"I greatly appreciate your very swift response, and your organization's work in general. It's a terrific source of authoritative information."

– Lisa Beyer
Bloomberg News
August 27, 2018
Strategic Policy

U.S.-UK Nuclear Pact Revised

Jefferson Morley

The United States and the United Kingdom revised and extended their long-standing nuclear forces cooperation agreement in July, with President Barack Obama declaring that “continu[ing] to assist the United Kingdom in maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent” is in the U.S. national interest.

A July 24 White House statement said the changes would “ensure consistency with current United States and United Kingdom policies and practice regarding nuclear threat reduction, naval nuclear propulsion, and personnel security.” Because portions of the new agreement are secret, Obama sent classified and unclassified versions of the agreement to Congress, according to the statement.

As the UK debates the long-range future of its submarine-based Trident nuclear forces, the renewed agreement authorizes U.S. support through 2024. A 1958 mutual defense pact between the two countries allows transfer of “classified information concerning atomic weapons; nuclear technology and controlled nuclear information; material and equipment for the development of defense plans; training of personnel; evaluation of potential enemy capability; development of delivery systems; and the research, development, and design of military reactors,” according to the White House.

Experts Urge U.S. to Scale-Back Plans and Reduce High Costs of Nuclear Weapons Modernization Plan


Experts Urge U.S. to Scale-Back Plans and Reduce High Costs of Unsustainable, Unnecessary Nuclear Weapons Modernization Plan 

For Immediate Release
: Sept. 22, 2014

Media Contacts: Daryl G. Kimball, Arms Control Association (202-463-8270 x107); Hans Kristensen, Federation of American Scientists (202-454-4695);Stephen Young, Union of Concerned Scientists (202-331-5429); Angela Canterbury, Council for a Livable World, (202-546-0795); Erica Fein, Women's Action for New Directions (202-544-5055 x2605).
(Washington, D.C.) Leaders and experts from seven national nongovernmental organizations are charging that current plans for maintaining and upgrading the U.S. nuclear arsenal over the next decade and beyond exceed reasonable deterrence requirements as set out by the President in June 2013, are unaffordable, and unless they are significantly adjusted, the nuclear force modernization plan will also deplete resources from higher priority budget needs. 

In a letter to the White House earlier this year, the groups write: "[w]e believe there are more realistic ways to maintain U.S. nuclear forces to meet tomorrow's national security requirements. The President's 2013 guidance allows for a one-third reduction below New START levels, but even if the United States maintains New START warhead levels, it can do so at significantly lower cost."

"Perpetual nuclear modernization is inconsistent with the pledge made 45 years ago by the the United States and the other NPT nuclear-weapons states to pursue nuclear disarmament, and is inconsistent with President Obama's call for the pursuit of a world without nuclear weapons," says Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists. "Despite the financial constraints, the United States (and other nuclear-armed states) appear committed to spending hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade on modernizing their nuclear forces," he notes.

In December 2013, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the United States plans to spend at least $355 billion to maintain and rebuild the nuclear arsenal and refurbish the nuclear weapons complex over the next decade, and that costs will continue to climb thereafter. A major part of this cost growth is the plan to rebuild all three legs of the existing nuclear "triad" and their associated warheads, including 12 new ballistic missile submarines, up to 100 new long-range bombers, and possibly new land-based ballistic missiles and a new long-range standoff cruise missile. 

The nuclear weapons plans, the costs, and the politics behind them, are described in a front page story in today's edition of The New York Times.

The nuclear weapons experts say that this U.S. spending plan is excessive, and that the United States can save tens of billions of dollars by reducing the number of new missiles and bombers it plans to buy and still maintain nuclear warhead levels established by the 2010 New START treaty with Russia.

Budget limits on future defense spending will force budget trade-offs among various Pentagon programs, the letter notes. The defense budget still needs to be cut by $115 billion from 2016-2019 to meet sequester targets, or about $29 billion per year on average.

These realities have led the White House to launch a National Security Council-led, interagency review of the multibillion-dollar plans to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal. This review will inform the administration's fiscal year 2016 budget request to Congress, Ned Price of the National Security Council said in an Aug. 22 e-mail toArms Control Today.

"We believe the current nuclear spending plan is unsustainable and will deplete resources from higher priorities," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. "In its review, the Obama administration needs to make significant changes to existing nuclear force modernization plans that trim back, and in some cases, forgo unnecessary programs, such as a new nuclear-armed cruise missile, and save taxpayer dollars," he said.

The nongovernmental leaders say the United States can maintain planned warhead levels with fewer delivery vehicles. New START allows both sides to field up to 1,550 warheads on 700 long-range delivery vehicles. But the United States could also meet the warhead limit by fielding only about 600 delivery vehicles, saving tens of billions of dollars.

