A fresh U.S. defense strategy unveiled by President Obama at the Pentagon on Thursday asserts that nuclear deterrence can be maintained with a smaller stockpile, while renewing earlier assurances that the remaining arsenal would be kept “safe, secure and effective” (see GSN, Jan. 5).
The Defense Department released an 11-page document outlining a new set of priorities for the military at what it called an “inflection point,” as longtime troop commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down.
The strategy blueprint, titled “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” is short on specifics but indicates that a secret nuclear-policy review the Pentagon completed last month set the stage for reductions below New START levels (see GSN, Nov. 8, 2011).
The U.S.-Russian arms-control treaty, which entered into force last year, mandates that by February 2018 each side cap its fielded strategic nuclear arsenal at 1,550 warheads. The pact also limits each nation’s deployed nuclear delivery systems to 700, with an additional 100 bombers, ICBMs or sea-based ballistic missiles permitted in reserve.
“It is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force, which would reduce the number of nuclear weapons in our inventory as well as their role in U.S. national security strategy,” the new policy outline states.
Details about how a more limited U.S. atomic arsenal could continue to deter conflict even as conventional defense equipment, troop levels, and major operations abroad are being scaled back were largely left out of the strategy document.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and his deputy, Ashton Carter, said on Thursday that specific programs and force structure to be reduced would be identified within the next few weeks as Obama delivers his State of the Union speech -- slated for Jan. 25 -- and sends a fiscal 2013 federal budget request to Congress shortly thereafter.
“Our judgment [is] that we can maintain deterrence at lower levels of forces, but I will defer any discussion of specific programmatic details to the budget when it rolls out,” Michele Flournoy, the Defense undersecretary for policy, said at the Thursday press briefing.
An overall defense-strategy relook would have been necessary at such a juncture but was hastened by a roughly $490 billion budget cut over the next decade that represents the Pentagon’s “part in helping the nation put its fiscal house in order,” Panetta told reporters after the president delivered remarks without taking questions.
The department might also have to absorb another $500 billion in reductions over the same time frame if lawmakers fail to negotiate a new approach to deficit reductions by the end of this year.
The administration also used the policy document to reaffirm its commitment to maintaining viable U.S. nuclear warheads and the technologies built to deliver them.
“As long as nuclear weapons remain in existence, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal,” states the policy directive. “We will field nuclear forces that can under any circumstances confront an adversary with the prospect of unacceptable damage, both to deter potential adversaries and to assure U.S. allies and other security partners that they can count on America’s security commitments.”
Pentagon leaders plan to design and build new bomber aircraft and ballistic-missile-carrying submarines over the next couple of decades, as well as replace the nation’s aging ICBM fleet, all of which is expected to cost hundreds of billions of dollars. A former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the since-retired Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, said in July that the Defense Department challenge is that "we have to recapitalize all three legs [of the triad] and we don't have the money to do it."
It is unclear whether the upcoming budget plan for fiscal 2013 and future years would significantly alter any of these nuclear modernization efforts. If the administration wants to avoid unilateral reductions to the nuclear arsenal, it is likely to await new negotiations with Russia on lower numbers before enshrining cuts in its out-year budget plans.
In an e-mailed commentary on Thursday, Daryl Kimball and Tom Collina of the Arms Control Association focused on the indications that the size of the nuclear arsenal might be permitted to shrink more in the years to come. The two experts estimated that the nation could “save at least $45 billion over the next decade, and still maintain a formidable nuclear force” through possible reductions across all three legs of the nuclear triad (see GSN, Dec. 16, 2011).