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Rightsizing the U.S. Nuclear Arsenal
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Jon B. Wolfsthal

Corrected online on November 5, 2013.

Completion of long-overdue new nuclear weapons employment guidance, announced by President Barack Obama on June 19 in Berlin, sets the stage for potentially significant reductions in deployed and reserve U.S. nuclear forces.

For several years and at great expense, the United States has maintained more nuclear weapons than it needs for deterring nuclear attack, reassuring allies, or carrying out any other conceivable military mission. Now, with the completion of the new guidance, the number of strategic deployed nuclear weapons required to carry out those missions has just dropped even further below current levels.

At the same time, it is becoming clearer that the costs of maintaining and replacing the aging U.S. nuclear triad are prohibitive. Although Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter recently stated that U.S. nuclear forces cost $16 billion a year,[1] the looming procurement costs for replacement systems could drive the 30-year price tag of the nuclear deterrent in the United States to about $1 trillion. Although some will always argue that more nuclear weapons are better regardless of how many the United States actually possesses, Obama’s new guidance makes clear that the United States is less reliant on nuclear weapons. This reality will drive down the arsenal’s size and its role in U.S. security in the years to come.

Obama set an ambitious nuclear agenda during his first term. The Prague speech in April 2009 reflected a need to change U.S. management of its own nuclear affairs as well as perceptions of the U.S. nuclear agenda around the globe. After a decade of controversy, restored U.S. leadership in nonproliferation and security arenas has enabled the United States to pursue a more effective and widely supported nonproliferation policy.

There is, however, understandable frustration that Obama’s vision has not yet translated into large-scale changes in U.S. nuclear weapons employment strategy. Every president in the nuclear age has been able to determine as commander-in-chief why the United States needs nuclear weapons and under what circumstance they might be used. From those strategic considerations, the national command structure determines the number of weapons required to carry out those missions. In turn, this informs possible arms control negotiations, force adjustments, and budgeting decisions.

Yet given the imminent expiration of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in late 2009, Obama decided that maintaining continuity in verification and arms reduction procedures with Russia was a priority, and he delayed developing and issuing new nuclear weapons employment guidance. In making the decision to postpone this process, Obama took the extraordinary step of relying on guidance issued by President George W. Bush in 2002 for the entirety of his first four years in office. No president, even when he was from the same party as his predecessor, has ever done this before, but this decision enabled the negotiation of New START in record time.

Once New START was ratified, the administration turned to the task of developing new guidance that would set U.S. nuclear policy for the remainder of the Obama presidency and beyond. Senior officials from the Department of Defense have confirmed publicly that, even under the old Bush guidance, it would have been possible to bring the U.S. arsenal below the New START level of 1,550 strategic deployed nuclear weapons. Now, however, new guidance that requires fewer nuclear weapons to implement has been completed. This decision reflects the reality that nuclear weapons are not as relevant to today’s threats as they were during the Cold War and its immediate aftermath.

This new guidance is now being translated into operational plans by the defense secretary and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It may take as long as 18 months to complete this process, meaning that the United States may be maintaining more weapons than needed for its security or that of its allies at considerable expense through 2014.

Yet according to Obama, this new guidance could permit the United States to bring its arsenal down to perhaps 1,000 strategic deployed warheads with no loss to its security. This has set the stage for dramatic reductions. Given other developments and Russia’s apparent lack of interest in pursuing bilateral reductions, however, it is notable that the guidance, which was developed and approved in conjunction with the Joint Chiefs and the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, appears to endorse the lower requirements regardless of whether Russia takes reciprocal steps to reduce its nuclear forces to that level. Whether Obama is prepared to take this step and stand up to the complaints of his adversaries remains to be seen.

Mixed Response

Public reception to the new guidance has been mixed. Those who favor maintaining a greater reliance on nuclear weapons want the president to commit to pursuing reductions only through a new negotiated treaty with Russia, even though many of these critics favored scuttling the U.S.-Russian treaty process during their service in the Bush administration.[2] In addition, they argue, the Obama administration has neglected U.S. nuclear weapons modernization, making further reductions unwise.

Those who believe the United States can greatly reduce its reliance on and numbers of nuclear weapons have criticized Obama for not moving more quickly in reducing the size of the force and for unnecessarily tying future reductions to Russian cooperation.[3] They maintain that Russia will not readily agree to new nuclear reductions as Russian President Vladimir Putin himself has indicated in word and deed.

These views appear to overlook the greater significance of the new guidance. To be sure, Obama could have made much deeper cuts more quickly. In particular, given the statement in the 2010 “Nuclear Posture Review [NPR] Report” that the “fundamental role of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack,” he could have rejected the Cold War process of letting the requirements of counterforce targeting, whereby the United States seeks to destroy a large part of Russia’s military and command structure, set the floor for reductions.

An alternative more consistent with the administration’s stated policy would have been to let the requirements of deterrence as determined by the president set the number of weapons required and have the Joint Chiefs of Staff use that force to approach the challenges of what to target should deterrence fail. The number of nuclear weapons required for deterrence is much lower than that needed for reassurance or counterforce targeting. If U.S. nuclear forces are to be further reduced at some point, this transition to deterrence-based requirements will have to be more thoroughly considered.

The bottom line is that Obama and his national security advisers have unanimously determined that the United States can make major cuts to its nuclear forces, perhaps even independent of Russian action. The endorsement of the cuts by the Joint Chiefs, the U.S. Strategic Command, and the civilian leadership of the Pentagon is crucial and helps rebut the voices from Obama’s political opponents that he should not be trusted to make such reductions. This support will be critical if Obama decides to act in the absence of a political agreement with Russia.

