White House weighs nuclear arms cuts, but will wait for more talks with Russia

The Obama administration is contemplating further cuts to the nation’s nuclear arsenal, but any decision about potential reductions is unlikely until Russia and the United States can resume negotiations after both countries hold presidential elections this year, defense officials and analysts said Tuesday.

The Associated Press reported that the administration is weighing options for potentially deep cuts in the number of deployed long-range nuclear weapons, including the possibility of dipping to as low as 300 to 400 warheads. That would be the lowest number since the early days of the Cold War.

Under the New START pact with Russia that went into effect last year, both sides are limited to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads.

Administration officials declined to comment on specific options under consideration, saying they were classified.

George Little, a Pentagon spokesman, said Obama had asked the Defense Department to “develop several alternative approaches to deterrence and stability,” which could potentially reshape the size of the nuclear arsenal. Administration officials said the options were still under review and had not yet been presented to Obama.

Three months after he became president in 2009, Obama delivered a speech in Prague in which he described his vision for a world free of nuclear weapons. Although his administration later negotiated New START with Russia, the cuts involved were relatively modest.

Ellen Tauscher, a senior State Department arms-control official, said last month that the administration was eager to resume another round of nuclear talks with Russia but that negotiations would have to wait until next year, after presidential elections in both countries.

“We want to get back to the table with the Russians,” she told the Defense Writers Group on Jan. 12. “We frankly need these elections to pass in order to have the conditions where both sides can make these kinds of decisions to go to the table.”

The United States and Russia together control more than 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. Both countries are confronting escalating costs just to maintain the safety and security of their warheads, even as their cumulative value as a threat deterrent recedes.

“The United States does not need nearly as many weapons as it currently has,” said Stephen Young, a senior analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, which advocates for a smaller global nuclear stockpile. “It entirely makes sense for the administration to look at a wide range of options, including very deep cuts.”

Some Republicans, however, argue that big cuts could unsettle U.S. allies and embolden enemies.

Craig Whitlock covers the Pentagon and national security. He has reported for The Washington Post since 1998.
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