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Talk of Lowered Nuke Numbers Leaves Conservatives Sputtering

February 22, 2012 ·

Is President Obama getting serious about nuclear disarmament again?

Conservatives and nuclear-weapon advocates reacted with predictable apoplexy to an article on February 14 by Robert Burns of the Associated Press. Titled US weighing steep nuclear arms cuts, it began:

The Obama administration is weighing options for sharp new cuts to the U.S. nuclear force, including a reduction of up to 80 percent in the number of deployed weapons. … No final decision has been made, but the administration is considering at least three options for lower total numbers of deployed strategic nuclear weapons cutting to around 1,000 to 1,100, 700 to 800, or 300 to 400, according to a former government official and a congressional staffer.

At Global Security Newswire, Elaine Grossman provides some background. Prior to the Senate's December 2010 ratification of the New START treaty, she explains, acting Defense Undersecretary for Policy James Miller and then head of U.S. Strategic Command Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton briefed Jon Kyl (R-AZ), who was shepherding Republican senators on the issue. Replying to the new numbers, Kyl said:

… they made the case for the proposition that we could get by with the numbers that the New Start treaty called for. … Nobody suggested that there was a scenario under which we could go much deeper.

I know, Jon. It's just not fair. He continued.

"Obviously this is going to create a huge stir in Congress. … I think we're looking at a battle royal in the Congress if the president moves forward with these kinds of plans."

Would that they were, but they're far from actual plans yet. But Kyl is right. At the Washington Free Beacon, Bill Gertz (perhaps more familiar as a columnist for the conservative Washington Times) wrote about the reactions of House Republicans.

In a letter to the president sent Thursday, a group of 34 House members [wrote] "At a time when every other nuclear weapons state has an active nuclear weapons modernization program and many are growing their stockpiles and capabilities, it is inconceivable to us that you would lead the United States down such a dangerous plan."

Those not working for the federal government exhibited even more outrage. "Obama’s Irrational Warhead Cuts: Nuclear Gun Control," screamed the headline of an editorial at Business Investor's Daily, which referred to the numbers discussed as the "latest example of presidential naivete, which makes even Jimmy Carter look like a warmongering hawk." (Uh, he was. Remember Afghanistan and the mujahadeens?) 

Himself -- Rush Limbaugh -- said:

There are some things happening today that are downright scary. … The regime, led by Barack Hussein Obama, is weighing options for reducing our U.S. nuclear force. Folks, this is staggering. Meanwhile, the Iranians are nuking up.

"Insanity!" screamed the American Dream. While the title of a post at a blog named God Bless America announced: "Obama To Make America 3rd-Rate Nuclear Power Behind Russia and China.

Meanwhile, in another article for the Washington Free Beacon titled Nuking Our Nukes (gotta remember that one), Gertz wrote:

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney said even considering such deep strategic cuts is irrational. "No sane military leader would condone 300 to 400 warheads for an effective nuclear deterrent strategy."

But is President Obama actually becoming serious about nuclear disarmament again? At Foreign Policy, James Traub wrote:

Administration officials won't talk about the highly secret document now apparently moving through the interagency process; none of the congressional staffers or arms control experts I talked to had seen it or heard a reliable account of its contents. [But one] expert I spoke to said that he would be "staggered beyond belief if the president were seriously considering going to 300."

"300" is not just a bad movie, it's a red flag in the world of nuclear weapons. If you'll recall, in 2010, Colonel B. Chance Saltzman, chief of the U.S. Air Force's Strategic Plans and Policy Division, argued that "the United States could address military utility concerns with only 311 nuclear weapons in its nuclear force structure while maintaining a stable deterrence."

Jeffrey Lewis at Arms Control Wonk also said of the 300 number: "I am pretty sure that is not true." But he thinks the whole story about the review is "misleading, at best." He elaborates.

My understanding, which is also hearsay, is different.  I believe the terms of reference for the study do not, in fact, direct the Pentagon to study a 300 warhead option.  Presidential Policy Decision-11 … is the document that establishes the terms of reference for the [study]. Having asked around, I am reasonably confident that PPD-11 does not contain the 300 number.  

Furthermore

The timing of this leak is suggestive: Senator Kyl and Representative Turner are giving speeches this week. One or both of them will certainly make reference to the reports that Obama plans to unilaterally disarm the United States — without, of course, mentioning that someone on their payroll probably planted the story in the first place. 

Or as Traub also wrote:

The view inside the arms control world is that a Republican staffer leaked the story in order to give conservatives a target to attack.

Even if true, as Hans Kristensen reminds us at the Federation of American Scientists Strategic Security Blog, it's Republican presidents who "have been the biggest nuclear reducers in the post-Cold War era." In fact, they "seem to have a thing for 50 percent nuclear reductions."

During the George H.W. Bush presidency from 1989-1993, the size of the U.S. nuclear stockpile was cut by nearly 50 percent from 22,217 to 11,511 warheads [while the] number of deployed strategic warheads dropped from 12,300 to 7,114, or 42 percent. … Likewise, during the George W. Bush presidency from 2001-2009, the stockpile was cut by nearly 50 percent from 10,526 to 5,113 warheads [while] number of deployed strategic warheads was cut by 65 percent from 5,668 to 1,968 warheads. 

Even the worst -- I mean best -- case scenario:

A reduction to 300-400 would be a reduction of approximately 77 percent – right up there with the Bush cuts of the past two decades.

Kristensen can only conclude:

Those Bushies must have been reckless liberals in disguise.