The battle over cutting U.S. nuclear arsenal
An unarmed operational test of the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile is launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in 2010.
February 17th, 2012
08:06 PM ET

The battle over cutting U.S. nuclear arsenal

By Jamie Crawford

The Pentagon is currently analyzing U.S. nuclear options under the Nuclear Posture Review Implementation Study - a process that could result in significant cuts in the number of warheads. And one senior Republican senator is sounding a warning.

"Obviously this is going to create a huge stir in Congress," Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Arizona, said during a keynote address Thursday at a nuclear deterrence summit in Arlington, Virginia. "We will have a battle royal in Congress if the president moves forward with these kinds of plans."

As recently as last month, the Defense Department did not discount the possibility of further cuts to its arsenal eventually.

"It is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force, which would reduce the number of nuclear weapons in our inventory as well as their role in U.S. national security strategy," the Pentagon said in releasing its latest strategic guidance review last month.

James Miller, the acting defense undersecretary for policy, told the same summit Wednesday that the Pentagon is looking at "a number of options" regarding the size of its nuclear arsenal, but refused to go into detail as no decision has been made yet.

"It is absolutely appropriate for the president and the Pentagon to look at those [lower] levels," Stephen Young with the Union of Concerned Scientists told CNN.

Today's geopolitical order is much different than 20 years ago, Young said.

There's no longer a Soviet Union, there's no longer a massive army looming over Europe, the current role of nuclear weapons is much smaller and so there's no need for a massive nuclear arsenal," he said.

The current U.S.-Russian arms treaty, known as New START, went into effect a year ago and requires that each side cap its strategic nuclear warheads at 1,550 by 2018. It also limits each nation to 700 deployed strategic launchers and heavy bombers, with another 100 held in reserve.

But there is precedent in cutting the U.S. nuclear arsenal below treaty-mandated levels. The administration of former President George W. Bush cut the arsenal to 2,200 warheads, while both the United States and Russia were permitted 6,000 each under the START treaty in force at that time.

Some analysts say any reduction below what the Russian Federation maintains in its arsenal is unlikely to happen in the current era.

"Russia right now is putting more emphasis on the role of nuclear weapons in its policy," Clark Murdock, director of the Project on Nuclear Issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told CNN. Murdock said making deep cuts in the number of U.S. warheads is "just politically out of the question," in the face of Russian nuclear modernization.

Defense officials are unambiguous when it comes to the importance of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

"We continue to believe that U.S. forces play a critical role in 21st century strategic deterrence, primarily because they cast a long and very dark shadow over the decision-making of any adversary contemplating a strategic attack on the United States or our allies," said Greg Weaver, deputy director of Plans and Policy at U.S. Strategic Command. He also spoke Thursday at the nuclear deterrence summit.

For Kyl, who recently announced he will not seek re-election, concerns over the nuclear arsenal go beyond its size. He told Thursday's summit audience that he found the pace of modernizing the nuclear infrastructure "disheartening."

Paul Hommert, director of Sandia National Laboratories, told the same audience that the nation's stockpile is "the oldest it has ever been," with many of the weapons having been designed and constructed in the 1970s and '80s. "The net result of that is that there is a fair amount of work that is embedded in what's coming forward to us."

But in an era of fiscal austerity, with a mandate to cut $497 billion out of the defense budget over the next 10 years, the need to modernize the nuclear arsenal may come at the cost of the current infrastructure.

Gen. James Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in July that the current nuclear "triad"of submarines, ballistic missiles, and bombers was not sustainable or even practical in a post- Cold War and budget conscious era.

Weaver, with Strategic Command - which oversees the U.S. nuclear arsenal - said the modernization of the arsenal will have to take a lot into account.

Our challenge," he said, is to ensure that U.S. nuclear forces "can ... play [effective deterrence roles] now and in the years to come, and we don't know how many years to come."

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Filed under: Arms Control • Military • Nuclear
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