For example, the Navy plans to deploy about 1,000 warheads at sea under New START.  But the United States does not need 12 new submarines to field 1,000 warheads; eight submarines would be enough the groups note in their letter. By reducing the fleet of submarines to eight, the United States would save $16 billion over the next decade, according to the CBO.

The Air Force wants to develop a new nuclear-armed cruise missile, "but it is not clear why it needs both a penetrating bomber and a standoff missile to meet the deterrence requirements of the United States and our allies," said Kimball of the Arms Control Association. 

Earlier this year, Senate Appropriations energy and water subcommittee and the House and Senate Appropriations defense subcommittees cut the administration's request for the new cruise missile.

In its June 17 report accompanying the bill, the Senate Appropriations energy and water subcommittee said it is "reluctant to provide funding for a new cruise missile warhead when the Air Force cannot identify sufficient funding in its budget planning documents to design and procure a cruise missile to deliver a refurbished warhead."

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is also pursuing an overly ambitious and costly strategy for warhead refurbishment argue the organizations. The current plan, dubbed "3+2", envisions spending $60 billion to refurbish the arsenal and to use nuclear components that have not previously been tested together, raising reliability concerns.

"The NNSA should instead pursue a simpler refurbishment strategy, avoid risky schemes, and retire warhead types where possible," said Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Cuts in the size and not just the cost of U.S. and Russian stockpiles are also in order, the organizations argue. Last year, President Obama and the Pentagon announced that the U.S. could cut the size of the deployed strategic stockpile by up to one-third. Both sides should work in parallel to reduce force levels below the New START limits.

"Such an initiative would also allow both sides to reduce the extraordinary costs of force maintenance and modernization and could help induce other nuclear-armed states to exercise greater restraint," said Erica Fein, nuclear weapons policy director for Women's Action for New Directions.

"The New York Times did an excellent job of covering our nation's unsustainable, nonsensical nuclear weapons policy. However, there is more to the story," said Angela Canterbury, executive director for Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. "The current plan is geared towards building more nuclear weapons that we don't need and can't afford. We need to scrap it and the nuclear weapons we don't need. We need to put into place a far more affordable plan to meet the President's goals to make us safer."

The organizations' letter to the White House is available online.

The Arms Control Association (ACA) is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the dangers posed by the world's most dangerous weapons.

Experts from seven national nongovernmental organizations are charging that current plans for maintaining and upgrading the U.S. nuclear arsenal over the next decade and beyond exceed reasonable deterrence requirements.

Preparing for Deep Nuclear Cuts: Options for Enhancing Euro-Atlantic and International Security

A new report by a 21-member experts commission recommends practical, modest steps that the United States, NATO and Russia could take to further reduce nuclear arms, both strategic and non-strategic, and to resolve long-standing differences over missile defense and the regulation of conventional military forces in Europe.

Incooperation with the Deep Cuts Commission

Download this report.

The Lisbon Protocol At a Glance

March 2014

Contact: Kingston ReifDirector of Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy, (202) 463-8270 x104

Updated: March 2014

A pervasive fear surrounding the collapse of the Soviet Union was the uncertain fate of its nuclear arsenal. In addition to Russia, the emerging states of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine inherited a significant number of nuclear weapons, raising concerns that the Soviet Union would leave four nuclear weapon successor states instead of just one. Aside from increasing the number of governments with their finger on the proverbial nuclear button, the circumstances simultaneously raised concerns that those weapons might be more vulnerable to possible sale or theft. The Lisbon Protocol, concluded on May 23, 1992, sought to alleviate those fears by committing the three non-Russian former Soviet states to return their nuclear weapons to Russia. In spite of a series of political disputes that raised some concerns about implementation of the protocol, all Soviet nuclear weapons were eventually transferred to Russia by the end of 1996.

When the Soviet Union officially dissolved in December 1991, the newly-independent states of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine inherited more than 3,000 strategic nuclear weapons (those capable of striking the continental United States), as well as at least 3,000 tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons. In 1991, the United States and the Soviet Union announced the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives to substantially reduce their respective tactical nuclear weapons arsenals. All dispersed Soviet tactical weapons were reportedly back on Russian soil by the end of 1992, but the strategic weapons posed a larger problem.

The United States and Russia reached a solution to this complex problem by engaging Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine in a series of talks that led to the Lisbon Protocol. That agreement made all five states party to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which required Washington and Moscow to each cut their deployed strategic nuclear forces from approximately 10,000 warheads apiece to down below 6,000 warheads on no more than 1,600 ICBMs, submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM), and long-range bombers. The protocol signaled the intentions of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine to forswear nuclear arms and accede to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as non-nuclear-weapon states, a commitment that all three fulfilled and continue to abide by today.


