The Obama administration is edging toward decisions that would further shrink the U.S. nuclear arsenal, possibly to between 1,000 and 1,100 warheads, reflecting new thinking on the role of nuclear weapons in an age of terror, say current and former officials.
The reductions that are under consideration align with President Barack Obama's vision of trimming the nation's nuclear arsenal without harming national security in the short term, and in the longer term, eliminating nuclear weapons.
The White House has yet to announce any plan for reducing the number of nuclear weapons, beyond commitments made in the recently completed New Start treaty with Russia, which obliges both countries to reduce their number of deployed long-range nuclear warheads to no more than 1,550 by 2018. As of March 1, Russia had already dropped its total to 1,492 and the U.S. stood at 1,737.
Obama has been considering a range of options for additional cuts, including a low-end range that would leave between 300 and 400 warheads. Several current and former officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said there appeared to be a consensus building around the more modest reduction to 1,000 to 1,100 deployed strategic warheads.
Officials have said in recent days that a decision could be announced this month. But given Republican criticism of any proposed further cuts and the heating up of the presidential election campaign, the White House might put the decisions on hold until after November. The administration has indicated it would prefer to pursue further reductions as part of a negotiation with Russia, but some have suggested that reductions could be done unilaterally.
Any reductions are likely to stir opposition among Republicans in Congress, who believe Obama underestimates the importance of a stable nuclear deterrent, even though the cuts would likely save tens of billions of dollars.
"I just want to go on record as saying that there are many of us that are going to do everything we possibly can to make sure that this preposterous notion does not gain any real traction," Rep. Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, said when The Associated Press first revealed the scope of possible cuts in February.
Beyond the argument over numbers is a more fundamental issue: What role do nuclear weapons have after the Cold War, now that the threat of all-out nuclear war with Moscow has abated? Do nuclear weapons deter belligerents such as al-Qaida, or other terrorist organizations? The administration considered these questions in an internal reassessment of nuclear weapons policy.
James Cartwright, the retired Marine Corps general who commanded U.S. nuclear forces from 2004-07, thinks the U.S. should acknowledge that a large nuclear force is of limited value in deterring today's major threats.
"No sensible argument has been put forward for using nuclear weapons to solve any of the major 21st century problems we face," including threats posed by rogue states, terrorism, cyber warfare or climate change, Cartwright and his colleagues at Global Zero wrote in a report in May. Global Zero is an organization that advocates a step-by-step process to achieve the eventual elimination of all nuclear weapons.
The group argues that the U.S. could safely reduce its arsenal over the coming 10 years to 900 total nuclear weapons -- 450 deployed at any given time and a like number held in reserve. That compares with the current U.S. arsenal of about 5,000 weapons, of which 1,737 are deployed.
Advocates of cutting below 1,550 argue that nuclear weapons serve an increasingly narrow purpose, and that their large numbers undercut the credibility of demands that Iran and other nations forgo acquiring their own. Opponents argue that the U.S. should not risk losing its predominant position in the nuclear arena while North Korea, Iran and other are pursuing their own nuclear ambitions.
Obama himself has made clear in recent statements that he thinks the time is right to break with the past.
"The massive nuclear arsenal we inherited from the Cold War is poorly suited to today's threats, including nuclear terrorism," he said March 26 in Seoul. He noted that last summer he ordered his national security team to undertake a comprehensive review of nuclear forces and policies, which was completed early this year.
"We can already say with confidence that we have more nuclear weapons than we need," Obama said.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said he interprets Obama's views as supportive of keeping only enough of them to deter existing nuclear powers like Russia and China -- not to deter attacks with other types of mass-casualty weapons like biological or chemical arms.
"Clearly we don't have to have 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear weapons to deter a Russian or Chinese nuclear attack," Kimball said in an interview. "Russia today has fewer than 1,500 deployed strategic warheads, and in five years they're not going to have any more than that -- they'll probably have fewer."
Also at stake are important decisions about multi-billion dollar investments in developing replacements for the current U.S. fleet of strategic nuclear submarines, as well as nuclear ground-based missiles and nuclear-capable bombers. Cartwright's Global Zero report estimated that U.S. nuclear modernization programs could run upwards of $200 billion over the next 20 years -- some portion of which could be saved if steps are taken now to further shrink the arsenal.
Russia faces a similar set of decisions about nuclear modernization, although it has publicly expressed little interest in starting a new round of negotiations with the U.S. on additional nuclear reductions. One sticking point for Moscow is its concern that U.S. missile defenses -- particularly those being placed in Europe -- could eventually undermine the deterrent value of Russia's strategic nuclear arsenal. In a meeting with then-President Dmitry Medvedev in March, Obama was heard saying that if reelected in November he would have more flexibility to deal with the matter of missile defense.