Cutting the U.S. nuclear arsenal can help cut the deficit

Walter Pincus
Reporter November 12, 2012

One way President Obama could help reduce the deficit is to trim funds planned for the next 10 years for building, maintaining and operating the U.S. nuclear weapons program.

That could save up to $100 billion over that period. Would it solve our deficit problem? No, but it would help. Such savings add up.

More than three years ago in Prague, Obama said that he wanted “to put an end to Cold War thinking . . . [and] reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.” He and Russian President Vladimir Putin took a first step when they signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty on April 8, 2010, in Prague. The Senate approved it that December.

It called for reducing, by 2018, the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550, and the number of deployed and non-deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and bombers to 800. It did not limit the number of non-deployed nuclear warheads or bombs; the United States has more than 2,500. Nor did it deal with shorter-range tactical nuclear weapons or cruise missiles.

One of the ironies in Obama’s negotiations with Republicans to get support for the treaty was his agreement to spend up to $200 billion to modernize the nuclear weapons manufacturing complex and build a new generation of strategic submarines, bombers and ICBMs that would last at least another 30 years. To cut nuclear weapons in the short run, he had to promise to be able to build more in the future. That also requires spending more than $150 billion over 10 years to operate and maintain them.

While Republicans have criticized Obama’s declaration in Prague that the United States seeks “a world without nuclear weapons,” they have left out what he added after the applause died. “I’m not naive,” he said. “This goal will not be reached quickly — perhaps not in my lifetime.”

The U.S. nuclear program bears that out.

As of Sept. 1, according to the State Department, the United States had 1,722 deployed warheads, 806 deployed ground- and sub-launched ICBMs and strategic bombers, and 228 non-deployed delivery systems. The Russians had far fewer: 1,499 deployed warheads, 491 deployed delivery systems and 393 non-deployed delivery systems.

The Cold War contest over who was stronger, based on strategic nuclear warheads, is over. As a new Rand Corp. report says, it is time “to rethink U.S. defense strategic direction.” While most of this thought-provoking study discusses defense reductions relative to ground, naval and air forces, it points out that “Russia is less and less a factor in the choice and pursuit of U.S. defense strategy or in U.S. defense spending.”

It also describes Russia’s nuclear forces as in “decline . . . which it is trying to arrest.”

China, the report says, is different. “Its goals, strategy, and conduct will increasingly constrain U.S. choices and shape U.S. defense requirements,” Rand notes.

But China has only 50 ICBMs that can reach the United States; most of its 250 or so nuclear-armed missiles are shorter-range, with many aimed at Taiwan. Its handful of submarines capable of launching missiles are also short-range, though ones that could hit the United States are expected within two years.

Apart from China and Russia, according to the nonprofit Arms Control Association, “no other nuclear-armed country has the ability to deliver nuclear weapons on ballistic missiles that can reach the United States. North Korea’s arsenal is limited in size (it has enough fissile material for about 10 bombs) and range.”

The cold fact is that during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, both U.S. and Soviet leaders feared the use of a single nuclear weapon. Robert McNamara, defense secretary at the time, told me later that he always thought 500 nuclear weapons was enough, even when Moscow had thousands.

So why do we need 1,000 or more warheads? Why have three types of delivery systems — the triad of subs, bombers and land-based missiles — that all need to be modernized? Originally, the triad was meant to deter a first strike by the Soviets — an attack that we now know they never contemplated and never could have executed.

Cold War thinking is the only justification for the United States having more than McNamara’s preferred 500 weapons. They are terror weapons, used more for political and diplomatic prestige than for war.

If we cut the numbers of nukes, we could reduce the triad to a duo — bombers and sub-launched delivery systems — and eliminate land-based ICBMs.

Twenty-one years ago, President George H.W. Bush unilaterally announced the elimination of thousands of land-based tactical nuclear weapons stationed in Europe and an end to the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons on surface ships, attack submarines and land-based naval aircraft. Billions had been spent over the years on such weapons, but there were never real plans for how to use them. Most have since been dismantled, and the United States is no weaker.

Obama has a chance to do a reduction, too — not to zero, or even close. But he could take a major step to 500.

The purpose of U.S. nuclear forces is “to deter nuclear attacks not only on our own country but also on our forces overseas, as well as on our friends and allies,” according to President Jimmy Carter’s declassified July 25, 1980, presidential directive on “Nuclear Weapons Employment Policy.”

The U.S. stockpile does not deter terrorists, nor Iran in its quest for a weapon. Obama is free to drop the requirements for nuclear targeting, and he should. The United States needs only numbers that maintain nuclear deterrence.

His presidential guidance is due shortly. This year, it not only could deter nuclear war, it could help keep us from going over the fiscal cliff.

To read previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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