Estimated Warheads in Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine in 1991



Strategic Warheads

Tactical Warheads










Sources: Robert S. Norris, “The Soviet Nuclear Archipelago,” Arms Control Today, January/February 1992, p. 24 and Joseph Cirincione, et al., Deadly Arsenals, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005, p. 366.


Basic Timeline and Provisions:

  • July 31, 1991: The United States and the Soviet Union sign START.
  • Dec. 31, 1991: The Soviet Union officially dissolves, delaying entry into force of START.
  • May 23, 1992: Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and the United States sign the Lisbon Protocol.
    • Under the protocol, all five states become parties to START.
    • Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine promise to accede to the NPT as non-nuclear-weapon states “in the shortest time possible.”
  • July 2, 1992: Kazakhstan ratifies START.
  • Oct. 1, 1992: The U.S. Senate ratifies START.
  • Nov. 4, 1992: The Russian State Duma refuses to exchange START instruments of ratification until Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan accede to the NPT.
  • Feb. 4, 1993: Belarus ratifies START.
  • July 22, 1993: Belarus submits its instrument of accession to the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state.
  • January 14, 1994: The Trilateral Statement is signed by Presidents Clinton, Yeltsin, and Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine, allowing Ukraine to observe the transfer of weapons from its territory to Russia and the dismantlement of certain systems. It also commits Russia to send some of the uranium extracted from the returned warheads back to Ukraine for fuel.
  • Feb. 14, 1994: Kazakhstan submits its instrument of accession to the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state.
  • Dec. 5, 1994: Ukraine submits its instrument of accession to the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state.
    • The five START parties exchange instruments of ratification for START, which enters into force.
  • April 24, 1995: Kazakhstan transfers its last strategic weapon to Russia.
  • June 1996: Ukraine transfers its last strategic weapon to Russia.
  • November 1996: Belarus transfers its last strategic weapon to Russia, marking completion of Lisbon Protocol obligations.

Ratification and Implementation:


When the Soviet Union dissolved, the newly-established Republic of Belarus found itself in possession of roughly 800 total nuclear weapons deployed within its borders. Although Russia retained the warhead arming and launch codes, many worried that Belarus might attempt to take control of the weapons. Moreover, President Alexander Lukashenko twice threatened to retain some weapons if NATO deployed nuclear weapons of its own in Poland. However, when a constitutional crisis erupted in November 1996, Lukashenko was finally compelled to finalize the transfers.

Minsk signed the Lisbon Protocol on May 23, 1992, ratified it on Feb. 4, 1993, and deposited its instrument of accession to the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state on July 22, 1993. By November 1996 all nuclear warheads in Belarus had been transferred to Russia.


After gaining independence, Kazakhstan with extensive U.S. technical and financial assistance disposed of the strategic nuclear weapons that it inherited from the Soviet Union. Kazakhstan’s 1,410 strategic warheads were deployed on several different systems, including SS-18 ICBMs and cruise missiles carried by Bear-H bombers.

Kazakhstan’s parliament ratified START on July 2, 1992. All tactical nuclear weapons had been withdrawn to Russia by January 1992. The parliament approved accession to the NPT on Dec. 13, 1993, and deposited the state’s NPT instrument of ratification on Feb. 14, 1994. The last of the Kazakh-based strategic nuclear weapons were transferred to Russia by April 24, 1995.


When the Soviet Union dissolved, Ukraine became the third-largest nuclear weapons power in the world behind the United States and Russia. Ukraine’s 1,900 strategic warheads were distributed among ICBMs, strategic bombers, and air-launched cruise and air-to-surface missiles. Although President Leonid Kravchuk signed the Lisbon Protocol on May 23, 1992, Ukraine’s process of disarmament was filled with political obstacles. Many Ukrainian officials viewed Russia as a threat and argued that they should keep nuclear weapons in order to deter any possible encroachment from their eastern neighbor. Although the government never gained operational control over the weapons, it declared “administrative control” in June 1992, and, in 1993, claimed ownership of the warheads, citing the potential of the plutonium and highly enriched uranium they contained for creating peaceful energy.

A resolution passed by the Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, on Nov. 18, 1993, attached conditions to its ratification of START that Russia and the United States deemed unacceptable. Those stated that Ukraine would only dismantle 36% of its delivery vehicles and 42% of its warheads; all others would remain under Ukrainian custody. Moreover, the resolution made those reductions contingent upon assurances from Russia and the United States to never use nuclear weapons against Ukraine (referred to as “security assurances”), along with foreign aid to pay for dismantlement.

