

Moreover, the United States has learned more from nuclear testing than any other country, having conducted as many tests as the rest of the world combined. Why would the Senate not want to lock in the U.S. advantage and prevent others from closing the gap?

Fissile Material Production

The world remains awash in plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU), with enough in military and civilian stockpiles for 100,000 bombs. The world’s major powers are not presently making more fissile material for weapons purposes. That would seem to argue for an FMCT. Yet, because of the opposition of Pakistan, which, along with India, is increasing its stocks of fissile material, it has not been possible to pursue a cutoff treaty. It is time to look for a way around that roadblock.

Most forms of a possible FMCT would apply specifically to fissile material intended for weapons, but this classic version of an FMCT is not the only possibility. Having a huge loophole that would allow fissile material to be produced for some purposes even as it was banned for others would make the treaty less effective than it might be and greatly complicate the verification challenge. Thus, a second option would be a global ban on all production of fissile materials, including all forms of separated plutonium and HEU.

Just as it is possible to imagine a more sweeping FMCT, it is possible to imagine one that is narrower. To circumvent Pakistan’s obstruction of the process at the Conference on Disarmament, a bilateral U.S.-Russian treaty that prevented further production of HEU and plutonium for weapons purposes by those two countries would make sense by itself. It would help codify what already is a reality—neither country produces such materials today—while legitimating and practicing certain verification techniques. It might later be broadened to include more countries and non-weapons-related stocks of plutonium and HEU. Some would argue that this bilateral version of the treaty would be of minimal immediate benefit. That is true, but it would move things in the right direction and would require little effort to establish.[3]

A fourth concept worth considering would be a global moratorium on the production of fissile materials, rather than a formal treaty. This approach would retain the option of reconsidering the policy at some specified future date, perhaps one to two decades. It would have the advantage of not prejudging decisions about future naval reactors and the future economics of reactors burning plutonium as a fuel. It could also take the pressure off decision-makers who, given the complexity of the subject, might not realistically feel comfortable anytime soon committing to a permanent accord banning the production of all HEU and separated plutonium.


This article has highlighted the prospect of enhancing U.S. and global security by a new U.S.-Russian nuclear arms reduction agreement, a cooperative NATO-Russian missile defense arrangement, initial steps to multilateralize the nuclear arms reduction process, progress toward bringing the CTBT into force, and first steps at ending the production of fissile materials for weapons. Yet even if Washington cannot move at the same pace in each of these areas, a major new U.S.-Russian nuclear arms reduction treaty makes sense. It would capture all nuclear weapons, including nonstrategic ones, for the first time. It would cut the U.S. and Russian arsenals by some 50 percent. It should be accompanied by efforts to persuade other states with nuclear weapons to agree not to expand their arsenals.

Such a treaty offers majors advantages. It would make the United States and the world safer. It would save money. It would increase U.S. leverage in mobilizing pressure against nuclear proliferators in the years ahead while taking an important step to reduce the prospects of a worsening U.S.-Chinese strategic rivalry. It would help move the world a step closer to nuclear zero without rushing to such an outcome or, counterproductively, trying to determine the feasibility of that goal prematurely. There is a nuclear arms control opportunity for Obama, the United States, Russia, and the world. They should seize it.

Steven Pifer is director of the Brookings Arms Control Initiative. Michael O’Hanlon is director of research for the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. They are the authors of The Opportunity: Next Steps in Reducing Nuclear Arms (2012), from which this article is adapted.


1. Dmitry Medvedev, Statement regarding NATO’s missile defense system in Europe, November 23, 2011,

2. International Panel on Fissile Materials, “Global Fissile Material Report 2011,” January 2012, pp. 4-7,; Daryl Kimball and Tom Collina, “Nuclear Weapons: Who Has What at a Glance,” Arms Control Association, November 2012,; Heather Timmons and Jim Yardley, “Signs of an Asian Arms Buildup in India’s Missile Test,” The New York Times, April 20, 2012.

3. David Cortright and Raimo Vayrynen, Towards Nuclear Zero (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2010), pp. 131-132.