As the press reported on February 15th, Obama is considering deep unilateral cuts in the US nuclear arsenal despite the opinion of the Nation’s military leaders that the 1,550 deployed warheads authorized by New START are the absolute minimum necessary to deter other countries, including Russia and China. He has already decided, a priori, that drastic cuts will happen and the only question for him is how deeply to cut the stockpile. He has ordered the DOD to present him with three options of cuts: a) down to 1,000 warheads (i.e. by more than 33%); b) to 700-800 warheads (by more than 50%); and c) to just 300 warheads (i.e. by 80%). And Obama will be the one deciding how deeply to reduce it, and doing so based on nothing but his pacifist ideology.
After he makes the cuts, the DOD will have to work out a new “deterrence strategy” in the ruins of these cuts. (Former national security officials say this is the first time in US history that a President is cuttng the US arsenal and only then leaves the DOD to formulate a strategy, instead of first developing a strategy and then suiting the nuclear arsenal to it.)
What is wrong with these cuts? To start with, everything.
Firstly, defense cuts, including reductions of weapon arsenals – especially steep ones – make the military weaker and the country less safe. They also embolden America’s enemies, who see an America disarming itself as an encouragement for aggression.
Secondly, these cuts would be unilateral; no other country is going to, nor will be obliged to, make any arsenal reductions whatsoever. Disarmament of any kind is foolish, but unilateral disarmament is even moreso, and is suicidal. It deprives you of your weapons while the potential enemy retains his arsenal. Any steep unilateral cuts would invite a nuclear first strike by Russia and perhaps even China (depending on how deep the cuts would be). (Don’t think that Russia and China would spare the US from such a strike if they could conduct it and get away with it.) That is always the consequence of unilateral disarmament.
Even the “modest” reduction which Obama is mulling will enable and invite a Russian nuclear first strike on the US. That’s because even the “modest” option would entail a reduction of the deployed US nuclear arsenal by 33%, from 1550 to 1000 warheads, while Russia would retain all 1550 warheads allowed by the New START. This would mean that the deployed Russian arsenal (1550 warheads) would be 55% larger than the deployed US arsenal (1000 warheads). This would mean that Russia would need to destroy fewer targets, making a first strike far easier, far more attractive, and possible, for the Russians. The US nuclear arsenal would be 33% smaller than the Russian one (which would be bad by itself), but the Russian arsenal would be 55% larger than the American arsenal, just as 9 is 50% larger than 6 and 15 is 50% larger than 10. If Russia will have a nuclear arsenal that will be even 41%-50% larger than the US arsenal, it will conduct a nuclear first strike because it will be possible and very easy for Russia to conduct it. Moreover, a Russian deputy defense minister has recently said he can’t rule out Russia growing its nuclear arsenal above New START limits “under certain circumstances”.
It is unclear how many warheads China has, but it’s estimated to possess at least 350-400 and perhaps twice as many. When US inspectors visited the Soviet Union in 1991, they found that US intel agencies underestimated its nuclear arsenal’s size by 2 times. It consisted of 40,000 warheads, not 20,000 as US intel estimated.
Thirdly, any further reductions (let alone steep and unilateral ones) will undermine allied countries’ confidence in the US nuclear umbrella and may cause these allies to develop their own nuclear weapons, thus making the proliferation problem much worse. This is not a mere hypothetical concern: Arab countries in the Gulf are already considering this. If the US guts its own deterrent, the Gulf states will have no choice but to “go nuclear”. Remember that while Russia is a threat to many and a protector to none, the US provides a nuclear umbrella to 32 allied countries.
Fourthly, deep cuts in the US arsenal, unilateral or otherwise, will dramatically reduce its deterrent value while significantly boosting that of the nuclear weapons of other countries – not just Russia’s (1,550 strategic warheads) and China’s (which has at least 350, and perhaps twice as many), but also France’s, North Korea’s, India’s, Pakistan’s, and in the future, those of Iran and anyone else who might acquire nuclear weapons – because, as Sen. Jon Kyl rightly points out, any idiot will need to build only 300 warheads to reach nuclear parity with the US. This will make the proliferation problem even much worse by encouraging countries to develop nuclear weapons.
Fifth, unilateral disarmament would be a huge unilateral concession which would only embolden foreign countries to pocket it and demand more concessions by the US. That’s what always happens when you give things up unilaterally, as proven by Obama’s unilateral concessions to Moscow on missile defense and other issues.
These would be the grave consequences of making such deep cuts to the US, especially if done unilaterally, or indeed any further cuts to an arsenal which former Defense/Energy Secretary James Schlesinger deems is “barely adequate” under New START limits. But here’s what these unilateral cuts would not do.
They would not save a lot of money. The DOE’s defense-related budget is just $17 bn per year, and only a fraction of that is spent on nuclear weapons. (Congressman Markey’s proposal to “save” $100 bn by cutting spending on maintaining nuclear weapons is a fantasy.) Nothing to gain for fiscal conservatives or deficit hawks.
They would not ameliorate, let alone solve, the proliferation problem; the US is not the one proliferating nuclear weapons, materiel, technology, or know-how. China and North Korea are the champions in that sport, and have been doing so despite multiple rounds of US arsenal cuts. In fact, cuts of the US arsenal would only make the proliferation problem much worse for the reasons stated above.
They would not prevent nuclear weapons from falling into terrorists’ hands (which, by the way, is a remote threat). American nuclear weapons are protected by multiple sets of locks and codes, stored in secure facilities, and handled carefully. There is zero risk of US nuclear weapons being stolen by, let alone deliberately given to, terrorists – and they would then have to obtain a matching delivery system, too, which they won’t. A B61 nuclear bomb can only be delivered by a plane, not a missile, and vice versa.
They wouldn’t “set an example” and convince other countries to reduce their nuclear arsenals. Leadership by example never works in the disarmament realm. If anything, unilateral cuts would only encourage other countries to develop their own atomic weapons, and prompt existing nuclear powers to grow their arsenals to gain parity with, or (depending on how deeply the US cuts its stockpile) even an advantage over, America. This would be a nightmare scenario.
In sum, there is no reason to make these cuts, or indeed, any cuts in the US nuclear arsenal, which US military leaders say is already at its minimum required size. There is every reason NOT to cut the arsenal any further, especially not unilaterally.
Congress needs to pass a statute prohibiting the President from making any further reductions, and force Obama to honor his part of the bargain he made in 2010, when the Senate was considering New START, to allow, plan, program, and fully fund the modernization of the nuclear arsenal and of the triad of delivery systems. Nothing short of that will do.