In response, the Clinton and Yeltsin administrations intensified negotiations with Kyiv, eventually producing the Trilateral Statement, which was signed on Jan. 14, 1994. This agreement placated Ukrainian concerns by allowing Ukraine to cooperate in the transfer of the weapons to Russia, which would take place over a maximum period of seven years. The agreement further called for the transferred warheads to be dismantled and the highly enriched uranium they contained to be downblended into low-enriched uranium. Some of that material would then be transferred back to Ukraine for use as nuclear reactor fuel. Meanwhile, the United States would give Ukraine economic and technical aid to cover its dismantlement costs. Finally, the United States and Russia responded to Ukraine’s security concerns by agreeing to provide security assurances upon its NPT accession.

In turn, the Rada ratified START, implicitly endorsing the Trilateral Statement. However, it did not submit its instrument of accession to the NPT until Dec. 5, 1994, when Russia, the United Kingdom, France, and the United States provided security assurances to Ukraine. That decision by the Rada met the final condition for Russia’s ratification of START, and subsequently brought that treaty into force. For more information, see Ukraine, Nuclear Weapons and Security Assurances at a Glance.

Strategic Arms Control and Policy

Country Resources:

On Nukes, Senate Should Not Tie President's Hands



Volume 4, Issue 14, November 20, 2013

The National Defense Authorization Act (S. 1197) is on the Senate floor, and there may be debate on how much latitude the President should have when seeking to reduce excess U.S. nuclear forces. Some will argue that any future nuclear reductions can only occur via a formal treaty; others will counter that informal approaches should also be an option. There is an obvious, bipartisan answer: Current and future presidents should have as much flexibility as previous presidents, both Republicans and Democrats.   

Unfortunately, some Republicans are seeking to take this flexibility away from President Obama. Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT) and Deb Fischer (R-NE) have offered a "sense of congress" amendment (2136) that additional reductions "should only be pursued through mutual negotiated agreement with the Russian Federation." Similarly, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) has expressed concern that the administration has not definitively pledged that "militarily significant reductions to the U.S. nuclear arsenal would only be carried out through a treaty subject to the advice and consent of the Senate."

It is understandable that senators want to protect their right under the constitution to approve or disapprove treaties. But that is not the issue here. According to Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), ranking member on the Foreign Relations committee, the State Department has "affirmed the Senate's role in any future negotiations with Russia." But Sens. Lee, Fischer and Rubio appear to want to go beyond that and stop any U.S. reductions outside of a treaty. They are reaching too far.

Presidents from both parties have sought to protect their flexibility to pursue arms reductions without a treaty when the circumstances and U.S. national security warrant doing so. If the Senate adds language to the defense bill to restrict White House flexibility on this matter, the President would likely veto the bill. The two previous Republican administrations would not likely have allowed such constraints, either.

Bush Administrations Had Flexibility, Too

Treaties may be the preferable way to effect mutual nuclear arms reductions, but they are not the only way. In addition to formal bilateral treaties (such as the 2010 New START treaty), the United States has used informal measures. The primary examples of the latter are President George H.W. Bush's bold Presidential Nuclear Initiatives in 1991 to remove thousands of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from forward deployment as the Soviet Union began to break apart. Days later, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev reciprocated, reducing the risk that these weapons would fall into the wrong hands. No formal treaty was ever negotiated or signed, nor did the administration seek the approval of Congress. In this case, the need for expediency outweighed the benefits of a legally binding agreement.

Even in the case of the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT, or the "Moscow Treaty"), President George W. Bush initially set out to reduce U.S. forces without a formal agreement. As he said in 2001: "We don't need an arms control agreement to convince us to reduce our nuclear weapons down substantially, and I'm going to do it."

However, Russian President Putin wanted a formal treaty, as did the U.S. Senate, and President Bush changed his mind. Nevertheless, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2002 that, "We would have made these cuts regardless of what Russia did with its arsenal." "We're making [the reductions] not because we signed the treaty," he explained, "but because the transformation in our relationship with Russia means that we do not need as many deployed weapons as we once needed."

Ultimately, both Bush presidencies reduced U.S. nuclear forces by roughly 50 percent each, using formal and informal means.

By comparison, President Obama's planned and proposed reductions are modest. By 2018, New START will reduce the deployed U.S. strategic arsenal by about 400 warheads, a 10 percent reduction from the overall stockpile (strategic and tactical, deployed and in storage) of about 5,000 warheads. President Obama's June proposal to reduce strategic warheads by an additional 500 or so would increase his reductions to 20 percent, still a far lower percentage than previous administrations.

