Nuclear Weapons: Less Is More

Volume 3, Issue 10, July 9, 2012

In the coming weeks, following a long bipartisan tradition, President Barack Obama is expected to take a step away from the nuclear brink by proposing further reductions in U.S. and Russian arsenals. This would be a welcome step toward making the United States safer while redirecting defense dollars to higher priority needs.

It was President Ronald Reagan who, in 1986, shifted U.S. policy away from ever-higher nuclear stockpiles--which peaked at about 30,000 nuclear warheads--and started down the path of reductions that continues today. U.S. and Russian arsenals have now been reduced by more than two-thirds, and the world is safer for it.

U.S. Presidents Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush all contributed to reducing the nuclear threat. Within weeks, President Obama is expected to announce revisions to outdated U.S. nuclear deterrence requirements that would allow another round of U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpile reductions beyond those mandated by the 2010 New START treaty.

As President Obama said in March, "we have more nuclear weapons than we need. I firmly believe that we can ensure the security of the United States and our allies, maintain a strong deterrent against any threat, and still pursue further reductions in our nuclear arsenal."

Military, Bipartisan Support

President Obama's efforts to reduce excess nuclear weapons stockpiles have strong military and bipartisan support. In April, Gen. James Cartwright, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and commander of U.S. nuclear forces under President George W. Bush, called for reducing U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals by 80 percent from current levels. He wrote, along with other authors including former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), that the current U.S. and Russian arsenals "vastly exceed what is needed to satisfy reasonable requirements of deterrence."

In March 2011, former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry, and former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) wrote that, "Deeper nuclear reductions... should remain a priority," and that the United States and Russia, which led the buildup for decades, "must continue to lead the build-down."

Senator Carl Levin  (D-Mich.), chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in June: "I can't see any reason for having as large an inventory as we are allowed to have under New START, in terms of real threat, potential threat." He added, "The more weapons that exist out there, the less secure we are, rather than the more secure we are."

Today, it is clear that the United States can maintain a credible deterrent at lower levels of nuclear weapons than the 1,550 deployed strategic warheads allowed by New START. There is no reasonable justification today for such high numbers.

Decisions Expected Soon

President Obama and his National Security Staff are now considering options that could lead to major changes in the purpose, size and structure of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The current process--known as the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) Implementation Study--will also establish the basis for further nuclear arms reduction talks with Russia beyond New START.

The Obama administration outlined its approach to U.S. nuclear policy in its April 2010 NPR, which states that, "the fundamental role of U.S. nuclear forces is to deter nuclear attacks against the U.S. and our allies and partners." This is a major shift away from the Cold War-era strategy of "prevailing " in a nuclear war and using nuclear weapons to counter conventional military threats.

By signaling that the United States is prepared to accelerate reductions and go below New START ceilings, Washington could induce Moscow, which is already below New START levels, to rethink its plans to build up its forces, including a new long-range missile with multiple warheads. It could also eventually open the way for discussions with other nuclear-armed states to limit their stockpiles.

Further nuclear reductions would also help trim the high cost of maintaining and modernizing U.S. nuclear forces, which is estimated to cost $31 billion annually.

Nuclear Weapons Strategy, Deterrence, and "Overkill"

Unlike earlier post-Cold War reviews in 1994 and 2001, Obama's 2010 NPR suggests that deploying thousands of strategic nuclear weapons to perform a wide range of missions, including defending U.S. forces or allies against conventional and chemical attacks, is neither appropriate nor necessary for security and stability in the 21st century.

To truly put an end to outdated Cold War thinking, President Obama should:

  • Eliminate entire target categories from the current nuclear war plan, which now include a wide range of military forces, nuclear weapons infrastructure, and military and national leadership targets, and war-supporting infrastructure, mainly in Russia. These targeting assumptions were developed decades ago to deplete war-fighting assets rather than ensure there is a sufficient retaliatory capability to deter nuclear attack in the first place.
  • Direct war planners to discard old assumptions for how much damage must be accomplished to ensure that a target is destroyed. Current plans require hitting many targets with more than one nuclear weapon. 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.
  • Eliminate the practice of keeping nuclear weapons ready to launch within minutes. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama said the practice is "outdated" and "increases the risk of catastrophic accident or miscalculation." A reliable and credible U.S. nuclear deterrent does not require the ability to retaliate immediately if U.S. nuclear forces and command and control systems can survive an attack--and they can.

These and other changes would significantly reduce the number of targets and the number of nuclear weapons and delivery systems "required" to hit them.

Shifting to a more realistic, "nuclear deterrence only" strategy would allow for steep reductions in the number of strategic U.S. nuclear warheads (to 1,000 or fewer deployed and nondeployed) and the number of delivery vehicles (to 500 or less).

