New U.S. Warhead Reductions Said to Depend on Nuclear Targeting Changes

(Apr. 1) -A nuclear-capable B-2 bomber prepares for takeoff.  Strategic Command officials have reportedly determined that reducing U.S. nuclear weapons would require a change to targeting plans (U.S. Air Force photo).
(Apr. 1) -A nuclear-capable B-2 bomber prepares for takeoff. Strategic Command officials have reportedly determined that reducing U.S. nuclear weapons would require a change to targeting plans (U.S. Air Force photo).

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Defense Department officials have concluded that they could not make any significant reductions to the nuclear arsenal unless President Barack Obama opted to scale back the nation's strategic targeting plan, according to nuclear weapons experts and officials (see GSN, March 30).

U.S. Strategic Command personnel based in Omaha, Neb., in recent weeks reviewed the possibility of slashing the weapons stockpile to 1,000 deployed warheads, Global Security Newswire has learned. The figure was measured against the command's contingency plans for how nuclear weapons might be used in the event of a nuclear war, according to sources familiar with the appraisal.

The analysis appears to have been initiated internally by Defense Department officials in anticipation of U.S.-Russian negotiations on an agreement to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expires in December (see related GSN story, today).

A Strategic Command spokesman, Col. Les Kodlick, yesterday declined to confirm his organization's early assessment or respond directly to questions about the matter. However, he noted that the command "may be asked to participate in analysis of specific proposals" as the new administration reviews the U.S. defense and nuclear strategies.

Obama today issued a joint statement with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, pledging to conclude a new agreement to lower nuclear arms caps and enhance mutual security. Negotiators are to report by July on their progress toward achieving the pact, which the White House said both sides intend to complete by year's end.

The Obama administration has said it seeks a treaty that allows for "dramatic reductions" in all U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons.

The notional objective of a 1,000-warhead deployed stockpile used in the U.S. military assessment was likely based on press reports about reductions that might be negotiated, rather than on any specific White House guidance, according to some experts.

"The two sides could easily go to 1,000 weapons each in this next round," the New York Times opined in a Jan. 29 editorial. Six days later, London's Financial Times cited an unnamed administration official saying that "nobody would be surprised if the number reduced to the 1,000 mark for the post-START treaty."

However, some observers suspect these reports have jumped the gun.

"In reality, with the new president in office less than a month and a new nuclear policy review just beginning, decisions about how low to go" and other treaty specifics "have not been made," Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said in a Feb. 13 opinion piece in the St. Petersburg Times.

The New York Times reported today that U.S. and Russian officials had privately said they might agree to reduce their arsenals to 1,500 warheads each.

Any new policy might not be released publicly until the administration completes its Nuclear Posture Review, a broad assessment of atomic weapons strategy that the Pentagon is expected to lead this year. The Bush administration undertook the last such review in 2001.

In the quick look provided recently to the Pentagon, Strategic Command analysts found that the United States could not implement a reduction below current U.S.-Russian caps of 1,700 to 2,200 deployed warheads without new limits on the missions assigned to nuclear weapons, according to U.S. officials and experts.

The United States has already reduced to these Moscow Treaty limits and Russia is well on its way toward meeting them by a 2012 deadline (see GSN, Feb. 11). The 2002 agreement lacks any verification methods, but Washington and Moscow have continued to monitor each other's stockpiles using START protocols that lapse on Dec. 5.

Under its highly secret nuclear targeting plan, the U.S. military offsets other atomic stockpiles -- primarily Moscow's -- by maintaining an arsenal that could absorb a nuclear strike and remain capable of significant retaliation.

The strategy demands a high degree of confidence of destroying adversary targets, meaning that multiple weapons might be assigned to the same endpoint to assure its annihilation. Targets could include deeply buried command-and-control bunkers, other military facilities or industrial centers, according to experts.

