WASHINGTON – The Obama administration's consideration of severe cuts in nuclear weapons generated a flurry of GOP criticism — "reckless lunacy" in the words of Arizona Rep. Trent Franks. But the historical record shows that in the two decades since the Cold War ended, Republicans have been the boldest cutters of the nuclear arsenal.
"Republican presidents seem to have a thing for 50 percent nuclear reductions," says Hans Kristensen, a nuclear arms specialist with the Federation of American Scientists, a think tank founded by many of the scientists who built the first atomic bombs.
For example, on President George H.W. Bush's watch, the number of deployed weapons as well as those held in reserve was nearly cut in half, from 22,217 to 13,708 warheads, according to official U.S. government figures. The number of deployed strategic warheads dropped from 12,300 to 7,114 in that same period, by Kristensen's calculations.
As part of that move, taken as fears of a nuclear Armageddon at the Cold War's end were diminishing, the Republican president announced in September 1991 that he unilaterally was retiring all ground-based U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe and South Korea and removing all nuclear weapons from U.S. naval surface ships.
Submarines remain armed with nuclear missiles as part of a "triad" of land-, air- and sea-based weapons that is the enduring core of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
President George W. Bush went further, cutting the total stockpile by 50 percent, from 10,526 to 5,273 warheads. By Kristensen's count, the number of deployed warheads fell to 1,968 by the time Bush left office in January 2009.
In his two terms, Democratic President Bill Clinton trimmed just a little more than 2,000 warheads from the stockpile.
No commander in chief, however, ever cut the nuclear force to as low a number as Obama might under a set of options that his administration is considering now.
One option is to cut the number of deployed long-range weapons to a range of 1,000 to 1,100; a second would drop it to between 700 and 800; a third is to go down to between 300 and 400.
That compares with the 1,550 warhead limit set by a U.S.-Russia arms pact, known as the New START treaty, which took effect one year ago.
Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, said Friday that he would be aghast at the notion of deep cuts to the nuclear force.
"Never before has a president done something like this," Turner said. "Yes, presidents since Truman have updated the nation's nuclear war plan. But I cannot find a precedent for a president to tell the national security team that, regardless of the nuclear weapons modernization programs of China, Russia, Pakistan, North Korea and others, the U.S. should plan to reduce to as low as 300 nuclear weapons."
Those three options, first reported by The Associated Press on Tuesday, have not yet been presented to Obama for a decision. James Miller, the Pentagon official who has led a study of U.S. strategic nuclear weapons requirements, said Wednesday that another option is to stick to the 1,550 limit. But Miller also suggested that getting below 1,500 is more likely.
Miller told a nuclear deterrence symposium that he believes the U.S. can strengthen deterrence and maintain its security obligations to allies, while reducing the risks of the spread of nuclear technologies and arms, with a smaller nuclear force.
"So that's a little bit of a hint" at what he will be advocating as Obama contemplates options for cutting the force, Miller said. He said options would be presented to Obama "soon."
It would be a major surprise if Obama chose to cut to 300 deployed warheads, not least because it seems highly unlikely that the Russians would agree to anything nearly that low. It's possible that Obama may make some unilateral reductions, with an expectation of reciprocal moves by Moscow. At any rate it may be years before U.S.-Russian negotiations even get started.
Rose Gottemoeller, the State Department's top arms control official, said Wednesday that preliminary discussions with the Russians are under way to try to set the stage for negotiations.
The eye-popping option of cutting to 300 weapons sparked a firestorm of criticism by Republicans on Capitol Hill.
"A 300 number would (mean) the Chinese would have more than we have," Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl said Thursday. "I mean, this is a number where anybody that wanted to could build up to that number and be a peer with the United States. The whole point of nuclear deterrent is to have so much and so great a capability that nobody ever messes with you."
Actually, the Chinese may have as many as 300 nuclear weapons but that is their total stockpile. If the U.S. cut to 300 deployed weapons it would still have many hundreds, if not thousands, of others on standby status for use in a crisis. At present the U.S. has about 1,790 deployed long-range nuclear weapons, and the total stockpile stands at about 5,000.
To put the numbers in perspective, the U.S. and Russia have about 90 percent of all nuclear weapons in the world.
Turner was among 34 House members to sign a letter Friday to Obama calling it "inconceivable to us" that his administration would make steep reductions in nuclear weapons, combined with what they called the president's abandonment of an earlier pledge for a long-term commitment — and tens of billions of dollars — to modernize the nation's nuclear weapons program.
"Surely you agree that blind ideology cannot drive a matter as important as U.S. nuclear forces over reality," they wrote.
Federation of American Scientists: http://www.fas.org/
Arms Control Association: http://www.armscontrol.org/
Robert Burns can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/robertburnsAP