The June 23 op-ed in The Washington Post by Eric Edelman and Robert Joseph, “Obama is pursuing nuclear folly,” accused the president of jeopardizing our national security, and that of our allies, by preparing for unilateral cuts to U.S. nuclear forces. But the authors are tilting at windmills.
President Barack Obama’s recent speech in Berlin included no announcement of unilateral reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The far more detailed “Report on Nuclear Employment Strategy of the United States,” released with the speech, makes clear that the administration contemplates no significant changes in U.S. forces or nuclear policy without comparable changes by Russia.
There can be no question that the United States intends to maintain nuclear forces at least comparable to those of Russia. The report notes that “large disparities in nuclear capabilities could raise concerns on both sides and among U.S. Allies and partners, and may not be conducive to maintaining a stable, long-term strategic relationship, especially as nuclear forces are significantly reduced.”
The State Department repeatedly has said that the United States has no intention of moving alone to lower levels of nuclear weapons. The day before the president’s speech, Secretary of State John F. Kerry telephoned Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., to assure him of that.
If any country’s security is threatened by nuclear inferiority, it is Russia. Russia already is below the level of forces specified in the 2010 New START treaty; the United States remains above it. The latest data exchange mandated by the treaty, and verified by on-site inspections, showed that as of March, the Russians had 1,480 operational warheads on 492 long-range missiles and bombers. Meanwhile, the United States maintained 1,654 operational warheads on 792 long-range missiles and bombers.
No wonder Russian President Vladimir Putin is so belligerent — and beginning to allocate resources to nuclear modernization. He must be terrified by Russia’s nuclear weakness, particularly given his country’s vastly inferior conventional military forces. Putin’s emphasis on nuclear forces is reminiscent of President Dwight Eisenhower’s emphasis on massive nuclear retaliation — a posture he adopted to mask the inferiority of U.S. conventional forces to those of the Soviet Union in the 1950s.
For those of us who share Obama’s stated desire for “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” his Berlin speech and, particularly, the recent report are great disappointments. The ceiling mandated by New START — 1,550 warheads — is an artifice: a number contrived years ago based on speculation about how many Russian targets would have to be held at risk to deter a nuclear strike on the United States.
Deterring Russia is the gold standard because no other nation has even one-tenth the number of nuclear weapons in U.S. and Russian stockpiles. We’ve depended on these kinds of speculations to establish nuclear “requirements” since the 1950s. During the Cold War, this led to stockpiles in excess of 25,000 nuclear weapons, with multiple weapons aimed at high-value targets. Both sides have since modified their nuclear war plans.
What would it take to deter a Russian leader from attacking the United States today? An expectation that we would retaliate with 10 nuclear explosions, 50 or 100? No one knows, of course. But the Obama administration, supported by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and U.S. Strategic Command, has concluded that 1,000 warheads would be sufficient.
Maintaining a modern nuclear force is very expensive. This country is developing a new generation of ballistic-missile submarines and a new penetrating bomber and is exploring options for maintaining a force of land-based intercontinental missiles. The recent nuclear report explicitly says that the United States will maintain this “triad” of strategic forces. A nuclear capability is also being added to F-35 tactical fighters.
Reducing the size of our strategic force by one-third would save a lot of money — funds that could potentially shore up conventional air, naval and ground forces being hollowed out by the sequester-driven budget cuts.
Which would be worse: being unable to deploy an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf because of budget cuts or reducing the number of nuclear warheads deployed on submarines?
Operational nuclear forces could be reduced without jeopardizing U.S. national security or that of our allies. In addition to operational warheads, the United States maintains 2,500 warheads in reserve — warheads that could be deployed on long-range missiles or bombers. The June report said this nuclear reserve will be maintained until the United States has modernized its nuclear weapons production infrastructure, a process it estimated would take at least a decade. Most experts believe it will take much longer.
If the Russians want to waste their resources on nuclear dinosaurs, let them. The United States should move unilaterally to the level of forces necessary to ensure our security with or without the other side.
Barry M. Blechman is a distinguished fellow at and co-founder of the Stimson Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank. He served on the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States from 1998 to 1999 and the Defense Policy Board from 2002 to 2006.