Obama's Turn on Nuclear Weapons

The White House and its Warheads

When U.S. President Barack Obama took to the podium during a rare visit to the Pentagon early last month, he announced a new strategy for the country's military posture abroad. The United States would shift from being able to fight two major wars simultaneously to increasing its focus on Asia. But the president also explained that reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal would be key to future defense: "We will continue to get rid of outdated Cold War-era systems," he said, "so that we can invest in the capabilities we need for the future."

Policy, meet budget. After having been separated for a decade, as the Pentagon operated essentially free from fiscal considerations, the two have been reunited in Washington's new age of austerity. On nuclear weapons, that fact should work in Obama's favor. In his first major foreign policy speech, delivered in Prague in April 2009, he vowed to "put an end to Cold War thinking" and "reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy and urge others to do the same." Obama negotiated the New START agreement with Russia, which both countries signed a year later. It lowered the ceiling for deployed U.S. and Russian strategic warheads by 30 percent and restored reciprocal inspections, vital to verifying the reductions. Obama also oversaw a Nuclear Posture Review, which formalized his Prague goals as policy.

But in the past year, Republican opponents and a resistant nuclear bureaucracy have stymied further progress. Contracts raced ahead of policy -- Congress pushed through budgets to develop a new generation of nuclear arms before the president and the Pentagon could agree on the specifics of the new course. Unless this is reversed, in the coming decade Washington may actually spend more on the country's nuclear weapons programs than it has in the past. If the president wants to reduce the country's costly nuclear weapons burden he now has a chance. Last summer, as part of the April 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, the Pentagon started compiling a new, highly classified report with options for the structure and size of the nuclear force -- how it is composed, who and what it targets, and whether it continues to be postured to launch a devastating first strike on multiple states. 

Now, the National Security Council staff at the White House is working with the Defense Department and other agencies to further shape policy options for the president's consideration. The package will likely be ready for him this month. Whatever Obama decides will then be codified in a presidential policy directive that will form the basis of the country's new strategic nuclear war plan. Since the end of the Cold War, every U.S. president has done this once. This is Obama's turn.

Most observers have not expected much from this process. Amy Woolf, a nuclear weapons analyst at the Congressional Research Service, told a Washington audience last month that "any changes you see now are going to be modest." Russia is waiting to see if Obama is re-elected before committing to any new negotiated reductions. The president's political advisers also want protection during an election year -- when national security issues traditionally skew rightward -- and hesitate to give his opponents any fodder for the "weak and naive" meme. Finally, there are far more entrenched officials and contractors that benefit from the sprawling nuclear complex than officials who believe in the president's stated vision. To put it simply, Obama has let the bureaucracy suffocate his plan to move step by step toward, as he said in Prague, "the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons."

Although modesty may reign, there will likely be some options for deep cuts in the arsenal. These flow from the consensus formed in recent years among the core of America's security elite -- one that underpinned the Obama vision of 2009 -- that the United States has room to cut. Undersecretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy echoed this view at the Pentagon last month, when she said, "We can maintain deterrence at lower levels of forces." Senator Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, went further, telling reporters last month, "Nuclear weapons are way overdone, we have way more than are needed to carry out their mission." The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, conducted by the Defense Department, reported that "the massive nuclear arsenal we inherited from the Cold War era of bipolar military confrontation is poorly suited to address the challenges posed by suicidal terrorists and unfriendly regimes seeking nuclear weapons."

Ever since President Dwight Eisenhower, U.S. presidents upon taking office have asked the same question: Why does the country need so many nuclear weapons? The short answer is targeting. Current guidance requires the U.S. military to be prepared at any moment to unleash a first strike against targets in five countries: Russia, China, Iran, Syria, and North Korea. This thinking dates back to the targeting guidance developed by the Defense Department in the 1950s. The 1974 guidance, the most recent to be de-classified, details in 18 pages the types of facilities to be destroyed, including nuclear weapons and bases, conventional military installations, military and civilian command-and-control centers, and political and economic resources. In 1974, this included training "at least one weapon on an industrial facility in the top 250 urban areas in the Soviet Union and in the top 125 urban areas in the People's Republic of China," so as "to prolong their post-war recovery." This is the strategy that justifies the approximately 5,000 weapons in the U.S. arsenal today.

Here is where the budget squeeze could give nuclear reductions a new impetus. Current nuclear policy is very expensive. Each leg of the United States' nuclear triad -- long-range missiles, bombers, and submarines -- is reaching the end of its expected operational life. The Pentagon estimates that the U.S. Navy will have to spend $350 billion to build and operate a new fleet of 12 nuclear-armed submarines that it plans to slip into the water starting around 2030. The Office of Management and Budget recommended last December that the Navy build only ten, and some outside experts have suggested that eight would suffice. But the Navy argues that since submarines need time to get to and from port and undergo routine maintenance, it needs at least 12 subs to keep five on station at all times. Why would the Navy have to keep five of these new subs (two in the Atlantic and three in the Pacific), each with 16 missiles carrying up to eight nuclear warheads apiece, at sea ready to fire? Because the current nuclear policy guidance says it must.

That need not be the case. Obama could rewrite those policies to shrink the target list, eliminate the need to launch weapons in minutes, and make other common-sense improvements. For example, by dropping the requirement to launch approximately 1,000 weapons at targets within 20 minutes, he could reduce the number of submarines required on station, allowing for a secure submarine force of eight boats. That would save $20 billion over ten years and $120 billion over the life of the program. Delaying the new strategic bomber would save $18 billion over ten years, and canceling it, $68 billion over 20 to 30 years. Reducing the current arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles from 420 to 300 would save billions more, although no one is sure how much, because the government has never done what most businesses do routinely -- that is, cost out the options. 

Whatever Obama decides will remain secret. But the results will speak for themselves in budget submissions, program schedules, and whether the United States accelerates reductions required under the New START treaty. Rightsizing the nuclear force would strengthen U.S. global leadership, enhance the country's ability to deter new nuclear weapon states, accelerate efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism, and greatly reduce the danger of the use of nuclear weapons from miscalculation, misunderstanding, or accident. It would make us all safer. More than budget decisions, these are fundamental security issues that tell the world a great deal about U.S. leadership, intentions, and values. Updating the nuclear posture from that of the Cold War era could be one of the most lasting legacies of the Obama presidency. He has already made promises; the time has come to deliver on them.

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