The U.S. military is considering deep cuts in U.S. strategic nuclear forces as part of a presidentially directed review, senior military and defense officials confirmed to Congress on Wednesday.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked during a budget hearing before the House Armed Services Committee about reports on the radical nuclear cuts first reported by the Washington Free Beacon and Associated Press on Tuesday.
Under the plan being considered, the U.S. military could cut its stockpile of deployed strategic warheads to as few as 300, a reduction of 80 percent.
Dempsey declined to discuss the force levels of the still-classified draft review.
Other officials said the Pentagon was directed to examine a U.S. warhead force in three levels: 1,000 to 1,100; 700 to 800; and 300 to 400.
At 300 warheads, the U.S. military would have fewer warheads than are currently in China’s known strategic warhead arsenal and thousands fewer than in current Russian strategic stockpiles.
"What's been reported is the CliffsNotes version … of what is a very comprehensive set of discussions internal to the military with the national security staff on what is our next negotiating strategy, notably with Russia," Dempsey said during testimony before the House Armed Services Committee.
Dempsey said that the "status quo" of reducing U.S. warheads to the 1,550 mandated by the 2010 New START arms pact "is always an option and one that is in play."
"So at this point, sir, I would just encourage you not to become too concerned with the media reports of what is a very comprehensive process."
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the cuts are being discussed internally as part of the Nuclear Posture Review and a subsequent NPR Implementation Study.
"And there are a number of options that are being discussed, and as the general has pointed out, one of those options is maintain the status quo," Panetta said, adding that no decisions have been made.
"This is something that has been part of a process for discussion within the national security team and remains there at this point."
Warhead reductions from the current arsenal of about 5,000 warheads are being carried out under the New START provision and "not outside of that process," Panetta said. "And I would expect that that would be the same in the future."
Rep. Michael Turner (R., Ohio), chairman of the House armed services subcommittee on strategic forces, said of the reported cuts that they would "take the U.S. back to levels not seen since 1950 when the nation was ramping up production in an arms race with the Soviet Union."
U.S. officials said the military opposes the deep cuts and has said that the level to be reached under START—a total of 1,550 strategic warheads—is the lowest level U.S. strategic forces should go. Further reductions beyond that level could jeopardize U.S. strategic nuclear deterrence against Russia and China, and prompt countries reliant on U.S. nuclear retaliatory strike capabilities, like Japan, to consider developing nuclear weapons of their own.