25 Years Ago Today a President Changed Nuclear Policy Forever. Will This One?

, Washington representative and senior analyst | September 27, 2016, 12:02 pm EDT
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Today marks the 25th anniversary of the start of the most remarkable and rapid changes ever made in U.S. and Soviet/Russian nuclear posture and policy.

Susan Koch, who was director for defense policy and arms control on President George H. W. Bush’s National Security Council at the time, summed up what became known as the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs) this way:

President Bush’s first PNI announcement was unprecedented on several levels. First, in its scope and scale; it instituted deeper reductions in a wider range of nuclear weapons systems than had ever been done before. Second, the PNIs were primarily unilateral—not to be negotiated, but instead implemented immediately. While Soviet/Russian reciprocity was encouraged, it was not required for most of the U.S. measures. Third, the decisions announced on September 27, 1991, were prepared with a speed and secrecy that had never been seen before in arms reduction, and have yet to be duplicated. The PNIs were developed in just 3 weeks and involved very few people. In contrast, most arms control measures, before and after the PNIs, required months and often years of interagency and international debate and negotiation by scores of military and civilian officials.

President Bush announcing his nuclear initiatives on September 27, 1991

President Bush announcing his nuclear initiatives on September 27, 1991

In just four years, as a result of the PNIs and the 1991 START arms reduction agreement, the U.S. nuclear stockpile of active and inactive warheads dropped from 21,392 to 10,979, a reduction of almost 50 percent. Most of those cuts were due to the PNI-mandated elimination or sharp reductions in entire classes of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons.

Under the PNIs:

  • U.S. ground-launched nuclear artillery shells and short-range ballistic missiles—around 2,100 weapons in total, most deployed in Europe—were withdrawn from the field and destroyed. (Note that is more than the current total number of U.S. or Russian deployed strategic weapons.)
  • All tactical nuclear weapons on U.S. navy surface ships and attack submarines, and on land-based naval aircraft, were withdrawn from deployment. All of the nuclear depth bombs—approximately half of the total naval tactical nuclear stockpile—were destroyed; half of the other types were also destroyed.
  • U.S. strategic bombers were de-alerted, the first time since 1957 that planes were not either in the air or on the ground, engines running and fully loaded with nuclear weapons. All Minuteman II missiles that were slated for elimination under the START agreement were rapidly removed from alert posture and scheduled for quick destruction, ahead of the treaty’s deadlines.
  • A host of planned U.S. nuclear systems were cancelled, including a short-range air-to-surface missile, the mobile version of the 10-warhead long-range Peacekeeper missile and a small mobile long-range missile.

Just eight days after President Bush’s September 27 announcement, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev followed suit, declaring a range of similarly dramatic reductions in nuclear forces. The speed and reach of the Soviet leader’s response was far beyond what the Americans has expected. Only a few months later, after the Soviet Union collapsed, President Bush and newly elected Russian President Boris Yeltsin announced a second round of nuclear reductions. It was a cycle of reciprocal, unilateral steps to reduce the nuclear threat, unlike anything before or since.

Implications for Today

Twenty-five years later, what implications do the PNIs have for today?

Start with the most notable fact about the PNIs: they were unilateral steps taken at the president’s initiative. President Bush, joined by his national security advisor, decided to push for dramatic change and three weeks later he announced them from the White House. The president rejected negotiating an agreement with Russia or instigating a lengthy review by the Pentagon of options (although a review of nuclear war plans completed earlier in 1991 did provide useful background). Moreover, while President Bush clearly hoped for reciprocation from the Soviet Union, he decided to move forward with his plans regardless of whether Gorbachev responded or not.

Move to the current era, which began with President Obama early in his first term calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons and talking about putting an end to Cold War thinking. Yet he has not, or not yet, changed nuclear policy or posture in any deeply significant way. The successes, such as the New START arms control agreement, have been modest and in the more traditional arms control mode.

