President Obama devoted only one sentence to U.S. nuclear weapons in his recent State of the Union speech, which was filled with a long list of proposals for his second term. While he has a lot on his plate for the next four years, the time has come for a major overhaul of U.S. nuclear weapons policy.
The Cold War ended more than 20 years ago, but the United States still maintains some 5,000 nuclear weapons in its arsenal, with roughly 2,000 of these deployed on missiles or bombers. These weapons do nothing to prevent terrorist attacks, which are perhaps the greatest threat to U.S. security today. And the U.S. policy of targeting Russian nuclear weapons substantially increases the risk of our own total nuclear destruction.
Under the current New START agreement with Russia, both countries will reduce their deployed long-range arsenal to 1,550 weapons by 2017; the treaty leaves unconstrained the approximately 3,000 reserve weapons and short-range tactical weapons. Just one of these weapons could destroy much of a large city, while a few hundred would be enough to devastate much of the world.
According to news reports, the Pentagon has concluded that the United States can meet its security needs with fewer deployed weapons — perhaps 1,000.
But such a modest reduction would be much too timid, and not nearly enough to reduce nuclear dangers. The United States could easily cut its arsenal to a total of 1,000 nuclear weapons — including deployed and reserve, long-range and short-range — while maintaining an effective deterrent. This should be the basis of the next arms reduction agreement with Russia, and would be a prelude to constraining the nuclear arms of other states. But the United States should not wait for an agreement to make these sensible reductions.
Continuing to maintain more nuclear weapons than necessary for security is not only unwise, it’s a waste of taxpayer dollars. The annual U.S. budget for nuclear weapons systems is roughly $30 billion, and there are plans to spend much more. For example, the Obama administration has proposed replacing 12 nuclear-armed submarines in the coming decades; each will cost $30 billion over its lifetime. Defense dollars are needed to address real military threats, and in this era of budget cuts, it is especially foolhardy to spend tens of billions of dollars on unnecessary weapons.
Nuclear security is about more than numbers. Keeping U.S. land-based nuclear missiles on high alert so they can be launched in a matter of minutes is dangerous. This alert status could lead to an accidental or unauthorized attack, or one in response to a false warning of an incoming attack. Worse, this practice requires Russia to keep its land-based missiles on high alert to avoid a disarming blow by U.S. missiles.
Since a Russian nuclear attack is the only one that could destroy the United States as a functioning society, we are continuing to risk everything by clinging to this Cold War policy. Even if the probability of such an attack is small, the overall risk — the probability multiplied by the magnitude of the destruction — is still too high.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, candidate Barack Obama called attention to the dangers posed by the U.S. launch-on-warning policy, noting that they are unacceptably high. When he ran for president in 2000, George W. Bush also said the United States should “remove as many weapons as possible from high-alert, hair-trigger status.”
Both were right. Indeed, there is no reason to accept these dangers. A reliable and credible U.S. nuclear deterrent does not require the ability to retaliate immediately. It requires only the assurance that U.S. nuclear forces and command and control systems could survive and respond to an attack.
Both the size and alert levels of the U.S. arsenal are currently based on a war-fighting doctrine formulated during the Cold War that assumes the United States needs large numbers of nuclear weapons to destroy Russian nuclear weapons. Changing this dangerous and self-defeating doctrine is long overdue and would allow deeper reductions in U.S. weapons as well as a reduction in alert status.
President Obama now has the opportunity to take the next sensible steps to reduce the dangers of nuclear weapons. He should move aggressively to do so, and make this a priority for his last term.