U.S. weighing steep nuclear arms cuts

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Obama administration is weighing options for sharp new cuts to the U.S. nuclear force, including a reduction of up to 80 percent in the number of deployed weapons, the Associated Press has learned.

Even the most modest option now under consideration would be a historic and politically bold disarmament step in a presidential election year, although the plan is in line with President Obama’s 2009 pledge to pursue the elimination of nuclear weapons.

No final decision has been made, but the administration is considering at least three options for lower total numbers of deployed strategic nuclear weapons, cutting 1,000 to 1,100, 700 to 800 and 300 to 400, according to a former government official and a congressional staffer. Both spoke on condition of anonymity in order to reveal internal administration deliberations.

The potential cuts would be from a current treaty limit of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads.

A level of 300 deployed strategic nuclear weapons would take the U.S. back to levels not seen since 1950, when the nation was ramping up production in an arms race with the Soviet Union. The U.S. numbers peaked at above 12,000 in the late 1980s and first dropped below 5,000 in 2003.

Mr. Obama often has cited his desire to seek lower levels of nuclear weapons, but specific options for a further round of cuts were kept under wraps until the AP learned of the three options now on the table.

A spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council, Tommy Vietor, said Tuesday that the options developed by the Pentagon have not yet been presented to Mr. Obama.

The Pentagon’s press secretary, George Little, declined to comment on specific force-level options because they are classified. He said Mr. Obama had asked the Pentagon to develop several “alternative approaches” to nuclear deterrence.

The U.S. could make further weapons reductions on its own but is seen as more likely to propose a new round of arms negotiations with Russia, in which cuts in deployed weapons would be one element in a possible new treaty between the former Cold War adversaries.

Even small proposed cuts are likely to draw heavy criticism from Republicans, who have argued that a smaller nuclear force would weaken the U.S. at a time when Russia, China and others are strengthening their nuclear capabilities. They also argue that shrinking the American arsenal would undermine the credibility of the nuclear “umbrella” that the United States provides for allies such as Japan, South Korea and Turkey, who might otherwise build their own nuclear forces.

The administration last year began considering a range of possible future reductions below the levels agreed in the New START pact with Russia that took effect a year ago. Options are expected to be presented to Mr. Obama soon. The force levels he settles on will form the basis of a new strategic nuclear war plan to be produced by the Pentagon.

The U.S. already is on track to reduce to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads by 2018, as required by New START. As of last Sept. 1, the United States had 1,790 warheads, and Russia had 1,566, according to treaty-mandated reports by each. The treaty does not bar either country from cutting below 1,550 on its own.

Those who favor additional cuts argue that nuclear weapons have no role in major security threats of the 21st century, such as terrorism. A 2010 nuclear policy review by the Pentagon said the U.S. nuclear arsenal also is “poorly suited” to deal with challenges posed by “unfriendly regimes seeking nuclear weapons” — an apparent reference to Iran.

It’s unclear what calculus went into each of the three options now under consideration at the White House.

The notion of a 300-weapon arsenal is featured prominently in a paper written for the Pentagon by a RAND National Defense Project Institute analyst last October, in the early stages of the administration’s review of nuclear requirements. The author, Paul K. Davis, wrote that he was not advocating any particular course of action but sought to provide an analytic guide for how policymakers could think about the implications of various levels of nuclear reductions.

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