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.