Senior Obama administration officials have agreed that the number of nuclear warheads the U.S. military deploys could be cut by at least a third without harming national security, according to those involved in the deliberations.
Such a reduction would open the door to billions of dollars in military savings, which might ease the federal budget deficit. It also would improve prospects for a new arms deal with Russia before President Barack Obama leaves office, those involved said, but it’s likely to draw fire from conservatives, if previous debate on the issue is any guide.
The results of the internal review haven’t been announced, but they’re reflected in a proposed classified directive prepared for Obama’s signature that details how U.S. nuclear weapons should be targeted against potential foes, according to four people with direct knowledge of the document’s content. The sources, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to talk to a reporter about the review, described the president as fully on board, but said he hasn’t signed the document.
The document directs the first detailed Pentagon revisions in U.S. targeting since 2009, when the military’s nuclear war planners last took account for the substantial shrinkage – roughly by half from 2000 to 2008 – in the number of nuclear weapons in the American arsenal. It makes clear that an even smaller nuclear force can still meet all defense requirements.
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The officials said Obama’s advisers had reached their consensus position last year, after a review that included the State Department, the Defense Department, the National Security Council, the intelligence community, the U.S. Strategic Command, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the office of Vice President Joe Biden.
Participants said the results weren’t disclosed at the time, partly because of concerns that any resulting controversy might affect Obama’s re-election hopes. Some Republican lawmakers have said they oppose cutting the arsenal out of concern that it might diminish America’s standing in the world.
Under the new policy, the U.S. would target fewer, but more important, military or political sites in Russia, China and several other countries.
Obama first adopted a policy to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in 2010, explaining in a Defense Department report that they’re “poorly suited to address the challenges posed by suicidal terrorists and unfriendly regimes seeking nuclear weapons.”
Much of the policy has yet to be implemented, but with the election behind him and a new national security team selected, Obama finally is prepared to send this new guidance to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and to open a new dialogue with Russia about corresponding reductions in deployed weapons, according to two senior U.S. officials involved in the deliberations.
One of the officials said the review’s conclusions very likely would become public in coming weeks, possibly during the president’s State of the Union address Tuesday night or in a speech this spring dedicated to the subject.
While the draft directive opens the door to scrapping a substantial portion of the U.S. arsenal, it doesn’t order those reductions immediately or suggest that they be undertaken unilaterally, the officials said. Instead, the administration hopes to negotiate an addendum to the 2010 New START treaty with Russia in the form of a legally binding agreement or an informal understanding. Officials said the latter path might be chosen if gaining the assent of two-thirds of the Senate to a treaty weren’t possible.
Preliminary discussions about such an addendum occurred Feb. 2 in Munich between Vice President Biden and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Additional talks are expected later this month, when acting Undersecretary of State Rose Gottemoeller and White House national security adviser Thomas Donilon visit Moscow.
National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor declined to comment Wednesday on the draft directive.
The New START treaty limits each side to deploying no more than 1,550 strategic nuclear weapons by 2018, but it uses a counting rule that pretends strategic bombers carry only a single warhead each, instead of up to 20. The actual arsenals after the treaty takes effect are likely to be closer to 1,900, a number that Obama’s advisers now think is too high.
New START also imposes no limits on nuclear weapons in each country that are held in storage or are considered of “tactical” or short-range use, a number that independent experts estimate as roughly 2,700 in the United States and 2,680 in Russia. Under the new deal envisioned by the administration, Russia and the United States would agree not only to cut deployed warhead levels below 1,550 – to between 1,000 and 1,100 – but also, for the first time, to begin limiting the number of tactical weapons as well.
Several officials said that as a result, the total number of U.S. nuclear warheads could shrink to fewer than 3,500 and perhaps as low as 2,500, or a bit more than half the present arsenal, without harming security or requiring a major reconfiguration of missiles or bombers.
A much steeper reduction, to around 500 warheads total, was debated within the administration but rejected, the officials said. Known as the “deterrence only” plan, it would have aimed U.S. warheads at a narrower range of targets related to the enemy’s economic capacity and no longer emphasized striking the enemy’s leadership and weaponry in the first wave of an attack.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, argued that such a major policy change would be too risky at a moment of upheaval in conventional military strategy and would create too much uncertainty among allies.
The financial savings from even the modest reduction now contemplated might be substantial, according to officials and independent experts.
Already, to comply with New START, the Pentagon has been pulling warheads from land-based missiles and making plans to decommission some of the missiles itself; it’s also planning to reduce the number of missile tubes aboard its Trident submarines.
By pushing the arsenal size even lower, the Pentagon could close perhaps two of its three land-based missile wings and cut at least two of the 12 new strategic submarines it plans to build, saving $6 billion to $8 billion for each one. Eliminating a single wing of 150 missiles would save roughly $360 million a year, or $3 billion over a decade, according to Tom Collina, the research director at the Arms Control Association, a nonprofit research group in Washington.
Three participants in the targeting policy review said Russia remained the sole U.S. target that might require a large number of nuclear warheads to achieve the damage that military planners deemed adequate.
Other nuclear targets include China, North Korea and Iran, officials have said. But the list of predictable enemies has been shrinking steadily: Iraq was once on the list – as recently as 1997, the Defense Department studied radioactive fallout-distribution patterns from a potential U.S. attack there – but it now poses no threats, and Syria – another perennial listee – is in the midst of imploding and unable even to muster a response to Israel’s recent bombing of an arms factory in its capital.
Russian arms reductions also make U.S. targeting revisions feasible now, according to Hans Kristensen, a nuclear arms expert at the Federation of American Scientists, a national and international security research center. A decade ago, the U.S. military was targeting 660 Russian missile silos with multiple warheads, Kristensen said; now the Russians have fewer than half that number and will have only 230 in a decade. Several officials also pointed out that Russia presently fields a smaller and weaker conventional military force than it once did, also allowing U.S. targeting to be scaled back.