Obama's 'Radical' Option for America's Nuclear Future

The nuclear glory days of the Cold War are over, so why has our nuclear strategy gone unchanged?

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A U. S. Air Force missile maintenance technician guides the fourth stage of a Peacekeeper nuclear missile into a truck after being taken off the top of the rocket in an underground silo near Hawk Springs, Wyoming. President George W. Bush, in 2002, ordered it and 49 other Peacekeepers to be dismantled. / Reuters

The Obama administration is considering revamping its nuclear weapons strategy and possibly reducing the number of warheads, according to plans that caused an uproar among some conservatives almost as soon as they were leaked to the press. House Republican Trent Franks of the Armed Services Committee called the proposals "reckless lunacy." The White House says that the president hasn't even seen the options yet, much less decided on one. But, whether lunatic or not, the package does include some ideas that would fundamentally change the nature and purpose of the nuclear arsenal. And while that might unnerve some people, maybe it's time to acknowledge that the world has changed dramatically since we first started building nuclear weapons, and it might be time for our nuclear weapons to change with it.

Even before becoming president, Obama said that he wanted a fundamental reevaluation of the place that nuclear weapons have in the nation's security equation, that Cold War thinking had to be abandoned, and that we should even look forward to a world free of nuclear weapons sometime in the indeterminate future. Every administration develops its own rules, or military doctrine, describing the purpose of nuclear weapons and when and how they might be used, all of which it then sets forth in a document called The Nuclear Posture Review. The Obama administration, for the first time ever, made the Review public, opening it up for discussion. While his administration's Review, released in 2010, hinted that it might soon be time to radically reevaluate the role of nuclear weapons in American security, it actually called for some very cautious baby steps (not the wild leaps that some conservatives seem to imagine) from the nuclear doctrines that go right back to the nuclear glory days of the Cold War.

The president then asked the Pentagon to develop, based on the Nuclear Posture Review, several options for what role U.S. nuclear forces should play. These are the options that were leaked and apparently include cutting up to 80 percent of the deployed nuclear weapons, leaving 300 or so ready-to-use nuclear warheads. Perhaps thousands more - the U.S. currently has 8,500 warheads -- would remain in storage.

The criticism wasn't tough to predict. Any specific number is easy to attack as arbitrary and 80 percent reductions have been portrayed as unilateral disarmament. But the numbers aren't what's most important here. What really matters is the decision that Obama faces in determining the future roles of nuclear weapons in U.S., and thus global, security. A force of 300 weapons, considering that each is five to 50 times as powerful as the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, would hardly leave the country defenseless. But 300 would force us to change how we currently think about using nuclear weapons, the jobs we've assigned them in our military and foreign policy.

Today, the U.S. and Russia each have many hundreds of powerful nuclear weapons ready to launch at a moment's notice, with a few thousand more stashed away, to be brought out if needed. Why so many, and why are they kept on constant high alert? Looking around the world, Russian nuclear weapons are the only conceivable targets that could justify such high numbers of U.S. nuclear weapons. There are two reasons that the U.S. always keeps hundreds of weapons ready to launch within minutes, and both are a response to Russian nuclear forces. First, in the extremely unlikely event that Pentagon leaders were convinced that Russia were about to launch its weapons, the U.S. could strike first, destroying Russian weapons on the ground and reducing the damage from the expected Russian attack. Second, if Russia attacked first and actually got their missiles in the air, the U.S. could launch its missiles before the Russian bombs arrived. But Russia's rational for keeping its own massive arsenal is likely the same. In short, two decades after the end of the Cold War, the most important justification for U.S. nuclear weapons is Russian nuclear weapons, and the most important justification for Russian nuclear weapons is U.S. nuclear weapons. The Cold War's nuclear leftovers have become a perpetual motion machine.

This all might have made sense when the Red Army was west of Berlin and the two sides saw themselves locked in a life-or-death struggle that only one could survive in the long term. That era is over. Today, although there are points of diplomatic contention between the U.S. and Russia, there is no point of confrontation, no foreseeable danger, no threat that would for one moment justify the extreme horror of a nuclear attack, except of course, the threat of the nuclear weapons themselves. How many warheads do we really need? Imagine the worst transgression that might occur between Russia (by far the most heavily armed nuclear state other than America) and the U.S.; for example, a Russian invasion of a Baltic NATO partner. Then ask how many nuclear bombs have to go back and forth before both sides say that, whatever the stakes in play, the catastrophe of further nuclear war isn't worth it and they stop in their tracks. The answer might very well be one or even a dozen, but it definitely is not 300, the supposedly radical option coming out of the Pentagon.

The president and the nation have a real choice and it's about much more than how many warheads we deploy; it's about why we have nuclear weapons at all and what we want them for. We are constantly told that nuclear weapons are for deterrence. Indeed, they are often referred to simply as the "deterrent force." But we are fooling ourselves with this leftover Cold War euphemism. Today's nuclear arsenal is designed and deployed for nuclear war-fighting. Even if being able to fight and win a nuclear war is one way to deter nuclear attack, it is not the only way, and it is certainly not the safest, most stable, way to do it. If the U.S. decides that nuclear weapons really are for nuclear deterrence -- that is, that they have no purpose but to convince other nations not to use nuclear weapons against us -- then numbers in the low hundreds are not a radical leap but a natural consequence. Both sides can stop targeting the other's nuclear forces on the ground, allowing each to be more confident in their ability to retaliate if necessary. This greater confidence will allow even more reductions later on, likely sparking a feedback loop that could ultimately result in very different, much smaller, and much safer nuclear arsenals.

The two old Cold War nuclear superpowers are approaching a decision point. Do each of them see their nuclear weapons as an important counter to the single gravest, most immediate threat they face -- namely, the nuclear arsenal of the other side? Or, will each of them see that their own nuclear weapons are simply half of the machinery that creates that threat, that their own nuclear weapons, in net, contribute more danger than security? Neither has quite gotten up the courage, but they seem cautiously willing to explore the first small step along the path of denuclearizing their relationship.