Doing Your Homework

, Washington representative and senior analyst | February 16, 2012, 11:39 am EDT
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The Pentagon is working on finalizing nuclear weapons policy options for the president, who is preparing to make decisions that will set the size, structure and roles of the U.S. nuclear stockpile and set positions for future potential negotiations with Russia on force reductions below New START. The media was abuzz in the last 36 hours with reports that the options under consideration were 300-400, 700-800 or 1,000-1,100 deployed warheads.

At a hearing of the House Armed Services committee on Wednesday where Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta testified, Republican members were clearly distressed by the thought that the administration would even consider such reductions, calling it “reckless lunacy” and a “preposterous notion.”

In that light, you may recall the committee’s attempt last year to constrain the Obama administration’s prerogative to set U.S. nuclear policy, an attempt that was essentially neutered in the final FY12 Defense authorization bill.

A few thoughts on this latest kerfuffle:

1. The new study falls well within the normal range of activities any administration undertakes. Time and again, the Pentagon, its various defense boards and affiliated think tanks have been tasked with looking at a range of stockpile sizes. Those who think it is surprising simply do not know the history. In fact, the congressionally mandated 2009 Strategic Posture Commission, often cited by Republicans as an unimpeachable source on nuclear policy, specifically set out options for deep cuts that it thought should be studied in the future. The person selected by the Commission to lead that effort to establish the options to study was none other Jim Miller, who now is directing the Pentagon’s study for the Obama administration. (See Chapter 12 of the Commission’s In the Eyes of Experts.)

2. As Secretary Panetta testified yesterday, one option that will be presented to the president is maintaining the current stockpile, in its current size. Cuts are not a foregone conclusion.

3. Those criticizing these options act as if the president will unilaterally make these reductions tomorrow. That is not the case. As mentioned above, one of the mandates for the Pentagon study is to develop the U.S. position in the next round of arms controls with Russia. The Senate mandated that the administration seek such an agreement when providing its consent to the New START agreement in 2010. Would critics prefer that the administration approach such negotiations from a position of ignorance?

4. In 1991, when President GHW Bush unilaterally cut thousands of deployed U.S. nuclear weapons, there was nary a hit of concern from the Congress. Even more interesting, in 2001, President GW Bush simply told the Pentagon that they needed to develop a nuclear strategy based on maintaining 2,200 warheads, without asking them to first study what the implications of such a decision would be. Coming down from the then stockpile of 6,000 strategic warheads, it was a fairly dramatic call, but made without critical comment from the Congress.

5. More importantly, if this story is accurate on the ranges of options under consideration, it is certainly true that moving to 300-400 warheads would be a major shift in U.S. nuclear policy, but it would not reduce our security. It would end the current focus, maintained since the end of the Cold War, on fighting and winning a nuclear war. Instead it would require a focus on what the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review identified as the fundamental role of nuclear weapons: deterring a nuclear attack on the US and its allies.

6. Such a policy change would truly reflect the “end to Cold War thinking” that President Obama has called for, and would allow the U.S. military to increase its focus on the threats that we do face today, rather than the threats of the past. The fact is, nuclear weapons are now a security liability for the United States, rather than an asset for our defense.  More and more military leaders, foreign policy and defense experts are recognizing that not only can we reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons, but for our own security we must.

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