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Obama to Consider Deep Reductions to Launch-Ready Nuclear Force

Technicians prepare to transfer a U.S. W-76 nuclear warhead, a weapon deployed on the country's Trident 2 D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The Pentagon has formulated at least three plans for significantly cutting the quantity of strategic nuclear warheads fielded on U.S. missiles and bombers (U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration photo). Technicians prepare to transfer a U.S. W-76 nuclear warhead, a weapon deployed on the country's Trident 2 D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The Pentagon has formulated at least three plans for significantly cutting the quantity of strategic nuclear warheads fielded on U.S. missiles and bombers (U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration photo).

The U.S. Defense Department has drafted three proposals for significantly reducing how many strategic nuclear warheads the nation maintains on its launch-ready missiles and aircraft, laying the groundwork for a decisive move by President Obama to curb U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons in the thick of this year's electoral race, the Associated Press reported on Tuesday (see GSN, Feb. 14).

The proposals would respectively lower the number of nuclear warheads the United States maintains on delivery vehicles to ranges between 1,000 and 1,100,  700 and 800, or 300 and 400, a legislative staff member and a former federal employee said. An arms control treaty with Russia now commits the United States by 2018 to reduce deployment of strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550 (see GSN, Feb. 13).

President Obama has yet to formally receive the proposals, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said on Tuesday.

News of the plans marked the first public disclosure of specific nuclear force curbs under consideration by the Obama's administration, but the president has expressed support for such cuts, according to AP. Obama pledged in an April 2009 speech in Prague to "put an end to Cold War thinking" and "reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy."

Pentagon spokesman George Little refused to address the proposed deployment curbs, which remain confidential, but he acknowledged the president had asked the department to prepare a number of "alternative approaches" to executing the nuclear arsenal's function in supporting the nation's security.

The nation's quantity of launch-ready warheads has exceeded 300 since 1950, near the start of a Cold War buildup that went above 12,000 weapons in the years immediately prior to the Soviet Union's collapse. The United States was maintaining fewer than 5,000 warheads on delivery systems as of 2003.

An effort by Washington to pursue such curbs as part of a potential new arms control deal with Moscow is considered most probable, though unilateral U.S. nuclear force curbs are possible, according to AP.

"The administration is absolutely correct to look at deep cuts like this. The United States does not rely on nuclear weapons as a central part of our security," said Stephen Young, a senior expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists, which advocates for arms control.

The administration in 2011 began examining potential U.S. nuclear force reductions beyond those required by the New START pact, which entered into force last February. New START requires each government by 2018 to reduce deployment of strategic nuclear warheads to 1,550, down from a cap of 2,200 mandated by next year under an older treaty. It also limits the number of fielded strategic warhead delivery platforms to 700, with an additional 100 systems permitted in reserve.

Obama is set in the near future to receive the reduction plans, and his resulting decisions on the proposals would inform the preparation of a new strategic nuclear war plan by the Defense Department (see GSN, Jan. 24).

The U.S. nuclear force is "poorly suited" for problems involving "unfriendly regimes seeking nuclear weapons," according to a 2-year-old department-led study of U.S. nuclear forces and capabilities (see GSN, April 6, 2010). The document was apparently referring to Iran, according to AP.

It was uncertain how the Pentagon arrived at the specific deployment reduction proposals, AP reported.

A 300-warhead arsenal might meet U.S. defense needs in the presence of a multilateral arms control regime with robust verification mechanisms; further U.S. conventional forces with a worldwide range; and "hypothetically excellent" U.S. antimissile measures, RAND specialist Paul Davis wrote in a study published last October, as the government was beginning its nuclear force assessment.

Three Air Force experts in a 2010 Strategic Studies Quarterly assessment said a fielded 311-warhead nuclear arsenal would meet U.S. requirements, regardless of whether Russia made separate reductions.

Deep deployment curbs could pave the way for eliminating one leg of the U.S. "triad" of land-, air-, and sea-based nuclear-weapon delivery systems, according to AP (see GSN, Jan. 30).

Conservatives, though, have voiced concerns over the potential for such atomic arsenal reductions to undercut the nation's extended deterrence commitments to nations including Japan, South Korea and Turkey, potentially encouraging them to pursue their own nuclear-weapon capacities. In addition, they have raised concerns about nuclear force modernization efforts under way in countries including Russia and China (Robert Burns, Associated Press/Google News, Feb. 14).

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