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.
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.
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.