Nuclear Weapons policy: It’s 2012, not 1992

Let’s look at the facts in context.

First, the United States has no shortage of warheads – some 5,000 active and inactive, in fact, of which 1,790 are currently deployed. A single U.S. nuclear-armed submarine – of which we have a dozen– can by itself obliterate all of the world’s major cities. The United States and Russia between us hold 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons – and the Russians are expected to continue to diminish their holdings. Where does that leave the rest of the world? Our allies Britain and France retain around 500 between them, while Israel is thought to have between 75 and 200; China, alarmist rhetoric to the contrary, is believed to have about 240 total warheads; North Korea, the potential for a dozen; India, up to 100; and Pakistan, 70 to 90.

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Looking at that math, military strategists and deterrence theorists have quietly been debating how low we can go for a number of years now. The results will surprise armchair strategists from the “more is better” school of planning. A bipartisan Harvard task force on U.S.-Russia security interests called on the U.S. to negotiate levels under 1,000 warheads. Air Force analysts – no peaceniks – have written that the U.S. could “maintain a stable deterrence” with only 311 weapons. 

Second, a growing number of senior statesmen have pointed to ways that changes in how U.S. nuclear weapons are deployed – i.e. deploying fewer – would increase U.S. and global security. 

There are two reasons for this: U.S. and Russian reductions in deployments would, as George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn have written, “set an example for the world,” in particular for deployments in India and Pakistan. As fewer weapons are deployed worldwide, the risk of theft or unauthorized use – the goal of al Qaeda and the nightmare of every American security planner – declines.

Finally, those who assert that the U.S. cannot possibly manage with one weapon less – or should even be building more – have simply missed the evolution in military strategy since the end of the Cold War. A large nuclear force was a key determinant of superpower status in the 20th century. But, as Major General (ret.) Paul Monroe has written, justifications for a large arsenal, which may have made sense “in 1962,” are “flimsy” if not “irresponsible” in 2012, especially when weighed against the needs of our armed forces and threats of terrorism, weapons proliferation, and cyberattack.

At the beginning of Obama’s presidency, former National Security Adviser (and the Bush-era boss of The Hill op-ed writers) Brent Scowcroft co-chaired a Council on Foreign Relations task force that similarly urged the administration to exert leadership by unilaterally reducing nuclear weapons and materials deemed in excess to defense needs.

While the Pentagon nuclear planners debate internally what level of deployed warheads the U.S. needs for a safe, responsible nuclear deterrent as one still-relevant but diminishing piece of a 21st-century defense policy, now is a good time for pundits and policymakers alike to get up to speed on a nuclear policy debate that, like the rest of national security, has moved well beyond the world of George H.W. Bush.

Hurlburt is the executive director of the National Security Network. She previously served as special assistant and speechwriter to President Clinton, and has also worked in the U.S. State Department and on Capitol Hill. Follow her on twitter @NatSecHeather.