Now in the president’s final months, the White House is conducting a new review of possible nuclear policy changes. According to the press, some of the more significant changes, such as declaring that the United States would not be the first to use nuclear weapons, have already been rejected. Other options, like reducing U.S. deployed or reserve forces, may still be under consideration, but no decision has been announced.

What might hold President Obama back from following President Bush’s bold path?

One difference, opponents of nuclear reductions often point out, is the overall direction of the security landscape in 1991 versus today. Twenty-five years ago, the Soviet Union was collapsing. President Bush’s greatest worry was the possible loss of control of some of the nuclear weapons spread across four Soviet republics. That concern was perhaps the primary motivation behind the PNIs.

Today, Russia is no longer the same conventional threat to Europe that the Soviet Union was, but under Vladimir Putin’s leadership it has become an international bad actor, while maintaining a nuclear arsenal that is the only threat to the survival of the United States.

But it is that last of these factors that should provide all the motivation President Obama needs to act boldly. It is a simple truth that nuclear weapons are no longer a security asset for the United States, but a liability.  The only role for U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack on the United States and its allies. And in 2013, based on the Pentagon’s analysis, President Obama concluded that the United States could safely cut its nuclear stockpile by another one-third, to roughly 1,000 deployed long-range nuclear weapons, regardless of what Russia did.

To date, the president has not acted on this conclusion, instead waiting for Russia to agree to further reductions. But, following the model of his predecessor, President Obama should act boldly and quickly, reducing U.S. strategic weapons to 1,000 deployed warheads. He should also remove land-based nuclear-armed missiles from hair-trigger alert, which would significantly reduce the likelihood that a U.S. nuclear weapon will be used by mistake.

And he should take these steps even if he does not have a willing partner in Putin. Showing leadership on the nuclear issue will further isolate Russia in the international community, while freeing up resources and energy to devote to more important security concerns. President Bush decided to make changes in U.S. nuclear forces and posture without requiring a Soviet response because they were in U.S. security interests regardless of whether Russia reciprocated. That is as true today as it was 25 years ago.

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  • historyofnukes

    Yes, “further isolating” Russia will really make Putin feel bad. I am sure that he will change his mind if we just politely show the unenlightened dictator the error of his ways. What in the last 5 years makes you think Putin will change his mind based on international opinion of him? Seriously?

    I also love how the author completely fails to mention our allies and what they might think of a 1/3 reduction in our deployed stockpile.

    Lastly, the author completely whiffs on basic history of Obama’s “1/3 reduction” remark. As the GAO pointed out recently on pp. 8-9:

    “DOD’s 2013 unclassified report on the President’s nuclear employment guidance states that DOD also assessed potential reductions in U.S. nuclear forces in the follow-on review to the NPR that led to the development of the 2013 Presidential nuclear employment guidance. The report says that, in that review, the President determined that the United States can safely pursue up to a one-third reduction in deployed nuclear weapons from the level established in New START, while still ensuring the security of the United States and U.S. allies and partners and maintaining a strong and credible strategic deterrent. DOD officials told us that to avoid large disparities in nuclear capabilities, the report also stated the administration’s intent to seek negotiated cuts with Russia. However, such negotiations have not yet begun as of August 2016.”


    These cuts were supposed to take place WITH Russia, not DESPITE Russia.

    So yes, we could make these cuts unilaterally, but if we did we would get zero benefits and lots of problems. I fail to be convinced getting rid of 500 nuclear weapons is in our security interest. Oh, and its not just me. Its also President Obama, Sec Def Carter, CJCS Dunford, ASD Scher, etc.

    But its alright. Apparently the UCS knows better than all of them.

    • Thanks for the comment and the detailed response, but I make the same point you do: to date President Obama has waited for a positive Russian response before proceeding. The entire point of the piece is to point out that President Bush did not wait, and the response he got after he acted significantly increased U.S. security.

      • historyofnukes

        The PNIs were a unique moment in history where circumstances allowed such a deep reduction. We were partners with the Soviet Union and then Russia. We have nothing close to such a near-friendly relationship today and Putin does not want one.

