America’s policy of nuclear deterrence is being seriously threatened as President Obama considers proposals by the Defense Department that could cut the US nuclear arsenal by as much as 80 percent, reducing America’s deployed nuclear strategic warheads to as few as 300.
While the New START nuclear treaty with Russia commits the United States to reducing its arsenal of deployed strategic long-range nuclear weapons from 5,113 to 1,550 by 2018, it does not prohibit either country from cutting below those mandated levels.
Thus, the White House — as part of the Obama administration’s evaluation of America’s nuclear force requirements — is exploring ways to go even further below that nuclear threshold. The White House has directed the Defense Department to examine three levels of deployed strategic nuclear warheads: 1,000 to 1,100 warheads; 700 to 800 warheads; and 300 to 400 warheads.
Cutting America’s nuclear arsenal to 300 warheads — a level not seen since 1950 — would place the number of US strategic nuclear weapons at a level comparable with France, heightening fears that it would make America’s strategy of nuclear deterrence obsolete.
Yet, even if President Obama ultimately accepts the 1,100 level of strategic nuclear warheads, it would still represent a significant and serious nuclear cutback given that many American military officials claim that the 1,550 level mandated by New START is the lowest level that can be used to maintain deterrence of a nuclear attack.
Moreover, they argue, such a cutback in nuclear weapons would also serve to undermine the credibility of the nuclear “umbrella” that the United States extends to its allies (such as South Korea and Japan). Absent US nuclear protection, those countries may very well feel compelled to build their own nuclear forces. In fact, Saudi Arabia is already planning to initiate its own nuclear program if Iran gets a nuclear bomb.
Unfortunately, the decision to neuter America’s nuclear forces comes at the same time the Obama administration is working to heavily diminish America’s conventional forces, a process begun in January when Obama ordered a shift from the nation’s longstanding capability to fight two major conflicts at once.
That policy shift notwithstanding, the administration’s plan to cut its nuclear forces engendered harsh rebukes, with former UN ambassador John Bolton saying it was by itself “sufficient to vote against Obama in November,” while Republican Senator Jim Inhofe accused Obama of “catering to his liberal base that believes that, if we unilaterally disarm, the rest of the world will follow suit.”
For its part, the Obama administration maintains it is not pursuing unilateral cuts, but it is saying that the different nuclear level proposals being floated represent nuclear arsenal levels that could be negotiated with Russia in a future round of arms-control talks.
However, it doesn’t seem as if the Russians are in any hurry to further pare down their nuclear arsenal more than what has been mandated by New START. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin acknowledged as much when he recently said that Russia should keep its nuclear deterrence potential to ensure its strategic stability, saying, “We should not lead anyone to temptation by our weakness. That is why under no circumstances will we give up the strategic deterrence potential and we will strengthen it.”
To prove Putin’s point, in 2011 alone the Russian government announced plans that it was buying 36 strategic ballistic missiles, two strategic missile submarines, and 20 strategic cruise missiles. Additionally, during that time it reportedly modified its ICBMs and SLBMs (Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles) and increased its number of MIRVS (Multiple, Independently Targeted Warheads).
Also, in December 2011 Russia’s Strategic Missile Forces (SMF) announced that it would begin renovating its Topol-M and Yars RS-24 missile systems and start construction on a new 100-ton ballistic missile to replace the RS-36 Voyevoda ICBM, known as the Satan missile.
Of course, Russia isn’t the only nuclear state seeking to upgrade its nuclear arsenal. A recent report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri) reported that both Pakistan and India “continue to develop new ballistic and cruise missile systems capable of delivering nuclear weapons” as well as “expanding their capacities to produce fissile material for military purposes.”
To that end, Pakistan has reportedly increased its nuclear arsenal from an estimated 90 nuclear warheads in 2009 to 110 nuclear warheads, with reports it can reach 150-200 nuclear warheads within a decade. In July 2011, India received from Russia its the Akula-II class “Nerpa” nuclear attack submarine, equipped with 28 nuclear-capable cruise missiles with a striking range of 3,000 kilometers.
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