In response to President Obama's June proposal, 24 Senate Republicans wrote a letter to the White House stating: "It is our view that any further reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal should only be conducted through a treaty subject to the advice and consent of the Senate."

This position is at odds with the view that 71 Senators expressed just three years ago. The Senate's resolution of ratification for New START states that "further arms reduction agreements obligating the United States to reduce or limit the Armed Forces or armaments of the United States in any military significant manner may be made only pursuant to the treaty-making power of the President..." (emphasis added)

This December 2010 formulation does not rule out the option of nuclear reductions in the absence of a formal agreement.

First, an informal U.S.-Russian understanding that each side would reduce its nuclear forces would not be a legally binding agreement and is therefore not an obligation subject to congressional approval. Second, the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff have already determined that one-third of the U.S. strategic nuclear warheads now deployed are in excess of military requirements. Thus, such a reduction would not have a militarily significant impact.

Moreover, in an attempt to cast doubt on further negotiated nuclear reductions with Russia, some congressional Republicans also claim that Moscow is not complying with some of its treaty obligations, such as the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. However, recent Pentagon and State Department reports reveal no evidence of Russian noncompliance with the INF Treaty. At the same time, Russia is said to be in full compliance with New START.

Giving Russia a Veto

Congress should not restrict the President's options to reduce excess nuclear arsenals in a stable and verifiable way. If the Obama administration were limited to reducing U.S. nuclear forces in a treaty with Russia, this would effectively give Moscow veto power over what must be a U.S. prerogative. While it may be better to reduce in tandem with Russia, there are good reasons to lead by example, as President Bush did in 1991.

For its part, Russia will be hard pressed to maintain New START levels unless it accelerates its own expensive modernization of aging nuclear delivery systems. According to the latest report required by New START, Russia now deploys 1,400 deployed strategic warheads--150 below the New START ceiling and 280 below the U.S. deployed strategic warhead level. Rather than induce Russia to build up, it is in the security and financial interests of both countries to eliminate excess strategic nuclear forces.

The U.S. leadership has already determined that the United States has more nuclear weapons than its needs to deter nuclear attack against the United States and our allies. Given the budget crisis, the administration could redirect funds to higher priority defense needs by reducing excess nuclear forces. Enhancing U.S. security in this way should not have to wait for Russian approval.

Significant budget savings can be achieved even if the United States stays at New START levels. By matching delivery systems more closely with a smaller stockpile of nuclear warheads, the United States could save $59 billion over the next decade, primarily by buying fewer strategic submarines and delaying new long-range bombers.

Further U.S. reductions would also improve the international consensus to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and enhance cooperation to address the threats from North Korea and Iran, and put pressure on other states--including China--to join in the reduction process.

New START already provides a solid framework for verification and monitoring through intrusive inspection and data exchanges. Deeper, mutual reductions in deployed strategic nuclear weapons can be achieved through reciprocal actions made on the basis of the best national interests of each country.

As George Shultz, Bill Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn wrote in March: "A global effort is needed to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons, prevent their spread, and ultimately end them as a threat to the world. It will take leadership, creative approaches and thoughtful understanding of the perils of inaction."

The White House needs flexibility to lead and be creative--a one-size-fits-all approach will not cut it. We must not let process and politics get in the way of the substance: reducing nuclear dangers and increasing U.S. security.--TOM Z. COLLINA


The Arms Control Association (ACA) is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing information and practical policy solutions to address the dangers posed by the world's most dangerous weapons. ACA publishes the monthly journal, Arms Control Today. Daryl G. Kimball is ACA's executive director.


The National Defense Authorization Act (S. 1197) is on the Senate floor, and there may be debate on how much latitude the President should have when seeking to reduce excess U.S. nuclear forces. Some will argue that any future nuclear reductions can only occur via a formal treaty; others will counter that informal approaches should also be an option. There is an obvious, bipartisan answer: Current and future presidents should have as much flexibility as previous presidents, both Republicans and Democrats.

U.S., Russia Sign New Hotline Pact

Timothy Farnsworth

At a time when relations between Russia and the United States have seemed to chill, the two sides have signed an agreement updating a 1987 accord establishing a communications hotline between the two countries in order to reduce the risk of accidental nuclear exchanges.

According to an Oct. 7 State Department press release, Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov signed the agreement in Indonesia during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. The agreement was originally prepared for the Russian-U.S. summit in Moscow that was scheduled for Sept. 4 but did not take place, Lavrov said during an Oct. 7 press conference after the signing.

“The Cold War is now long over, but thousands of nuclear weapons remain, and we both recognize a responsibility to do everything possible to keep each other [informed] of important developments in order to avoid misunderstanding and potentially catastrophic consequences,” Kerry said at the press conference.