        Frankly I am surprised you cited the PNIs as support for your argument. It actually shows the danger of hoping the other side follows through. Sea-launched cruise missiles? Russia not only kept, but modernized those. Tactical nuclear weapons? Russia kept a significant portion of those. The broke half of their PNI commitments and we lost bargaining leverage.

        If you really believe that all nuclear weapons are a danger, then you should want to keep US modernized programs in order to have bargaining leverage with the Russians. If you honestly think the Russians will react in kind to U.S. unilateral reductions then I just don’t think we are living in the same reality.

        • Even if Russia did not keep every promise made, overall the US and Europe are in a vastly improved security situation because of the reductions that Russia did make, and there have been no negative security implications for the US or its allies because of the reductions the US made.

  • sferrin

    “It is a simple truth that nuclear weapons are no longer a security asset for the United States, but a liability.”

    Yes, because what thugs like Putin admire most is weakness. Judas, I hope nobody actually got paid to write this drivel.

    • A arsenal of 1,000 nuclear weapons, each 20-30 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, is hardly a sign of weakness. And, as the piece states, the only threat to the survival of the United States is Russian nuclear weapons. And Russia’s economy is a shambles, so the most likely outcome of US reductions is a decision by Putin to follow suit, to save money. But even if he does not, US security will be assured, given our overall military superiority.

      • Ryan Alt

        I suggest looking at Russia’s economy again because it sounds like you’ve been reading too many western bs narratives.

  • clipon

    It is not Russia who is the international bad actor. It is the US with its nonstop wars of regime change and aggression, international illegal invasions of numerous countries and our President who engaged in illegal drone attacks in other countries. Far from Russia being internationally isolated, it is actually the US while one country after another departs from the American camp. First Turkey with the US failed attempted coup and now the Philippines. If you want to encourage the President and your supporters to press the weak and cowwardly Obama to declare no to first strike, this is a really lousy argument for doing so.

  • clipon

    Worse, the US has escalated nuclear tensions with Russia by aggressively placing missile radar tracking systems on Russia’s border in Poland now and Roumania. Nobody has any illusions they are aimed at Russia. This violates Gorbachev’s agreement with Bush following the collapse of the USSR. And so does the expansion of former Eastern European countries into NATO. Today Poland has one of the most far right and neofascist governments in Eastern Europe outside of the Ukraine which has legions of fascist battalions operating throughout the country. In fact the President of Israel just visited the Ukraine to commemorate the anniversary of Babiyar and the Ukraine government threw a temper tantrum about his visit. All of the Baltic states have extremely rightwing governments. To add to the tensions, the US through NATO and Gen. Breedlove has now placed permanent NATO soldiers along Russia’s borders. How would we like this if Russia did this with Cuba or Mexico? Originally this laid to the Bay of Pigs. Now the US is the main agent provocateur in the world. Sadly, this opinion piece has turned truth on its head.

    • I certainly agree that Russia is not acting from a position of strength. All the more reason for the United States to show leadership by reducing its nuclear arsenal and encouraging Russia to follow suit, which is exactly the model that President Bush provided the current president.

      • Ryan Alt

        I would call Russia’s ability to utterly annihilate every conceivable US target many times over within 30 minutes any time they choose to do so pretty serious “strength”.

        • Yes, Russia’s nuclear strength is undeniable. Hence the US interest in doing whatever it can to diminish that threat.

    • Ryan Alt

      The “missile defense” in Romania and soon in Poland has neither the numbers or capability to threaten any of Russia’s nuclear missiles. Also, given their proximity to Russian weapons, they would likely both be annihilated within 3 to 5 minutes of war before their use could even be attempted. I also suggest looking at a globe because saying that Russia is surrounded is the same as saying that the US is surrounded by Cuba.

      • Russia’s concern at this stage is not the ability of the missile defense system (which is quite modest) but the possibility that US nuclear-armed missiles could be discretely substituted for the interceptors. That should be something that could be verified as untrue, but it would take some negotiating.