Obama ready to cut strategic nuclear arsenal ‘by a third’

A report out today by the Centre for Public Integrity in Washington says that the Obama administration has made the decision that the US can make do with just two thirds of its current arsenal of deployed strategic nuclear warheads.

The current ceiling, agreed in the 2010 New Start Treaty with Russia, allows for 1550 of these warheads, consisting in the US case of Minuteman III missiles, submarine-launched Trident missiles and long-range bombers (the ‘triad’ of US deterrence). The new report says Obama will cut that to 1000-1,100 after an inter-agency review found it would not affect national security and save many billions of dollars.

However, the administration will seek to make the cuts in tandem with Russia, as an extension of New Start, thereby ducking the need for Senate approval of a new treaty. The CPI report says that Vice President Joseph Biden discussed the issue with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, when the two met at the Munich Security Conference last weekend.

Nuclear experts in Washington said the numbers sounded about right. In fact they were first reported last July by the Associated Press. But they were a bit surprised by the timing.

The new report suggests the announcement would come in the coming weeks, after it receives Obama’s signature. While Biden said in Munich that the president would mention the nuclear disarmament in his State of the Union address on February 12, most observers do not expect the final version of the new policy to be rolled out before spring, perhaps in time for the fourth anniversary of the president’s famous Prague speech, where he promised to start moving towards a world without nuclear weapons.

Daryl Kimball, the head of the Arms Control Association in Washington said:

It makes common sense for the US and Russia to further reduce their strategic stockpiles. Moving from 1500 to 1000 warheads makes sense, and hopefully that will induce Russia to go below its present ceilings. The US could downsize its SSBN fleet from 12 to 10 to even 8 submarines, and that would save $20 billion over the next decade, and it would still be possible to maintain the triad.

The report in question springs from the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review which concluded:

The massive nuclear arsenal we inherited from the Cold War era of bipolar military confrontation is poorly suited to address the challenges posed by suicidal terrorists and unfriendly regimes seeking nuclear weapons.

That however was simply a declaration of intent. To be translated into actual strategic cuts, there had be a further inter-agency implementation study which has been underway ever since. By all accounts the basic decisions were made last year but not released to avoid making them grist for the election mill. Joe Cirincione, the president of the Ploughshares Fund said:

As you know, this guidance has been under development for almost two years. With the election and the Inauguration complete and the President’s new security leadership almost in place, it makes sense for him to turn back in earnest to the nuclear policy agenda. I know from talking with senior officials that nuclear policy remains a personal priority or the President.

Cirincione added:

Reducing our immense nuclear arsenal has a number of benefits: it would strengthen U.S. global leadership, enhance the country’s ability to deter new nuclear weapon states, accelerate efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism, and greatly reduce the danger of the use of nuclear weapons from miscalculation, misunderstanding, or accident. It would make us all safer.

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