During the summer and fall, reports appeared that President Obama was considering actions he could take to make a major impact on U.S. nuclear weapons policy before leaving office in January. While the situation has clearly changed since Trump became the president-elect, this still does not mean that Obama’s hands are completely tied. It does mean that major changes, such as declaring a no-first-use policy or taking nuclear missiles off hair-trigger alert, are unrealistic, as they would only serve to draw the ire of the incoming administration and likely be quickly reversed. However, most of these options were reportedly already off the table. There are other actions, less dramatic but still significant, that President Obama could take right now to improve the safety and security of all Americans.
Near the beginning of his term, the president gave a speech in Prague in which he pledged that “the United States will take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons.” But despite initial success—the conclusion in 2010 of the New START arms agreement with Russia, in which each side agreed to limit its number of deployed strategic warheads to 1,550 by 2018—the Obama administration has made no further progress in this realm. In fact, of any Commander-in-Chief since the end of the Cold War, President Obama has so far presided over the smallest reduction in the U.S. nuclear stockpile.
In a different world, if Clinton had won the presidency, Obama might still be considering moves to change this, by announcing further cuts to U.S. deployed nuclear forces. After all, the Department of Defense has already said that the United States could safely reduce its deployed strategic nuclear forces by an additional third from New START levels even if Russia does not make similar reductions. An arsenal of this size would be more than enough to ensure a strong, stable nuclear deterrent. It would also reduce costs, a major consideration when it will take an estimated $1 trillion in spending to deploy, maintain and replace the entire nuclear triad (strategic bombers, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles) over the next 30 years. This is something Trump might want to keep in mind himself, since the Pentagon has already warned that it does not know where the money will come from to fund all the nuclear spending requirements that are on the books.
Given the reality of the current situation, such a high-visibility and controversial cut has been ruled out. But President Obama could still make a difference by making some less controversial “housekeeping” type cuts in stocks that are not often thought about and would not adversely affect the U.S. deterrent: “hedge” weapons that are kept in reserve, and stockpiles of weapons-usable fissile materials (plutonium and highly-enriched uranium).
In addition to the roughly 1,750 nuclear weapons (1,600 strategic and 150 tactical) that the United States deploys, it also maintains a “hedge” force of about 2,750 weapons (2,400 strategic and 350 tactical). These are kept in reserve for two reasons: technical and geopolitical. The argument for the technical hedge is that, if deployed weapons of one type experienced a problem, the United States could instead deploy weapons of another type from the hedge force. The geopolitical argument is that the international security situation could change, leading the U.S. to want to increase the number of deployed weapons.
As I will discuss in detail in my next post, to reduce the role that nuclear weapons play in U.S. security policy, Obama could reduce the number of strategic weapons in the hedge, by almost half, to 1,250, and eliminate the existing hedge of 350 tactical weapons.
The United States also maintains stockpiles of weapons-usable fissile materials—plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU)—that are much larger than needed. Some of this fissile material has already been declared “excess to military needs” and is awaiting disposition. Even after that excess material is disposed of, however, the United States will still have far more material than it needs for its current or future arsenal. Obama could declare an additional 15 metric tons of plutonium and 140 metric tons of highly-enriched uranium as excess to military needs, which would be enough for more than 4,000 nuclear weapons. I will go into the details of these numbers in an upcoming post.
We updated the numbers on 12/15/16 to reflect new estimates by Hans Kristensen.