Obama's Big Nuclear Test

By Kimball, Daryl G. | Arms Control Today, January/February 2010 | Go to article overview

Obama's Big Nuclear Test


Kimball, Daryl G., Arms Control Today


President Barack Obama's campaign to confront global nuclear weapons threats started with a bang. In April in Prague, Obama reiterated the U.S. commitment to "seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons" beginning with renewed U.S. leadership to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons and permanently outlaw nuclear testing.

Since then, Obama has achieved important progress and shifted the terms of debate. U.S. and Russian negotiators have nearly finalized a new verifiable strategic arms reduction treaty, and Obama won UN Security Council support for Resolution 1887, which outlines a comprehensive plan to advance nonproliferation and disarmament objectives and safeguard vulnerable nuclear materials.

Now, the hard part begins. Within the next few months, the administration must finish and win Senate approval of the new START, secure international support for measures to strengthen the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty at the May review conference, and begin to persuade undecided Senate Republicans that the time has finally come to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

To succeed, the president and his cabinet must devote far more energy to these goals and ensure that his administration's topto-bottom Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), due by March 1, fully supports his Prague agenda. To do so, Obama needs to implement transformational rather than incremental changes in U.S. nuclear weapons policy in at least four key areas.

First, the NPR should recognize that maintaining a large nuclear arsenal dedicated to performing a wide range of missions is unnecessary and contrary to U.S. security interests. Incredibly, even after two post-Cold War NPRs, the United States still deploys more than 2,200 strategic nuclear warheads mainly to counter a Russian nuclear attack and, if necessary, defend U.S. forces or allies against conventional attack or to counter chemical and biological threats.

Given the U.S. conventional military edge and the catastrophic effects of nuclear weapons, no plausible circumstance requires or could justify the use of nuclear weapons to deal with a nonnuclear threat, and they are useless in deterring or responding to nuclear terrorism. Accordingly, the new NPR should narrow the role of nuclear weapons to a core deterrence mission: maintaining a sufficient, survivable nuclear force for the sole purpose of deterring the use of nuclear weapons by another country against the United States or its allies.

Second, a core nuclear deterrence posture would allow the United States to reduce its nuclear inventory drastically, to no more than a few hundred deployed strategic warheads on a smaller triad of delivery systems within the next few years. …

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