Obama Directs New Limits on Pentagon Nuclear Weapons Use

Calls for new cut to 1,000 warheads in Berlin speech

June 20, 2013

President Barack Obama this week ordered new limits on the use of U.S. nuclear weapons and called for sharp warhead cuts in a speech in Berlin aimed at what he called achieving "peace with justice."

"Peace with justice means pursuing the security of a world without nuclear weapons, no matter how distant that dream may be," Obama said on the eastern Berlin side of the Brandenburg Gate.

"And so as president, I've strengthened our efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and reduce the number and role of America's nuclear weapons."

Obama announced that, after reviewing U.S. nuclear doctrine, "I've determined that we can ensure the security of America and our allies and maintain a strong and credible strategic deterrent while reducing our deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third."

It was not clear from the speech whether the president planned to cut the deployed warhead arsenal from the 2010 New START arms treaty level of 1,550 to around 1,000 unilaterally or with another arms pact with Moscow.

Obama said he intended to seek "negotiated cuts" with Russia but appeared to leave open a unilateral one-third warhead arsenal reduction by the United States.

The new strategic cuts were met with skepticism from Republicans on Capitol Hill.

"Simply wishing doesn’t make it so," said Rep. Mike Rogers (R., Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces.

"Despite concession after concession on our missile defenses, Russia appears no more interested in reducing its nuclear forces," Rogers said. "Instead of focusing on unilaterally disarming, it would be far more useful to focus on the dangerous and illegal nuclear weapons program of North Korea and the rising threat of a nuclear-capable Iran."

Committee Chairman Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon (R., Calif.) went further.

"The president's desire to negotiate a new round of arms control with the Russians, while Russia is cheating on a major existing nuclear arms control treaty, strains credulity," McKeon said.

McKeon said Obama has ignored repeated requests to take seriously Russian violations of arms accords.

The chairman noted that the House version of the fiscal 2014 defense authorization bill that passed last week prohibits further nuclear reductions "while Russia is violating—if not in material breach of—its current obligations."

"The president must make clear to President Putin that the United States will not allow itself or its allies to be bullied by Russia or to allow that state to ignore its arms control obligations," McKeon said.

Sen. James Inhofe (R., Okla.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the announced disarmament plan "the triumph of hope over experience."

"Hope that a U.S. disarmament example would encourage other countries to reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear arsenals; hope that negotiations with Russia would ‘reset’ relations; and hope that reducing the role of nuclear weapons would make the world a safer place," Inhofe said in a statement.

"Instead, our experience has been that nuclear arsenals—other than ours—are on the rise, Russia defies us at almost every turn, efforts to curb the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran are failing, and our allies grow increasingly uneasy about the reliability of U.S. nuclear guarantees."

Inhofe said he is opposed to further cuts in strategic nuclear forces and urged the president to fulfill his 2009 promise to modernize U.S. nuclear forces in exchange for New START ratification.

"A country whose conventional military strength has been weakened due to budget cuts ought not to consider further nuclear force reductions while turmoil in the world is growing," Inhofe said.

Administration officials said Obama approved new "guidance" on Tuesday. The guidance called "nuclear weapons employment strategy" directs the Pentagon on how to plan for nuclear conflict.

The guidance says the United States will maintain a "credible" nuclear deterrent to prevent enemies from considering a nuclear attack.

It then says a U.S. nuclear attack will only be considered "in extreme circumstances" to defend the vital interests of the United States, its allies, and partners. That step was taken to allow the administration to further reduce the role of nuclear arms in U.S. security strategy, according to administration officials.

Other provisions of the guidance call for the Pentagon to emphasize non-nuclear weapons in strategic nuclear planning. It states that precision conventional strategic weapons are not a substitute for nuclear arms.

Liberal arms control advocates have advocated using precision guided conventional weapons for deterrence instead of nuclear arms. However, nuclear experts have argued that only nuclear weapons can effectively deter both established and rogue nuclear weapons states.

Additionally, the guidance also directs the Pentagon to study and reduce the role of "launch-on-attack" in strategic war planning. That step has been advocated by those arms control advocates who seek to reduce the alert status of U.S. nuclear forces.

The launch-on-warning provision is based on an assessment that a surprise nuclear attack is considered "exceedingly remote."

Launch-on-warning capabilities will remain, but the Pentagon will instead focus on what U.S. officials said are "21st century contingencies" such as a terrorist plot to use nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction, or a rogue attack from North Korea or a future nuclear armed Iran.

The president also called for working with NATO allies to "seek bold reductions in U.S. and Russian tactical weapons in Europe."

Russia so far appears uninterested in another round of nuclear cuts. Moscow wants legal restrictions on U.S. missile defenses in Europe as a precondition for further arms cuts.

After the recent summit meeting between Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Putin told state-run press outlets: "I must say that our differences still remain, but in general I agree with President Obama that the main thing we need to do and what we can do in this direction is to increase our openness and transparency of our actions."

Obama, in the Berlin speech, repeated the four goals of his plan to eliminate all nuclear weapons, first outlined in a 2009 speech in Prague.

It was not clear what the president meant by "peace with justice," although it may be a counter to the conservative doctrine of President Ronald Reagan called "peace through strength."

In the national security context, the concept likely means reducing defense and national security spending and using the funds for other programs.

"Peace with justice means refusing to condemn our children to a harsher, less hospitable planet," Obama said, calling climate change "the global threat of our time." Peace with justice also means promoting growth in impoverished regions of the world, he said.

The president’s nuclear agenda from Prague includes cuts to nuclear forces, a boost in nuclear non-proliferation efforts, seeking to counter nuclear terrorism and promoting the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

The guidance issued Tuesday, however, repeated the president’s past caveat that "as long as nuclear weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal that guarantees the defense of the U.S. and our allies and partners."

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney said recently he considered the president’s plan for unprecedented unilateral strategic cuts "dangerous."

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

U.S. officials have said there are concerns among military planners that U.S. nuclear deterrence is being undermined by a substantial buildup of strategic nuclear forces by both Russia and China.

Russia’s buildup includes deployment of a new mobile intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) called the Yars-M; a new rail-mobile ICBM; new ballistic missile submarines and a new strategic bomber to be deployed by 2020. The new bomber will be equipped with a new Kh-102 air-launched cruise missile. Submarines will carry new Kaliber submarine-launched cruise missiles

China's strategic nuclear buildup includes three new road-mobile ICBMs: the DF-31, DF-31A, and DF-41, and one new submarine-launched ballistic missile, the JL-2, in addition to dual nuclear- and conventional-tipped medium range and short range missiles.