Defense & National Security

Obama’s Nuclear Cuts Could Prove Dangerous

The Department of Defense recently released the official figures of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile as of September 2009. Counting the strategic weapons we have now deployed—roughly 2,200—and the 500 tactical nuclear weapons we have—the United States has fewer overall nuclear weapons than at any time since the Eisenhower administration.

During the past 30 years, the United States has reduced its nuclear weapons by nearly 20,000, nearly ten times the total number of nuclear weapons we have deployed today. That is the extent of the progress we have made since President Reagan was inaugurated in January 1981.

President Bush 41 and President Bush 43 reduced nuclear weapons by over 16,000, following agreement on INF and START and the Moscow Treaty. And of course it was President Reagan, under a policy and strategy of “peace through strength”, that built-up America’s power and negotiated reductions in Soviet military power. It was that strength that made such nuclear weapons reductions possible.

Under Reagan’s leadership, the first treaty eliminating an entire class of nuclear weapons was signed—the Intermediate Forces Treaty or INF in 1987. Thousands of Soviet SS-20 warheads aimed at Western Europe and our East Asian allies, especially Japan, Taiwan and the Republic of Korea were eliminated.

But only after the United States, joined by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and supported by the Vatican, deployed hundreds of Pershing and ground-launched cruise missiles in Europe, over the violent protests of the Soviet Union and their $300 million nuclear-freeze campaign, did the Soviets cave.

Subsequently, the U.S. and the Soviet Union signed the first START treaty which reduced nuclear weapons from around 12,000 deployed weapons to 6,000. Although the START II treaty was signed by President Bush and Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1992, it was never approved in the same form by the Russian Duma and the U.S. Senate, so it languished.

However, President Bush 43 created a flexible arms-control process with the treaty of Moscow or SORT, Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, which brought U.S. deployed weapons down to 2,200 but let us significant and flexible room for reconstitution should the security situation so require it.

And that is where we are today. For those critics who see the U.S. as having failed to “lead the way” toward reductions in nuclear weapons, the deployed and reserve weapons stockpile numbers are proof that the U.S. has, even before the new START treaty just signed by the U.S. and Russia is implemented, fulfilled its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, which the countries of the world are meeting to discuss now in New York.

These figures confirm that President Bush 41 reduced our tactical nuclear weapons by over 90% at the end off the Cold War, and encouraged Russia to do the same. Moscow never complied with the terms off this “informal” agreement. Now the U.S. is faced with a Russia armed with over 5,000 tactical nuclear weapons, unconstrained by any treaty.

Unfortunately, like all the strategic nuclear-weapons reduction treaties before it, the New START treaty leaves unsettled the question of the huge Russian advantage in such weapons, which further calls into question the security of our European allies on whose soil many of these weapons are targeted. America’s stockpile has certainly been reduced sharply over the past 30 years, but there is no question that our robust, effective and strong nuclear deterrent led to the nuclear agreements we signed with the Soviets and then the Russians, and the resulting remaining force that was sufficient to maintain deterrence.

The secretary of Defense has rightly brought attention to the prospects the U.S. faces with respect to our nuclear forces of the future. As he has counseled, the U.S. will need to maintain a nuclear deterrent for many years, although at a lower level of weapons than those we possessed at the height of the Cold War. He was concerned that the cost of replacing the 12 current Trident submarines—which now carry slightly more than half our nuclear deterrent—will cost some $84 billion. This does not count the cost of the 16-20 missiles per boat that have to be produced as well.

Given this cost, compared to $7 billion-$10 billion which would refurbish all 450 Minuteman missiles spread out over thousands of square miles in five of our Western and Great Plains states, we need to adopt a sound plan for future deterrent before we make irreversible decisions that may be costly to our security.

For example, pathways to growth not constrained by the new treaty may allow Russian advantages in the future, while U.S. capability to respond has been circumscribed. Russia will have 600 missiles and bombers and are allowed 700-800. The U.S. has 880 and is allowed 700-800. But before we start hacking away at our nuclear deterrent, we should keep our powder dry and keep all 450 Minuteman land-based missiles and the 12-14 Trident submarines until we know the shape of an uncertain future.

As recommended by a bipartisan group of six U.S. senators in an April 30 letter to the President, “The United States must make absolutely certain that we do not make any destabilizing choices as we make reductions…in today’s world, the ICBM force takes on an even greater importance as we have drawn down our nuclear force. With that in mind, we strongly urge you to maintain a robust and-based strategic nuclear deterrent force with 450 single-warhead ICBMs."

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