The new agreement mostly upgrades the technology that the two Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers, located at the State Department and the Russian Defense Ministry, use to communicate with each other. The new agreement replaces old encrypted fax lines with new encrypted digital lines, allows the centers to use “commercial communications channels,” and removes language associated with references to floppy disks.

Although the centers originally were established to prevent accidental nuclear war, they are also used as a means of transmitting and receiving data to ensure compliance with more than a dozen arms control treaties and agreements, including the exchange of more than 5,000 notifications under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty since its entry into force in 2011.

The centers are also used to increase transparency on a range of arms control issues involving conventional, nuclear, and chemical weapons. As a result of a June 17 agreement between President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, the centers will also be used to mitigate misperceptions that could take place in cyberspace

At a time when relations between Russia and the United States have seemed to chill, the two sides have signed an agreement updating a 1987 accord establishing a communications hotline between the two countries in order to reduce the risk of accidental nuclear exchanges.

The Humanitarian Consequences Of Nuclear War

Ira Helfand

In March, 130 nations gathered in Oslo for a two-day conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear war. The five countries that the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) recognizes as nuclear-weapon states staged a coordinated boycott, arguing that a meeting that discussed what will actually happen if nuclear weapons are used would somehow distract them from the important initiatives they are pursuing to lower the number of nuclear weapons that they possess.

Next February, there will be a follow-up conference in Mexico to further delineate the medical effects of nuclear war as they are now understood and to consider the circumstances under which nuclear war might occur.

Far from being a distraction, these meetings are helping to create the conditions necessary for the elimination of nuclear weapons. The United States and the four other NPT nuclear-weapon states should participate in the Mexico conference and actively promote the process launched in Oslo to educate policymakers and the general public about the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear war.

This task is particularly urgent in view of the new data that have emerged over the last few years. This information indicates that even a very limited nuclear war, confined to one region of the globe, would have devastating effects worldwide.

In 2006, climatologist Alan Robock; Brian Toon, a professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences; and four colleagues examined the consequences of a potential limited nuclear war between India and Pakistan.[1] They chose to examine the effects of this scenario because of the two countries’ long history of conflict and the ongoing risk of a nuclear exchange. India and Pakistan have fought three wars since they gained independence in 1947 and have come close to war twice when armed with nuclear weapons. During one crisis in the 1990s, it was reported that Pakistani planes armed with nuclear bombs were kept on the runway with their engines running 24 hours a day so they would be ready for takeoff on a few minutes’ notice.[2] It is easy to imagine events, such as an increase in tension over the disputed territories in Kashmir or another terrorist attack like those at the Indian parliament in 2001 or in Mumbai in 2008, that could escalate into full-scale warfare and the use of nuclear weapons.

In their study, Robock and Toon assumed that each country used 50 nuclear bombs, each with an explosive power of 15 kilotons—the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945—against urban targets in the other country. The weapons involved represent less than one-half of the current Indian and Pakistani arsenals and less than 0.5 percent of the world’s nuclear arsenals. The local effects were devastating: 20 million dead in the first week from blast effects, burns, and acute radiation exposure. Even more disturbing were their findings concerning the far-reaching disruption to global climate conditions that this conflict would cause.

The scientists found that the firestorms generated by these nuclear explosions would loft about 5 million tons of black soot high into the atmosphere. The soot would block out sunlight, dropping surface temperatures across the planet by an average of 1.3 degrees Celsius. The cooling would be much more severe in the internal regions of the major continents, shortening the growing season in areas where much of the world’s grain is produced. In addition, the cooling would lower total precipitation worldwide as less water evaporated from the oceans to fall back as rain or snow, and there would be significant changes in precipitation patterns.

Further, by heating the upper atmosphere, the soot particles would cause a major decrease in stratospheric ozone. By allowing substantially more ultraviolet light to reach the earth’s surface, this would further reduce crop yields. The soot particles would be injected so high in the atmosphere that they would not be washed out by rainfall. Their effects would persist for a full decade until they gradually settled back to earth.

The climate disruption predicted by the Robock-Toon study has been independently confirmed in separate studies done by climatologists Michael Mills2 and Andrea Stenke,[3] each of whom considered the same limited war scenario but used a different climate model.

