A Cut Too Far

Obama set to seek deeper cuts in nuclear arsenal

June 19, 2012

President Obama has decided to seek deeper cuts in deployed strategic nuclear weapons to as few as 1,000 warheads, sharply below the target of 1,550 warheads required under a 2010 U.S.-Russia arms treaty, U.S. officials said Monday.

Critics say the steep cuts, which the administration will seek in new talks with a growing anti-U.S. government in Moscow, would undermine U.S. strategic deterrence for the United States and its allies in Asia and Europe.

The lower warhead levels also would be contrary to recent congressional testimony from a strategic forces commander who said further cuts would weaken the ability to deter nuclear states like Russia and China.

A U.S. strategic nuclear force posture of 1,000 strategic warheads has not been seen since the early 1950s. At the height of the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union had as many as 30,000 nuclear weapons.

The deeper nuclear cuts are outlined in a forthcoming report the Pentagon calls the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) implementation study, dubbed the mini-NPR, and reflect President Obama’s announced 2009 effort to completely eliminate all nuclear weapons. The announcement comes despite reports that Russia and China are engaged in a major buildup of their nuclear forces, and North Korea and Iran are developing nuclear arsenals.

A Pentagon spokesman declined to comment on the mini-NPR study results. Other officials said the study results would be made public in the next few days.

The officials confirmed the new projected warhead levels after they were first reported Friday by Japan’s Kyodo news agency.

U.S. officials also said the forthcoming mini-NPR report will rule out steeper cuts of between 800 and 300 warheads. The lowest number is fewer than are currently estimated to be in China’s warhead arsenal.

Before retiring in 2011, U.S. Strategic Command commander Gen. Kevin P. Chilton told Congress that warhead levels of around 1,550 warheads under New START are needed for strong deterrence against nuclear threats. "I think the arsenal we have is exactly what is needed today to provide the deterrent," he said.

Gen. Robert Kehler, the current Strategic Command leader, said last month that he is worried about cuts in both warheads and funding needed for modernizing aging nuclear weapons and infrastructure.

Under difficult fiscal constraints, nuclear forces that need modernizing include delivery systems, weapons life extension programs, stockpile monitoring, naval reactor design work, and upgrades for nuclear command and control, Kehler said during a talk at the Council on Foreign Relations.

If further cuts are made, "we will have to go back and do what we did with this round of reductions: completely review what those impacts could be and make the appropriate recommendations," the four-star general said.

"Of all the elements of the nuclear enterprise, I'm most concerned with the potential for declining or inadequate investment in the nuclear weapons enterprise itself, some declining investment that would result in our inability to sustain the deterrent force," he said.

"Our weapons are aging, and we face the continued erosion of the nuclear enterprise's physical and intellectual capital."

Without investments for modernizing nuclear arms and infrastructure, "maintaining the long-term credibility and viability of the nation's nuclear deterrent will not be possible," Kehler said.

Former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton, a former State Department arms control undersecretary, said he is very worried that deeper cuts will harm U.S. security.

"Levels under the New START agreement are already too low," Bolton told the Free Beacon. "Going below that reflects blind ideology, not strategic analysis of U.S. defense needs. This is what a second Obama term will bring."

President Obama was overheard during a meeting with then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev telling the Russian leader that he would have "more flexibility" in strategic talks with Russia after his presumed reelection. The comment was widely viewed as the president offering additional concessions to Moscow beyond many already made as part of the administration’s conciliatory "reset" policy toward Russia.

Frank Gaffney, head of the Center for Security Policy that advocates the Reagan administration defense policy of peace through strength, said the further warhead cuts would weaken U.S. security.

"This is of a piece with the Obama administration’s program to rid the world of nuclear weapons, starting with ours," Gaffney said in an interview.

Gaffney said new warhead cuts would add to other national security problems caused by the administration, including what he termed a "defective" New START treaty; a failure to follow through on nuclear modernization promises; efforts to permanently prevent testing of new weapons; and the decline of the nuclear industrial base.

"The Nuclear Posture Review implementation study will make plain that this is a matter of ideology and not national security," Gaffney said.

The Free Beacon first reported Feb. 14 that the president directed the Pentagon to examine cutting nuclear forces to as few as 300 warheads, less than communist China’s growing nuclear force.

The presidential directive for the mini-NPR was sent from the White House in August and called for military and policy officials to examine three warhead levels: 1,100 to 1,000; between 700 and 800; and between 300 and 400 warheads.

The study was the first time a president had ordered basing strategic warheads on specific levels. In the past, warhead levels were matched to maintaining deterrence against foreign threats, mainly the Soviet Union, later Russia, and more recently China and North Korea.

There are currently an estimated 5,000 warheads in the U.S. arsenal. Under the 2010 New START arms treaty with Russia, U.S. deployed strategic warhead levels will be cut to 1,550. After the treaty was signed, the administration disclosed that Russian warhead levels had already been lowered to 1,550.

Pentagon spokesman George Little said in February that the details for the mini-NPR were classified. However, he stated that the president had tasked the Pentagon to "develop several alternative approaches to deterrence and stability, to include illustrative force size and postures to best support those alternatives."

The Pentagon was evaluating the alternatives based on the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney said the administration is seeking to unilaterally disarm U.S. nuclear forces, something that is "the most dangerous thing I have ever seen an American President attempt to do."

"This is not the time to embark on such a dangerous path, with China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea increasing their nuclear forces," he said.

President Obama said in a major speech in Prague, Czech Republic in 2009 that the United States should eliminate all nuclear weapons.