President Obama wants to reduce the nuclear arsenal to as little as 300 warheads. While this might seem like a lot, the targeting list is evolving more rapidly than at any point in history. The United States has more enemies than ever before and provides nuclear security guarantees to more than 30 countries.
Every U.S. President faces a difficult decision regarding what to target in the case that the U.S. homeland or allies are attacked. The President can chose to strike counter-force and counter-value targets. Counter-force targets are the enemy forces and supporting infrastructure—including weapons capabilities like missile sites, production capabilities, and command and control centers. Counter-value targets are the enemy cities and population. Lowering the number of weapons could reduce the President’s options when deciding what would be an appropriate response in the case of an enemy strike.
In addition, enemies can take steps to discourage or complicate U.S. counter-force targeting. They can disperse facilities and forces or hide them in tunnels or within population centers. Lowering the number of U.S. nuclear weapons will incentivize enemies to create more targets that can be attacked. As a result, the United States might not be able to stop an enemy force before it could attack. With lower numbers of nuclear weapons, the United States would be forced to threaten the population centers in other countries. A country that values freedom—for itself and others—above anything else should not divest itself of weapons that allow it to destroy enemy forces instead of civilian populations.
A review based on an arbitrary set of numbers instead of a sound assessment of the strategic environment can have devastating consequences for the U.S. and its allies. U.S. adversaries will not give up their weapons just because the United States gets rid of its nuclear arsenal. After all, since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. eliminated more than 80 percent of its nuclear weapons arsenal while North Korea, India, and Pakistan tested their nuclear weapons.