In the last two years, a number of studies have attempted to look at the effect this climate disruption would have on food production. Environmental scientist Mutlu Özdogan looked at soybean production and corn production in the U.S. Corn Belt and found an average decline of 7 percent in soybean production and 12 percent in corn production in the decade following a limited war in South Asia.[4] Crop specialist Lili Xia and Robock examined the impact on middle-season rice production in China and found a 15 percent decline from the prewar level for the 10 years following this conflict.[5]

The world is not prepared to deal with this kind of significant decline in food production. World grain reserves amount to less than 70 days of consumption and would not offer a significant buffer against a sharp and sustained reduction in grain harvests.[6] In addition, 870 million people in the world today already are malnourished.[7] They receive less than the 1,800 calories per day required for the average adult to maintain his or her body mass and do a small amount of physical work to gather or grow food. Even a 10 or 15 percent decline from these levels of food consumption, sustained over a full decade, would be catastrophic. The decline in food consumption, however, probably would be much larger than the decline in food production. Market forces would magnify the impact with large rises in food prices, making even the available food inaccessible to the poor, who are already malnourished precisely because they cannot afford enough food at current prices.

Furthermore, some 300 million people live in countries where, although most people enjoy adequate nutrition today, much of the food is imported. Most of the countries of North Africa and the Middle East and many of the wealthy industrial countries of East Asia, including Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, fall into this category. In the face of significant declines in food production, it is probable that grain-exporting countries would suspend exports. This has happened repeatedly, for limited periods of time, over the last decade in response to local crop shortfalls. Thus, these 300 million people also would face severe food insecurity.

In April 2012, at the Nobel Peace Laureates Summit in Chicago, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) and its U.S. affiliate, Physicians for Social Responsibility, released a report, “Nuclear Famine,” examining this potential catastrophe.[8] The report concluded that more than one billion people might starve as a result of a limited, regional nuclear war.

Since then, Xia and Robock have generated new data examining the impact of a limited nuclear war in South Asia on grain crops other than rice in China. Their findings, which will be published later this year, show that these other grains are affected much more severely than rice. In particular, production of the second-largest grain crop, winter wheat, is projected to fall 31 percent.

These new findings suggest that the “Nuclear Famine” report may have seriously underestimated the extent of the catastrophe that would follow a regional nuclear conflict and that arms control advocates need to fundamentally rethink their assumptions about limited nuclear war. The report assumed that China, along with most of the rest of the industrial world, would be spared actual famine. The latest studies suggest that there might be widespread starvation in China, putting another 1.3 billion people at risk. At the very least, the predicted food shortfalls would create a decade of severe economic and social instability in China, which is the largest country in the world and has the world’s second-largest and most dynamic economy. China also has a large nuclear arsenal of its own, estimated to be nearly 300 warheads, about 50 to 75 of which are deliverable by land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.

There are no simulations examining whether there will be similar shortfalls in other temperate-zone grain producers such as Canada, Russia, the United States, and Europe except for Özdogan’s study of corn and soybeans in the United States. In the absence of such studies, it seems prudent to assume that these countries might well suffer the same major food shortages that are now predicted for China.

Regional War, Global Impact

In the 1980s, there was a general understanding that large-scale nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union would be a disaster, not just for those countries but for the whole planet.[9] From the studies described above, it is clear that even a much more limited nuclear war would be a global catastrophe, with severe humanitarian consequences extending far beyond the countries directly involved in the conflict.

These findings have significant implications for nuclear weapons policy choices in South Asia and for the policies of other states toward India and Pakistan. Yet, the issue extends well beyond South Asia. The arsenals of China, France, Israel, and the United Kingdom are all capable of causing the same or greater degrees of climate disruption.

More worrisome are the arsenals of the nuclear superpowers. Each U.S. Trident submarine can carry 96 warheads, each of which is 10 to 30 times more powerful than the weapons that were considered in the South Asia study. That means that each of these submarines can cause this nuclear famine scenario many times over. The United States has 14 of them, as well as an arsenal of land-based missiles and a fleet of strategic bombers armed with cruise missiles and gravity bombs. The Russian arsenal has a similar degree of overkill capacity.

The danger of nuclear war is often dismissed as a low-probability event and therefore not a cause for concern. The vast majority of the population, including people who were intensely aware of the nuclear danger during the Cold War, behaves as if this were true. Yet, the danger of nuclear war did not go away when the Berlin Wall came down. The arsenals remain, and the chance of nuclear war is not at all remote. As the number of nuclear-armed states increases, especially as nuclear arsenals grow in areas of chronic and seemingly intractable conflict, such as South Asia and the Middle East, the danger becomes even greater.

The possibility of war between the nuclear superpowers also still exists. Even if the likelihood of a deliberate nuclear war between the United States and Russia has declined, there remains the very real possibility of an accidental nuclear war. There have been at least five incidents since 1979 in which Moscow or Washington was prepared to start a nuclear war in the mistaken belief that it was already under attack by the other side.[10] The most recent known incident occurred in January 1995, a full five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The conditions that existed then have not changed fundamentally.