By the Numbers

During George H. W. Bush's four years in office, the total U.S. arsenal shrunk from about 22,200 weapons to 13,700--a 38 percent cut. In George W. Bush's eight years, the total U.S. arsenal dropped from about 10,500 weapons to just over 5,000--about 50 percent fewer.

Still, the U.S. and Russian arsenals remain by far the largest of any of the world's nuclear-armed states. Together the U.S. and Russia possess approximately 90% of all nuclear weapons.

Today, the U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles (not including warheads awaiting dismantlement) each exceed 5,000 nuclear bombs, any one of which could devastate Washington or Moscow.

As of March 1, 2012, the United States deployed some 1,737 strategic nuclear warheads and has approximately 500 operational tactical nuclear bombs, with an estimated 2,700 nondeployed warheads (i.e. warheads in reserve), putting the total number of active U.S. nuclear weapons at about 5,000.

Russia deploys some 1,492 strategic nuclear warheads, has an estimated 2,000 operational tactical nuclear bombs, and 2,000 in storage, for about 5,500 total.

Under New START each country is still allowed to deploy as many as 1,550 strategic nuclear weapons. Under current plans, thousands of additional warheads would be held in reserve.

Other than Russia, the only U.S. potential adversary with a significant nuclear arsenal is China, but Washington's arsenal of long-range strategic nuclear weapons outnumbers Beijing's by 30 to 1.

The Cost of Maintaining Nuclear Forces

Another factor the President and the Congress much consider is the significant cost of maintaining and modernizing U.S. nuclear forces.

According to a new study by the Stimson Center, U.S. spending on nuclear weapons is approximately $31 billion per year and the projected costs for maintaining and modernizing the current U.S. nuclear force will amount to hundreds of billions in the coming decade.

During the 2003 Senate hearings on the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell noted: "We have every incentive to reduce the number [of nuclear weapons]. These are expensive. They take away from soldier pay. They take away from [operation and maintenance] investments. They take away from lots of things. There is no incentive to keep more than you believe you need for the security of the Nation."

Within the next couple of years, key decisions must be made regarding costly, long-term strategic submarine and bomber modernization programs.

The Navy is seeking 12 new nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines to carry more than 1,000 nuclear warheads into the 2070s, at a total lifecycle cost of almost $350 billion. The Air Force wants a new, nuclear-armed strategic bomber that would cost at least $68 billion, as well as a new fleet of land-based ballistic missiles that would cost billions more.

In July 2011, then-Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Cartwright explained that "... we have to recapitalize all three legs [of the nuclear triad], and we don't have the money to do it."

In January 2012, the Pentagon said it would delay procurement of the proposed Ohio-class replacement nuclear-armed submarine by two years, which could save some $6-7 billion in the next ten years. However, without a reduction in the size of the force, the overall cost of the program will remain the same, and take resources away from the Navy's other priority shipbuilding projects.

Significant cost reductions can only be achieved if Obama shifts U.S. nuclear policy and eliminates the current "requirements" for Cold War-sized nuclear forces. This would enable President Obama and the Congress to:

  • Reduce the total number of new strategic subs it plans to buy in the coming years. By delaying procurement of new replacement subs by two years as now planned, and by reducing the current Trident nuclear-armed sub fleet from 14 to eight or fewer boats, and building no more than eight new nuclear-armed subs, the United States could save roughly $18 billion over 10 years, and $122 billion over the 50-year lifespan of the program.
  • Delay spending on a new fleet of nuclear-capable strategic bombers. Given the Pentagon's plan to retain 60 of its existing nuclear-capable, long-range B-2 and B-52 bombers into the 2040s there is no rush to replace this capability. Delaying work on the new bomber program would save $18 billion over the next decade, according to the Pentagon.
  • Reduce the land-based strategic missile force from 420 to 300 by cutting one squadron at each of the three Air Force bases where such missiles are deployed and foregoing a follow-on missile program to replace the existing force, which can be maintained for years to come.

There is bipartisan support for such steps. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) proposed a plan in July 2011 outlining similar cuts to the nuclear force that he said would save $79 billion over the next ten years.

Fresh thinking is in order. The United States does not need and cannot afford oversized strategic nuclear forces. Programs that address low-priority threats can be scaled back to make room for more pressing national priorities and reduce the deficit.

By discarding outdated nuclear war plans, President Obama can open the way for lower U.S.-Russian nuclear force levels, enhance the prospects for mutual, verifiable reductions involving the world's other nuclear-armed states, and reduce the danger that nuclear weapons will be used ever again.--Daryl G. Kimball and Tom Z. Collina


The Arms Control Association (ACA) is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing information and practical policy solutions to address the dangers posed by the world's most dangerous weapons. ACA publishes the monthly journal, Arms Control Today