Opinion: U.S. should reduce its nuclear arsenal

February 25, 2013


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.

— Richard Garwin, a physicist who helped develop the first U.S. hydrogen bomb, has served as a security adviser to several administrations. Lisbeth Gronlund is a senior scientist and co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Readers may write to them at: Union


Ron Holzwarth 2 years, 6 months ago

Isaiah Chapter 2, verse 4: "they shall beat their swords into plowshares"
Micah Chapter 4 verse 3: "they shall beat their swords into plowshares"

I've always thought of those verses as allegorically meaning that nuclear weapons would one day be decommissioned into fissile fuel for some sort of nuclear power plants to provide electricity for peaceful purposes. I have no idea how much electricity could be produced by utilizing the nuclear weapons that have been produced to date, but it certainly has to be a lot.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 2 years, 6 months ago

Seeking to enforce non-proliferation will remain a hypocritical joke until the US eliminates its own nuclear weapons stockpile.

jhawkinsf 2 years, 6 months ago

Signatories to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty receive significant trade advantages compared to those who are not members. If the U.S. did eliminate it's own nuclear weapons stockpile, would we also be in line for those trade advantages? If not, then that too would be hypocritical.

There is plenty of hypocrisy to go around. And it's certainly not limited to the U.S.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 2 years, 6 months ago

Yea, those trade advantages sure make a difference with Israel, N. Korea, India and Pakistan, don't they?

jhawkinsf 2 years, 6 months ago

North Korea, India and Pakistan cheated the system. As signatories to the treaty, they received the trade advantages and then developed nuclear arms anyway. Israel has never been a member of the treaty.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 2 years, 6 months ago

India and Pakistan never signed.

Israel consistently lied about its development of nuclear weapons, particularly to its main ally, the US. And it committed acts of war against signatories of the treaty to destroy their heavily inspected and therefore "peaceful" nuclear programs.

jhawkinsf 2 years, 6 months ago

By your very own definition, North Korea's facilities were heavily inspected and therefore "peaceful". What that only proves is that the inspection process is flawed and there is reason to believe that other flaws exist as well.

I believe that because there are presents under my Christmas tree every year that Santa must therefore exist. And I believe Iraq and Syria were developing "peaceful" nuclear facilities.

I do not believe that North Korea's nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. I do not believe that for either India or Pakistan. I don't believe it was true when Israel destroyed the nuclear ambitions of that peace loving Saddam or that other peace loving Assad. I don't believe Iran's current program is for peaceful purposes and I don't believe Israel's nuclear program is for peace either.

The question is, under what circumstances would any country use the nuclear weapons it currently possesses. Understandably, North Korea presents a huge question mark. The United States, not so much. Under what conditions we would use nuclear weapons is pretty much understood. Great Britain, France, Russia, China are all pretty much aligned with our position. India is probably closer to the U.S. position than Pakistan, which is probably why we keep Pakistan close to us, so we might maintain some control. For whatever you think of Israel, they have a 40+ year history of possessing nuclear weapons and not using them, even in times of war. Would we have been able to say the same thing for Saddam's Iraq or Assad's Syria had their programs been allowed to go forward? And then there is Iran. What will the ayatollahs do? That is the great unknown.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 2 years, 6 months ago

There are no rational situations in which nuclear weapons could be used. Therefore, rational countries don't need to have them.

jhawkinsf 2 years, 6 months ago

The combined populations of the 22 members of the Arab League is something like 400 million. Egypt alone has a population of about 90 million. Israel's population is less than 8 million, with about 20% of those being Arab.

The threat of the use of nuclear weapons (not the actual use), prevents one side from overwhelming the other, or at least making such an attempt. As bad as we all think the situation is now, it could be a lot worse. And as bad as a balance of great terror might be, it's better than the actual terror that might happen.

Ron Holzwarth 2 years, 6 months ago

"Israel consistently lied about its development of nuclear weapons"

That's not true, no official comment was ever made. There's a huge difference between "no comment" and telling a lie. Ask any reporter if you don't believe me.

I read a lot in the Israeli press, and some writers express doubt that there are any nuclear weapons at all. None have been verified to exist, but the propaganda that Israel has some has been excellent. The only thing we know for sure is this:
Israel has never conducted a test of a nuclear weapon, so if there are any, Israel is the only country in the world that possesses nuclear weapons that has never tested one.

But, with the qualifier that something of some oddity did occur in 1966, possibly a joint test with South Africa. But the evidence was not at all convincing.


And oh yes, Vanunu knew everything. Are you sure he wasn't fooled? That would have been an excellent bit of propaganda.

Stuart Sweeney 2 years, 6 months ago

Porbably could drop a few on North Korea--gets rid of them and will do some good at the same time!

Liberty275 2 years, 6 months ago

I like the idea of a massive stockpile of nukes. MAD works.

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