Change U.S. Nuclear Policy? Yes, We Can

By Kimball, Daryl G. | Arms Control Today, September 2009 | Go to article overview

Change U.S. Nuclear Policy? Yes, We Can


Kimball, Daryl G., Arms Control Today


As the administration of President Barack Obama works to complete the congressionally mandated Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) by early 2010, it is clear to most that yesterday's nuclear doctrines are no longer appropriate for today's realities.

In an April address in Prague, Obama made clear that he wants "to put an end to Cold War thinking" and pledged that "we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy and urge others to do the same."

The forces of nuclear policy inertia are, however, difficult to overcome. Even after two post-Cold War NPRs, the United States retains thousands of nuclear warheads to deter a Russian nuclear attack, defend U.S. forces or allies against conventional attack, and counter chemical and biological threats.

Once again, entrenched interests inside the Pentagon and elsewhere threaten to undermine long-overdue, transformational changes in U.S. nuclear policy. The White House must now step in to ensure the review advances today's highest security priorities: preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons to terrorists or additional states and moving toward a world without nuclear weapons.

To start, Obama should clarify that maintaining a large nuclear arsenal dedicated to performing a wide range of missions is unnecessary and contrary to U.S. security interests. Instead, the president should direct the NPR to reduce the number of U.S. nuclear weapons to 1,000 or fewer and restrict their role solely to deterring nuclear attack by others.

Given the United States' conventional military edge, no plausible circumstance requires or could justify the use of nuclear weapons to deal with a non-nuclear threat. They are useless in deterring or responding to nuclear terrorism.

Gen. Colin Powell put it well in his 1995 autobiography: "No matter how small these nuclear payloads were, we would be crossing a threshold. Using nukes at this point would mark one of the most significant political decisions since Hiroshima."

As an eminent National Academy of Sciences panel concluded more than a decade ago, "[T]he only remaining, defensible function of U.S. nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War era is 'core deterrence': using the threat of retaliation to deter other countries that possess nuclear weapons from using them to attack or coerce the United States or its allies."

Without significant reductions in the role and number of U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons and without U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the United States' ability to harness the international support necessary to prevent nuclear terrorism and strengthen the beleaguered nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) will be greatly diminished.

A core deterrence approach would also reinforce existing U. …

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