During development of the nuclear weapons employment guidance, a key question was how and when any such reductions, if they were possible, should be pursued. As stated in the 2010 NPR Report and again in a June report to Congress on the nuclear guidance, a key consideration is maintaining and strengthening strategic nuclear stability. In the words of the administration’s own documents, however, strategic stability no longer requires “numerical parity.”[4] This also was true for the Bush administration, which first broke from the Cold War mentality of requiring strict numerical parity under arms reduction agreements. Thus, the stage is set for independent action by Obama.

Downward Movement

The same concerns that dominate the debate outside government are keenly apparent inside. There is a strong desire inside the administration to keep the United States and Russia moving in a downward direction in terms of the numbers and missions of their nuclear forces. Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and senior advisers also recognize that, at a time when U.S.-Russian relations are again being tested, bilateral arms control negotiations and strategic discussions provide an important framework for cooperation and consultation.

Putin’s decision to grant asylum to former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden makes it all but impossible that the U.S. Senate would approve any negotiated treaty with Russia. The Snowden affair and other disagreements with Russia will make it difficult to begin a serious negotiation with Russia anytime soon.

As commander-in-chief, any president would reject the idea that his or her military decisions should be contingent on the approval of another country. Thus, Obama has done the right thing by not making Russian agreement a condition for future reductions. Although it would be preferable for Russia to agree, Russia clearly should not have a veto over the president’s actions as commander-in-chief. By stating his desire to further reduce U.S. nuclear forces and offering Moscow an opportunity to pursue those cuts with Washington, Obama has made clear his desire for continuing a bilateral reductions process. Yet, he has rightly reserved for himself the right to implement such reductions during the remainder of his term based on a careful assessment of U.S. strategic requirements, even if Russia does not do the same.

Similarly, it would be unwise for a president to say that he or she will pursue reductions only if the Senate approves. Although there is great value to working constructively with Congress to develop a consensus on U.S. nuclear affairs, the obstructionist tone of the New START debate unfortunately has proved to be the norm in this important bastion of statesmanship. Even if a new arms reductions treaty had been viable previously, the Snowden developments make approval of an arms treaty with Russia all but impossible.

The lack of a consensus on nuclear management is truly unfortunate. Claims by Obama’s political opponents that he has not fulfilled his commitments to fully fund the nuclear weapons modernization process are unfounded and have made clear the bitter opposition that almost any arms control measure is likely to face. Despite four straight years of increased requests for maintaining a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal, reversing years of decline during the Bush years, critics of Obama still claim that the executive branch is to blame for what they see as insufficient nuclear investments.

The Bush administration’s funding request for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s nuclear weapons budget in 2009 was $6.4 billion, down from its fiscal year 2005 request of $6.6 billion. By 2011 the Obama administration had requested $7 billion, and in fiscal year 2012, it asked Congress for $7.6 billion—all in a time of serious budget constraints. These numbers demonstrate that the Obama administration took the funding of the nuclear weapons complex more seriously than did its predecessor, facts that have yet to moderate the arguments of the president’s critics.

The Cost Factor

Even if the United States needed to maintain a nuclear triad containing more than 1,000 nuclear weapons, it is not clear that the costs of doing so will be politically or economically affordable. A forthcoming report by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies estimates the costs associated with operating and replacing the aging U.S. nuclear triad of land- and sea-based missiles and nuclear-capable aircraft over the next 30 years. Early results suggest the cost may be as high as $1 trillion. The initial costs of this looming procurement bow wave already are forcing the military to make trade-offs between nuclear and conventional capabilities, a tension that will grow as cost escalate.

Few dispute that the United States needs a strong and sustainable defense policy to address the real dangers it faces. Nuclear weapons, however, are almost irrelevant to many of those challenges and much less relevant than they were to the nuclear realities of the Cold War. Thus, expending scarce resources re-creating a Cold War nuclear triad at the expense of other priorities does not appear to serve broader U.S. security interests.

Obama’s new guidance is a necessary step in rightsizing U.S. nuclear forces. It sets the stage for further reductions in the country’s deployed and reserve nuclear force and has the backing of U.S. military and civilian defense officials. After four years in office, Obama is now prepared to put his stamp on U.S. nuclear forces, a step that is in many ways long overdue.



Jon B. Wolfsthal is deputy director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. From 2009 to 2012, he was special adviser to Vice President Joe Biden for nuclear security and nonproliferation issues.




1. Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), U.S. Department of Defense, “Remarks by Deputy Secretary of Defense Carter at the Aspen Security Forum at Aspen, Colorado,” July 18, 2013, http://www.defense.gov/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=5277.

2. Eric Edelman and Robert Joseph, “The Obama Administration’s Risky Disarmament Agenda,” The Washington Post, June 21, 2013.

3. Arms Control Association, “Statement on President Obama’s June 19 Address in Berlin on Eliminating Nuclear Weapons Threats,” June 19, 2013 http://www.armscontrol.org/pressroom/Statement-on-Pres-Obama-Address-in-Berlin-on-Eliminating-Nuclear-Weapons-Threats.

4. U.S. Department of Defense, “Report on Nuclear Employment Strategy of the United States,” June 12, 2013, http://www.defense.gov/pubs/ReporttoCongressonUS NuclearEmploymentStrategy_Section491.pdf.

Posted: September 4, 2013