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On Nukes, Senate Should Not Tie President's Hands
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Volume 4, Issue 14, November 20, 2013

The National Defense Authorization Act (S. 1197) is on the Senate floor, and there may be debate on how much latitude the President should have when seeking to reduce excess U.S. nuclear forces. Some will argue that any future nuclear reductions can only occur via a formal treaty; others will counter that informal approaches should also be an option. There is an obvious, bipartisan answer: Current and future presidents should have as much flexibility as previous presidents, both Republicans and Democrats.   

Unfortunately, some Republicans are seeking to take this flexibility away from President Obama. Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Deb Fischer (R-NE) have offered a "sense of congress" amendment (2136) that additional reductions "should only be pursued through mutual negotiated agreement with the Russian Federation." Similarly, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) has expressed concern that the administration has not definitively pledged that "militarily significant reductions to the U.S. nuclear arsenal would only be carried out through a treaty subject to the advice and consent of the Senate."

It is understandable that senators want to protect their right under the constitution to approve or disapprove treaties. But that is not the issue here. According to Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), ranking member on the Foreign Relations committee, the State Department has "affirmed the Senate's role in any future negotiations with Russia." But Sens. Lee, Fischer and Rubio appear to want to go beyond that and stop any U.S. reductions outside of a treaty. They are reaching too far.

Presidents from both parties have sought to protect their flexibility to pursue arms reductions without a treaty when the circumstances and U.S. national security warrant doing so. If the Senate adds language to the defense bill to restrict White House flexibility on this matter, the President would likely veto the bill. The two previous Republican administrations would not likely have allowed such constraints, either.

Bush Administrations Had Flexibility, Too

Treaties may be the preferable way to effect mutual nuclear arms reductions, but they are not the only way. In addition to formal bilateral treaties (such as the 2010 New START treaty), the United States has used informal measures. The primary examples of the latter are President George H.W. Bush's bold Presidential Nuclear Initiatives in 1991 to remove thousands of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from forward deployment as the Soviet Union began to break apart. Days later, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev reciprocated, reducing the risk that these weapons would fall into the wrong hands. No formal treaty was ever negotiated or signed, nor did the administration seek the approval of Congress. In this case, the need for expediency outweighed the benefits of a legally binding agreement.

Even in the case of the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT, or the "Moscow Treaty"), President George W. Bush initially set out to reduce U.S. forces without a formal agreement. As he said in 2001: "We don't need an arms control agreement to convince us to reduce our nuclear weapons down substantially, and I'm going to do it."

However, Russian President Putin wanted a formal treaty, as did the U.S. Senate, and President Bush changed his mind. Nevertheless, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2002 that, "We would have made these cuts regardless of what Russia did with its arsenal." "We're making [the reductions] not because we signed the treaty," he explained, "but because the transformation in our relationship with Russia means that we do not need as many deployed weapons as we once needed."

Ultimately, both Bush presidencies reduced U.S. nuclear forces by roughly 50 percent each, using formal and informal means.

By comparison, President Obama's planned and proposed reductions are modest. By 2018, New START will reduce the deployed U.S. strategic arsenal by about 400 warheads, a 10 percent reduction from the overall stockpile (strategic and tactical, deployed and in storage) of about 5,000 warheads. President Obama's June proposal to reduce strategic warheads by an additional 500 or so would increase his reductions to 20 percent, still a far lower percentage than previous administrations.

In response to President Obama's June proposal, 24 Senate Republicans wrote a letter to the White House stating: "It is our view that any further reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal should only be conducted through a treaty subject to the advice and consent of the Senate."

This position is at odds with the view that 71 Senators expressed just three years ago. The Senate's resolution of ratification for New START states that "further arms reduction agreements obligating the United States to reduce or limit the Armed Forces or armaments of the United States in any military significant manner may be made only pursuant to the treaty-making power of the President..." (emphasis added)

This December 2010 formulation does not rule out the option of nuclear reductions in the absence of a formal agreement.

First, an informal U.S.-Russian understanding that each side would reduce its nuclear forces would not be a legally binding agreement and is therefore not an obligation subject to congressional approval. Second, the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have already determined that one-third of the U.S. strategic nuclear warheads now deployed are in excess of military requirements. Thus, such a reduction would not have a militarily significant impact.

Moreover, in an attempt to cast doubt on further negotiated nuclear reductions with Russia, some congressional Republicans also claim that Moscow is not complying with some of its treaty obligations, such as the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. However, recent Pentagon and State Department reports reveal no evidence of Russian noncompliance with the INF Treaty. At the same time, Russia is said to be in full compliance with New START.

Giving Russia a Veto

Congress should not restrict the President's options to reduce excess nuclear arsenals in a stable and verifiable way. If the Obama administration were limited to reducing U.S. nuclear forces in a treaty with Russia, this would effectively give Moscow veto power over what must be a U.S. prerogative. While it may be better to reduce in tandem with Russia, there are good reasons to lead by example, as President Bush did in 1991.

For its part, Russia will be hard pressed to maintain New START levels unless it accelerates its own expensive modernization of aging nuclear delivery systems. According to the latest report required by New START, Russia now deploys 1,400 deployed strategic warheads--150 below the New START ceiling and 280 below the U.S. deployed strategic warhead level. Rather than induce Russia to build up, it is in the security and financial interests of both countries to eliminate excess strategic nuclear forces.

The U.S. leadership has already determined that the United States has more nuclear weapons than its needs to deter nuclear attack against the United States and our allies. Given the budget crisis, the administration could redirect funds to higher priority defense needs by reducing excess nuclear forces. Enhancing U.S. security in this way should not have to wait for Russian approval.

Significant budget savings can be achieved even if the United States stays at New START levels. By matching delivery systems more closely with a smaller stockpile of nuclear warheads, the United States could save $59 billion over the next decade, primarily by buying fewer strategic submarines and delaying new long-range bombers.

Further U.S. reductions would also improve the international consensus to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and enhance cooperation to address the threats from North Korea and Iran, and put pressure on other states--including China--to join in the reduction process.

New START already provides a solid framework for verification and monitoring through intrusive inspection and data exchanges. Deeper, mutual reductions in deployed strategic nuclear weapons can be achieved through reciprocal actions made on the basis of the best national interests of each country.

As George Shultz, Bill Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn wrote in March: "A global effort is needed to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons, prevent their spread, and ultimately end them as a threat to the world. It will take leadership, creative approaches and thoughtful understanding of the perils of inaction."

The White House needs flexibility to lead and be creative--a one-size-fits-all approach will not cut it. We must not let process and politics get in the way of the substance: reducing nuclear dangers and increasing U.S. security.--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. Daryl G. Kimball is ACA's executive director.