In his State of the Union address last night, President Barack Obama referred to the need to reduce the force structure of our strategic military systems by cutting the number of deployed nuclear weapons. Press reports over the last year have indicated that military and civilian leaders have settled on a plan to reduce the number of deployed nuclear weapons by one-third, to between 1,000 and 1,100, down from 1,700. President Obama should push for such a reduction, which would follow the practice of his predecessors and improve our national security. As the Center for American Progress has argued for the last decade, this move makes sense both strategically and fiscally, and is long overdue.
When President George W. Bush entered the White House in 2001, he moved to cut our stockpile of nuclear weapons — which at that time numbered about 6,000 to the lowest-possible number consistent with our national security. The president offered to make these cuts unilaterally, but Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted the reductions codified in a treaty that would limit deployed nuclear weapons to less than 1,500 warheads for each country. In 2002, under pressure from Russia, President Bush agreed to a legally binding accord the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, or SORT — which stated that both sides will limit their arsenals to between 1,700 and 2,200 deployed nuclear weapons each.
Subsequently, in 2010 President Obama negotiated a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, with Russia that calls for reducing each country’s number of deployed nuclear weapons to 1,550 by 2018, but places no limits on the total number of warheads, which now number 5,000. This was an impressive and welcome achievement. But analyses by the Air War College, Gen. James Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and commander of U.S. Strategic Command; and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) all argue that these numbers of deployed and reserve nuclear weapons and warheads are far more than the United States needs for the purpose of deterrence in the 21st century.
Analysts at the Air War College argue that the United States can achieve deterrence with a total nuclear force (deployed and reserve) of 300 weapons, while Gen. Cartwright believes a total of 800 (400 deployed and 400 in reserve) would be sufficient.
These reductions would result in substantial savings. The United States currently spends about $55 billion a year to maintain its triad of nuclear-capable bombers, land-based ballistic missiles, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Moreover, if the United States wants to refurbish, repair, and modernize its existing nuclear arsenal in its current size, we will have to spend about $600 billion over the next decade. Adapting the Cartwright plan would save approximately $120 billion. Depending on the specifics of its implementation, even President Obama’s more moderate target could save tens of billions over the next decade. Additionally, reducing our nuclear footprint will reduce long-term maintenance costs and reduce the risks of theft or mishandling of nuclear material.
Given the pressure that all government expenditures will face over the next decade due to our fiscal problems, maintaining our current oversized nuclear arsenal is unnecessary, unaffordable, and unwise. The savings from reducing our nuclear arsenal can be used for either more pressing national security priorities or to pay down the national debt. This is why the Center for American Progress has advocated for reductions to our nuclear spending for nearly a decade and why we fully support President Obama’s planned reductions.
Lawrence Korb is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.