Taking another shot at cutting nukes

Walter Pincus
Reporter June 26, 2013

President Obama wants the number of deployed U.S. strategic nuclear warheads reduced from the 1,550 limit set by the 2010 treaty with Russia to closer to 1,000, depending on an agreement with that country.

In a June 19 speech in Berlin, Obama said: “After a comprehensive review, I’ve determined that we can ensure the security of America and our allies, and maintain a strong and credible strategic deterrent, while reducing our deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third. And I intend to seek negotiated cuts with Russia to move beyond Cold War nuclear postures.”

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. View Archive

That review of the Nuclear Weapons Employment Strategy was only the third such study since the end of the Cold War. Led by the Defense Department, it included representatives from the departments of State and Energy (which builds the weapons), plus the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the National Security Council.

It led to a new presidential nuclear employment guidance under which the Strategic Command sets contingency nuclear targeting plans for the U.S. triad of delivery systems: strategic bombers, along with land-based and sub-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

In a report released June 12, Defense stated that the 2018 levels specified in the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty “are more than adequate for the United States to fulfill its national security objectives.” That left open the option of more cuts.

The president also wants to take some deployed ICBMs off constant alert. The White House, in a fact sheet released the day of the speech, said the president had directed the Defense Department “to examine and reduce the role of launch under attack [the phrase for constant alert] in contingency planning.”

Why? Because, as the White House said, “the potential for a surprise, disarming nuclear attack is exceedingly remote.” That’s because no country, including Russia, has the capability to knock out enough nuclear weapons to prevent the United States from responding with a more devastating nuclear counterattack to the enemy country.

For example, Russia or another country would have to have enough warheads to simultaneously hit all the nuclear-capable delivery systems allowed under the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty that will be in effect after 2018. That means probably 420 land-based ICBMs, along with 60 nuclear-equipped bombers and 12 strategic submarines, at least eight of which would be out to sea.

The “first strike” attack theory — which never could have been carried out — caused the United States and the Soviet Union to build up to 10,000 strategic nuclear warheads each during the Cold War. That’s what both are now reducing.

Nonetheless, according to the White House, the United States will still “retain a launch-under-attack capability” consistent with current and “more likely 21st-century contingencies.” In short, some nuclear-armed U.S. ICBMs will remain on alert but probably not all 420 deployed after 2018 under the president’s plan.

Keep in mind that by that time, Obama will no longer be president.

Conservatives have criticized Obama’s Berlin speech as naive and threatening to unilaterally disarm the United States.

On June 19, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.) said, “The president’s desire to negotiate a new round of arms control with the Russians, while Russia is cheating on a major existing nuclear arms-control treaty, strains credulity.”

McKeon’s panel has placed in the House-approved version of the fiscal 2014 Defense Authorization Bill language that would limit what the president can do about nuclear reductions.

For example, it would decrease money available to pay for cutting nuclear warheads aimed at the 2018 numbers; it also would keep “warm,” meaning available for missiles, some ICBM silos that would have to be destroyed under the new treaty. And it would prevent further warhead reductions below new START levels.

Obama has been taken to task by liberals who say he has not done enough, such as reducing the number of nukes in storage and eliminating some weapons altogether.

His plans call for continuing modernization of the B-61 nuclear bomb, which is carried by U.S. B-52 and B-2 strategic bombers, as well as by fighter bombers stationed in Europe. The White House fact sheet said it is up to the NATO alliance whether to keep B-61 tactical nuclear bombs in Europe.

The Arms Control Association wants to sharply reduce the B-61 modernization program, which could cost up to $10 billion.

The public doesn’t care much about nuclear weapons, and so any debate would primarily be between the two extremes.

I believe this is where the country is as summer begins:

On almost any topic — the budget, taxes, same-sex marriage, voting rights, abortion — issues make headlines for a day or so, and then it’s on to the next ones.

It’s not just Washington that’s dysfunctional, it’s the entire country.

Just weeks ago, the nation was told that the Internal Revenue Service was involved in the greatest U.S. scandal since Watergate. Then it was the Justice Department vs. the media.

Now it’s whether Edward Snowden is a whistleblowing hero or a traitor for exposing the National Security Agency’s program that collects and stores Americans’ phone numbers to be searched when a suspected foreign terrorist link is established.

Where is he hiding in Russia’s Sheremetyevo airport?

Just think of how the story would change if Snowden decided to return to the United States and fight the charges as a true whistleblower would.

No one would care about nuclear weapons or much else for months — unless a terrorist got one nuke and then . . .

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