February 5, 2012


Obama's Turn on Nuclear Weapons: The White House and its Warheads (Joseph Cirincione, February 2, 2012, Foreign Affairs)

Ever since President Dwight Eisenhower, U.S. presidents upon taking office have asked the same question: Why does the country need so many nuclear weapons? The short answer is targeting. Current guidance requires the U.S. military to be prepared at any moment to unleash a first strike against targets in five countries: Russia, China, Iran, Syria, and North Korea. This thinking dates back to the targeting guidance developed by the Defense Department in the 1950s. The 1974 guidance, the most recent to be de-classified, details in 18 pages the types of facilities to be destroyed, including nuclear weapons and bases, conventional military installations, military and civilian command-and-control centers, and political and economic resources. In 1974, this included training "at least one weapon on an industrial facility in the top 250 urban areas in the Soviet Union and in the top 125 urban areas in the People's Republic of China," so as "to prolong their post-war recovery." This is the strategy that justifies the approximately 5,000 weapons in the U.S. arsenal today.

Here is where the budget squeeze could give nuclear reductions a new impetus. Current nuclear policy is very expensive. Each leg of the United States' nuclear triad -- long-range missiles, bombers, and submarines -- is reaching the end of its expected operational life. The Pentagon estimates that the U.S. Navy will have to spend $350 billion to build and operate a new fleet of 12 nuclear-armed submarines that it plans to slip into the water starting around 2030. The Office of Management and Budget recommended last December that the Navy build only ten, and some outside experts have suggested that eight would suffice. But the Navy argues that since submarines need time to get to and from port and undergo routine maintenance, it needs at least 12 subs to keep five on station at all times. Why would the Navy have to keep five of these new subs (two in the Atlantic and three in the Pacific), each with 16 missiles carrying up to eight nuclear warheads apiece, at sea ready to fire? Because the current nuclear policy guidance says it must.

That need not be the case. Obama could rewrite those policies to shrink the target list, eliminate the need to launch weapons in minutes, and make other common-sense improvements. For example, by dropping the requirement to launch approximately 1,000 weapons at targets within 20 minutes, he could reduce the number of submarines required on station, allowing for a secure submarine force of eight boats. That would save $20 billion over ten years and $120 billion over the life of the program. Delaying the new strategic bomber would save $18 billion over ten years, and canceling it, $68 billion over 20 to 30 years. Reducing the current arsenal of intercontinental ballistic missiles from 420 to 300 would save billions more, although no one is sure how much, because the government has never done what most businesses do routinely -- that is, cost out the options. 

Because one party or the other is going to get credit for the Peace Dividend.
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Posted by at February 5, 2012 7:38 AM

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