Obama Plan To Reduce Nukes Is Good For Budget, Boosts Moral Authority On Global Nonproliferation

By Lawrence Korb and Alex Rothman

The Obama administration is reportedly considering major reductions in the size the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The administration has reportedly asked the Pentagon to evaluate three options for further cuts: to approximately 1100, 800, or 400 weapons. Any of these scenarios would take the United States well below the ceiling imposed by the New START treaty, which requires the United States and Russia to reduce their nuclear arsenals to no more than 1,550 deployed weapons.

In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that the strategic value of the U.S. nuclear stockpile has declined significantly in the 21st century. Nuclear weapons have been useless in all of the U.S.’s recent military campaigns — Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. And they offer no protection against terrorist groups and subnational actors, two of the most significant threats facing the United States today.

In fact, the Pentagon’s own strategic thinkers have noted that the strategic landscape has changed and that the U.S.’s Cold War-sized arsenal may exceed the country’s current needs. The Defense Department’s strategic guidance document, released in early January, states that “it is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force, which would reduce the number of nuclear weapons in our inventory as well as their role in U.S. national security strategy.”


Moreover, according to strategists at the Air War College and the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, the U.S. could draw down its arsenal to 311 survivable reliable weapons and still maintain a credible deterrent.

For two reasons, President Obama is wise to reevaluate the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. First, our massive nuclear arsenal is tremendously expensive and diverts funds away from programs designed to bolster the U.S.’s long-term health of the U.S. economy and military. The budget for “nuclear weapons activities” is projected to grow by 6 percent to $18 billion next year in FY 2013. It will be 20 percent higher in real terms than President Reagan’s largest nuclear weapons budget. Further, unless the Pentagon reduces the number of deployed nuclear weapons significantly, it will have to modernize all three legs of the triad at a cost of over $100 billion.

Protecting and modernizing our exponentially larger nuclear stockpile adds to the national debt and sucks up taxpayer dollars that could be used to bolster our economy, put people back to work, or invest in technologies that support our men and women serving around the globe. Adopting the Air War College recommendation would save the Pentagon at least $11 billion per year.

Second, significant reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal would give the Obama administration the moral authority to push for stronger international commitments control the spread weapons-usable nuclear technology and material. President Obama has called nuclear terrorism the “single biggest threat to U.S. security, both short-term, medium-term and long-term.” Demonstrating that the United States is serious about controlling the size of its own nuclear stockpile would breathe life into the global nonproliferation regime, thereby decrease the chances of a terrorist group acquiring a nuclear warhead without undermining U.S. security.

Given the fiscal problems facing our nation and historic highs in defense spending, the Obama administration has been right to downsize or eliminate out-dated weapons systems that do little to further American security, like the F-22 and EFV. Surplus nuclear weapons, which are expensive to maintain and protect, should be no exception. Last week, State department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland criticized the Iranian government, stating it “would rather spend money on a nuclear weapons program than on the welfare of its people.” Reducing the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal to more strategically reasonable levels will allow the Obama administration to practice what it preaches.