Recent news articles, including one by journalist and author Bill Gertz, indicate that the Obama Administration will soon release an update to a previous study of U.S. nuclear weapons policy that will recommend that the number of strategic nuclear warheads in the U.S. arsenal be reduced to between 1,000 and 1,100. If the reporting is accurate, this proposal will reduce the number of strategic nuclear warheads in theU.S. arsenal by about 50 percent.
What is key to understand about the reporting on the pending study by the Obama Administration is how everything is focused on the numbers of warheads. In all likelihood, the reporting accurately reflects the views of the Obama Administration, because it is evident that its highest policy priority is to get the numbers on a downward trajectory to bolster its policy for achieving U.S.nuclear disarmament. In short, the numbers are derived, first and foremost, from disarmament considerations.
Currently, theU.S.has about 2,000 warheads in the strategic arsenal. The precise number is not provided in data declarations released by the State Department, because the declarations only provide the accountable warheads under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).
The Administration’s misplaced priorities are exceedingly dangerous, because the most important consideration in the pending study should not beU.S.nuclear disarmament, but how to maximize the deterrent value of theU.S.nuclear arsenal. Arms control should be the means to this end, not an end in itself.
It is disturbing, but not surprising, that the reporting on the pending study fails to mention in any way the many nuclear policy issues that should be addressed. These issues include: 1) the targeting policy for the nuclear force; 2) the survivability of the nuclear force and its support network; 3) the proper yield of the warheads; 4) the proper structure for both the U.S. strategic and short-range, or “tactical,” nuclear forces; 5) integration of the strategic nuclear force with strategic defenses; 6) the kill capacity of the weapons in the force against the strategic forces of the enemy; 7) the consequences of de-alerting the strategic and tactical nuclear forces; 8 ) the cost effectiveness of the proposed nuclear force compared to alternatives; 9) the effect on earlier commitments to modernize theU.S.nuclear weapons infrastructure; and, 10) integrating nuclear and conventional strike systems in the broaderU.S.arsenal.
Nevertheless, it is important for Congress to recognize that these other important issues could still be addressed in the pending study. Their inclusion, however, will not mean that the study avoids serious flaws. Congress should make sure the answers provided by the study are not merely being used to justify the number the Administration wants in service to its disarmament goal. The news reports provide initial evidence that this is the flawed approach the Administration is using.
As a result, these news reports should be causing all sorts of alarm bells to go off in Congress. Disarmament should be one area of consideration in the pending nuclear study, not the central driver for arriving at recommendations.
Maintaining an effective deterrent should be the highest priority, and Congress should make it clear now—before the study is released—that it will move to block specific proposed steps where it is evident that these steps are the result of putting disarmament considerations first.