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U.S. Reserve Nuke Holdings Could be Reduced: Air Force Chief

The top U.S. Air Force officer said the United States could reduce the size of its "active reserve" stockpile of nuclear weapons, the Boston Globe reported on Monday (see GSN, Aug. 18, 2011).

“We have more backup systems in terms of weapons systems than we actually have deployed,” Gen. Norton Schwartz, Air Force chief of staff, said to the newspaper. “Some of that is a reasonable hedge (but) there is probably room for reductions.’’

The Defense Department holds roughly 2,800 hedge warheads that could be returned to service as needed, according to a May report written on behalf of the disarmament organization Global Zero by issue experts including retired Gen. James Cartwright, former head of U.S. Strategic Command. The active nuclear arsenal consists of about 1,700 warheads that could be launched from land, sea or air (see GSN, June 4).

The New START treaty, which entered into force last year, requires Russia and the United States by 2018 to each cut the size of the deployed strategic nuclear force to 1,550 warheads and 700 delivery systems. The Obama administration has said repeatedly it would like to pursue additional cuts in collaboration with Russia.

The Global Zero report posits a "notional" U.S. nuclear arsenal that consists of 900 warheads, half of which would be kept in reserve. All ICBMs would be scrapped.

Schwartz, whose service manages the land- and air-based branches of the strategic deterrent, has already objected to that idea (see GSN, May 18).

Lawmakers and defense firms are likely to fight any effort to make significant reductions to the backup nuclear force, as are issue specialists who believe a major U.S. deterrent is required to deal with potential threats arising from nations such as Iran and China, the Globe reported. The United States must also maintain its "nuclear umbrella" of protection for dozens of partner states, some argue.

However, offering reductions to the reserve force could be used to persuade Russia to reduce its arsenal of short-range nuclear missiles that could be used against NATO states, according to Daryl Kimball, head of the Washington-based Arms Control Association.

A smaller reserve force also would require less spending on maintenance, safety and security.

“We can save money and logistics costs if we could get at the reserve,” said Jon Wolfsthal, formerly a top counselor on arms control issues for Vice President Joseph Biden.

The Obama administration is said to be considering options for making further cuts to the nuclear stockpile, according to previous reporting (see GSN, July 20).

While the administration would like a new treaty to encompass active and reserve weapons, Kimball indicated, issue specialists says such a move would force moves that have not yet proven politically possible. That would include upgrading the nation's nuclear disassembly capabilities.

“We are running that dismantlement program at full capacity,” Schwartz said.

Wolfsthal, though, argued that the expense of maintaining the hedge weapons dwarfs the money that would be needed to upgrade the Pantex warhead disassembly plant in Texas. He noted the estimated $10 billion price tag for modernizing the nation's arsenal of B-61 nuclear gravity bombs (see GSN, Aug. 3).

“For 1 percent of that you could speed up dismantlement by half,” he said. “You can dismantle them quick if we spend a little more but no one has taken on that issue" (Bryan Bender, Boston Globe, Aug. 6).

 

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