Former Strategic Command Chief Seeks Deep U.S. Nuclear Arsenal Curbs

A Trident 2 D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missile lifts off during a 1989 trial flight. A former head of the U.S. Strategic Command has endorsed a report calling for the elimination of all but 900 U.S. nuclear warheads (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin).
A Trident 2 D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missile lifts off during a 1989 trial flight. A former head of the U.S. Strategic Command has endorsed a report calling for the elimination of all but 900 U.S. nuclear warheads (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin).

A U.S. nuclear arsenal a fraction of its present size would remain effective in discouraging hostile action against the United States, according to a new assessment due for release on Wednesday with backing from former Vice Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff James Cartwright (see GSN, April 4).

The United States could sustain the power of its nuclear weapons to stave off aggression by maintaining only 450 nuclear warheads on delivery vehicles and an equal number of weapons in reserve, said Cartwright, who held responsibility for managing the nation's atomic stockpile as head of the U.S. Strategic Command. The proposal would eliminate the option of rapidly firing the launch-ready weapons, extending the wait to between one and three days in a measure designed to avert unintended conflict.

The analysis by the disarmament advocacy organization Global Zero calls for the abolition of all U.S. ICBMs; it advises placing 360 nuclear weapons on submarines and 90 bombs on bomber planes.

Ground-launched ICBMs "have no role to play any longer," Global Zero founder Bruce Blair said. Their launch facilities could become points of focus in a strike, and hitting Iranian or North Korean locations would necessitate a trajectory over Russia, raising the danger of "confusing Russia with ambiguous attack indications and triggering nuclear retaliation,” Blair said.

Antimissile measures stand to improve U.S. defenses as atomic stockpiles shrink, according to the document, which also notes defense budget limitations as a significant justification for deep arsenal curbs.

Moscow would also limit its atomic arsenal to 900 bombs under the plan (Thom Shanker, New York Times, May 15). Washington would carry out its own cuts over one decade, either on its own or as part of a deal with bilateral deal with its former Cold War rival, the Associated Press reported (Desmond Butler, Associated Press/Yahoo!News, May 16).

The assessment's recommendations are foreseen deriving credibility from Cartwright's prominent signature, and they extend far beyond reductions mandated by the U.S.-Russian New START treaty, according to the Times. That pact requires the two nations by 2018 to each reduce deployment of strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 and limits the number of fielded strategic warhead delivery platforms to 700, with an additional 100 systems permitted in reserve.

“The world has changed, but the current arsenal carries the baggage of the Cold War,” Cartwright told the Times. “There is the baggage of significant numbers in reserve. There is the baggage of a nuclear stockpile beyond our needs. What is it we’re really trying to deter? Our current arsenal does not address the threats of the 21st century.”

The United States must carry out such significant stockpile reductions if it is to authoritatively press for containment of nuclear arms initiatives more limited in size, like those overseen by India and Pakistan, Cartwright said. Significant U.S. arsenal curbs would also prove critical in diplomatically countering the possible emergence of nuclear-armed governments in Iran and North Korea, he said.

“A significant number of countries are not part of the dialogue” on atomic stockpile curbs, the former general said. In addition, the potential for extremists to seize atomic armaments would increase as such weapons spread to more countries lacking advanced protective mechanisms comparable to those in the United States, he added.

The analysis could shift the course of defense discussions tied to the 2012 presidential race, according to the Times (Shanker, New York Times). Still, a new U.S.-Russian bilateral arms control deal is improbable during the campaign and would have a high chance of hitting significant GOP opposition following this year's vote, according to AP (Butler, Associated Press).

The Global Zero paper has also received backing from former Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.),  former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Thomas Pickering, former NATO military officer John Sheehan and Richard Burt, President George H.W. Bush's top strategic weapons negotiator, the Times reported (Shanker, New York Times).

May 16, 2012
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A U.S. nuclear arsenal a fraction of its present size would remain effective in discouraging hostile action against the United States, according to a new assessment due for release on Wednesday with backing from former Vice Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff James Cartwright.