Last year in South Korea, President Barack Obama declared that “[t]he massive nuclear arsenal we inherited from the Cold War is poorly suited for today’s threats, including nuclear terrorism.” He noted that his administration is reviewing U.S. nuclear strategy but that we can “already say with confidence that we have more nuclear weapons than we need.”
Nevertheless, the administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) Implementation Study has not been finalized. U.S. and Russian negotiators have not begun talks on pursuing further reductions of their arsenals, which comprise 90 percent of global nuclear stockpiles.
Now, with the 2012 election behind him, it is time for Obama to jump-start action toward significantly deeper U.S. and Russian nuclear reductions.
To begin, he should finalize the NPR study and announce that the United States has adopted a saner, “nuclear deterrence only” strategy that eliminates outdated targeting assumptions from the Cold War that call for “prevailing” in a nuclear war.
The review should call on the Pentagon to remove a significant number of U.S. weapons from prompt-launch status, a condition that Obama said in 2008 is “a dangerous relic of the Cold War” and “increase[s] the risk of catastrophic accidents or miscalculation.”
When he meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in June, Obama should announce that he is prepared to begin formal talks on a follow-on agreement to the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). Such a treaty should lead not only to deeper reductions in deployed strategic arsenals, but also to verifiable cuts of the two countries' nondeployed warheads and new accounting measures and confidence-building measures relating to tactical nuclear weapons, which should include the withdrawal of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from Europe.
With the recent cancellation of U.S. plans to station more-advanced missile interceptors in Europe, which Russia had cited as a potential threat to its strategic missile forces, Putin should be motivated to engage in nuclear arms reduction talks.
Because such negotiations will be complex and time consuming, however, Obama should declare that the United States is prepared to accelerate strategic reductions and cut U.S. deployments below New START levels, as Russia has already done. New START limits each country to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads on 700 missiles and bombers by 2018, but there is no reason to wait that long.
Even at New START levels, the number of U.S. and Russian warheads and the costly triad of missiles, submarines, and long-range bombers that carry them will far exceed what is necessary to deter nuclear attack from any current or future adversary.
Given that no country other than the United States and Russia deploys more than 300 nuclear weapons, Washington and Moscow can and should implement significant reductions to a level of just a few hundred deployed strategic warheads each. This should be done by formal treaty if possible, or if not, it should be pursued through reciprocal, parallel actions.
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 2012 Global Zero study whose authors include former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright and former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), now secretary of defense, argues for a U.S. force of 450 deployed and 450 nondeployed strategic nuclear weapons.
Even at these numbers, the destructive potential of these weapons poses a grave and unnecessary threat to global security. An analysis conducted in 2002 by Physicians for Social Responsibility shows that a Russian attack involving only 300 thermonuclear warheads hitting U.S. urban areas would kill 77 million Americans from blast effects and firestorms in the first half hour. A U.S. attack of similar size would have the same devastating impact on Russia.
Even a “limited” nuclear exchange would destroy national communications and transportation networks, public health and sanitation systems, and food distribution systems. In the months following this initial assault, tens of millions more would die from starvation, exposure, radiation poisoning, and infectious disease.
Each of the strategic missile submarines in the U.S. or Russian fleet is capable of triggering such a global disaster. The United States has 14 strategic nuclear-armed subs.
As a group of more than 70 countries recently said in a joint statement in Geneva, “The catastrophic effects of a nuclear weapon detonation, whether by accident, miscalculation or design, cannot be adequately addressed. All efforts must be exerted to eliminate this threat.”
In order to move closer to “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons” that he called for in Prague in 2009, Obama will need to act with far greater urgency and conviction.