To further reduce the nuclear arsenal, Obama would have to lay out a revised nuclear strategy that includes changes such as limiting the nature or quantity of targets to be destroyed, according to U.S. officials. A new strategy might also allow for decreased confidence -- known in military lingo as "kill probability" -- that particular targets will be hit.

If the same targeting policy were to remain in place, the U.S. military's "answer was you can't go to 1,000 weapons without dramatically changing the capability you field," said one retired nuclear weapons officer. "You can't suddenly say we could do the same thing with 1,000 that [we] could do with 1,700."

The former officer requested anonymity in discussing military and political issues associated with the nation's highly secretive nuclear targeting plans.

Whether further reductions could be taken "depends on policy," Billy Mullins, a senior Air Force nuclear weapons planning official, said in an interview. "They could make a decision that ... we're not going to [go after particular] targets. If that's what drives [the size of the arsenal], that'll change the answer" about what reductions can be taken, he said.

Experts describe a delicate balance that the military must strike between fulfilling its assigned targeting responsibilities and finding ways to implement sought-after nuclear weapons reductions.

"It's a dance," said the former officer.

Strategic Command's initial assessment also "reflects a frustration" on the part of military personnel "who believe they are doing a legitimate mission, but are now being told to do the same mission with 60 percent fewer resources," this nuclear weapons expert said. "And then they will be asked to certify that they could do it with fewer resources."

However, Kimball said the Strategic Command view of the challenges involved in taking nuclear weapons reductions should not be interpreted as resistance to Obama's possible negotiating stance.

"That's not pushback, that's reality," he said in an interview. "The 2001 Nuclear Posture Review set forth a strategy that calls for a certain number of missions [and a] certain number of targets, and the Pentagon determined that they could fulfill that mission with no fewer than 1,700 warheads."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has signaled that she would pursue a shift in U.S. policy that could lay the groundwork for a bilateral reductions agreement with Moscow. The U.S.-Russian negotiations and Washington's internal policy review would take place simultaneously, she said in January.

"The Obama administration plans to set a new direction in nuclear weapons policy, one that reflects the changed security conditions of the 21st century," Clinton stated in response to questions from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "While some of the key elements of the revised approach may not take shape until the [Nuclear Posture Review] is completed, negotiations on the next step in the arms reduction process -- replacing the current START Treaty -- can begin even while the posture review is under way."

However, the former officer said resistance to any new reductions might be expected to grow, as nuclear weapons advocates sense a further decline in their political clout. Officials at the Defense and Energy departments could seek to exploit any wavering in the new president's commitment to a revised policy, according to this source.

"There will be resistance unless the Obama administration can clearly articulate what they want and where they want to go," said the former officer.

Last fall, during the waning months of the Bush administration, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said a smaller nuclear arsenal would require either more modern weapons or a return to underground testing, though he would not endorse the latter.

"To be blunt, there is absolutely no way we can maintain a credible deterrent and reduce the number of weapons in our stockpile without resorting to testing our stockpile or pursuing a modernization program," Gates said in an October speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (see GSN, Oct. 29, 2008).

In last month's interview, Mullins echoed this view, suggesting that reductions could occur only if the Obama administration invests in modern upgrades to the remaining warheads.

Last year, after Congress twice rejected Bush administration plans for a new Reliable Replacement Warhead to increase the safety, security and reliability of the nuclear arsenal, U.S. officials turned their sights to retrofitting upgrades into existing weapons (see GSN, Sept. 12, 2008).

"Could we make some cuts? We probably could," Mullins said. "But whatever remains needs to be in good condition. We need to be able to rely upon it. It needs to be safe, so the American people aren't worried about our own weapons. They need to be secure so that terrorists can't get at them, [and to preserve] that foundation of deterrence."

April 1, 2009
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WASHINGTON -- U.S. Defense Department officials have concluded that they could not make any significant reductions to the nuclear arsenal unless President Barack Obama opted to scale back the nation's strategic targeting plan, according to nuclear weapons experts and officials (see GSN, March 30).