Human error, a computer failure, or perhaps a cyberattack launched by a terrorist group all could lead to the unintended launch of nuclear weapons. The new understanding of the climatic consequences of nuclear war makes it clear that even a very limited use of these weapons would be disastrous.

In his June speech in Berlin, President Barack Obama called for further reductions in the U.S. and Russian arsenals, suggesting a new target of 1,000 warheads on each side. This is a useful and important step in the right direction, but only if it is indeed a step toward further reductions designed to eliminate nuclear weapons altogether. If these reductions serve to legitimize the indefinite retention of nuclear weapons at an “acceptable” level, they will not fundamentally reduce the nuclear threat, for arsenals of this size would still pose an existential threat to human civilization.

During the Cold War, there was a widespread understanding of the medical consequences of nuclear war. That understanding and the further understanding that nuclear war was a real and immediate possibility fostered the development of a large movement in civil society that played an important role in convincing the leadership of the nuclear superpowers to stop and then reverse the arms race.

Unfortunately, the problem of nuclear war did not end when the Berlin Wall came down. Many of the 70,000 nuclear weapons that existed at the height of the Cold War have been dismantled, but nearly 20,000 remain. Although the weapons did not go away, an understanding of their terrible destructive power faded from the world’s consciousness. Today, the medical consequences of nuclear war are not widely known, and there is inadequate appreciation of how dangerous it is to formulate nuclear policy without this knowledge.

A generation has come of age since the end of the Cold War, young people who have never been taught about the destruction that nuclear weapons can cause. People who lived through the Cold War, including many policymakers in nuclear-weapon states, have largely forgotten what will happen if these weapons are used and are completely unfamiliar with the new data on the catastrophic global effects of a “limited” nuclear war.

Attention Needed

An example of the dangerous inattention to the humanitarian consequences of nuclear war is the report released in January by the Defense Science Board, an advisory group to the U.S. Department of Defense.[11] The report argued that “while the manifestation of a nuclear and cyber attack are very different, in the end, the existential impact to the United States is the same” and concluded that “the situation today is such that the ultimate U.S. deterrent, including response against a catastrophic full spectrum cyber attack, is the nuclear triad—intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and nuclear-capable heavy bombers.” Even the most worrisome estimate of the potential damage caused by a cyberattack does not envision anything like the death of a billion people. U.S. policy that equates these threats and considers nuclear war in retaliation for a cyberattack betrays a profound and dangerous failure to understand fully the threat that nuclear weapons pose.

This lack of information is not confined to the Defense Department. Senior officials at the Department of State have privately acknowledged that they have not been aware of the nuclear famine data and that this information has not factored into policy decisions.[12]

Fortunately, there is a growing movement to promote understanding of the actual consequences of nuclear war and of the need to make these consequences the starting point from which future nuclear policy flows.

In November 2011, the International Committee of the Red Cross called for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons and called on all national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies to launch educational campaigns on “the catastrophic humanitarian consequences” of nuclear war and the inability of the Red Cross and Red Crescent to respond in a meaningful way if nuclear weapons are used.[13] In the nongovernmental community, the IPPNW has launched a new campaign, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which has grown far beyond the medical community to encompass a broad swath of civil society.

At an April 22-May 3 meeting in Geneva of the Preparatory Committee for the 2015 NPT Review Conference, South Africa presented a statement on behalf of 80 countries citing the impossibility of responding adequately to the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear war and calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons.[14] By October 21, a similar statement at the United Nations had gained the signatures of 125 countries.

On September 26, there was a high-level meeting of the UN General Assembly on nuclear disarmament. Statements delivered by a wide range of states reflected the same focus on humanitarian effects rather than security doctrines and power politics. These statements emphasized how such a focus leads to an understanding of the urgent need for nuclear abolition.

As Austrian President Heinz Fischer said,

“[T]he discourse on nuclear weapons has been dominated by traditional national security considerations.... [I]t is overdue to move beyond such a narrow perspective. … Any nuclear weapons use would cause severe humanitarian emergencies and have global consequences for the environment, global health, the climate, the social order, human development and the economy. … Nuclear weapons should be stigmatized, banned and eliminated before they abolish us.”[15]

All of these threads will come together at the upcoming meeting in Mexico. Perhaps this time, the United States and the other nuclear-armed states will choose to attend and use this important forum to build further international support for the complete elimination of these weapons. Some of the countries that will attend the Mexico meeting are discussing a possible treaty to ban nuclear weapons, a treaty that will make the use or possession of nuclear weapons illegal.[16] Such a treaty would not take the place of a nuclear weapons convention, an agreement among the nuclear-armed states that spells out the concrete steps and timeline for actual dismantlement of their nuclear arsenals and the verification and enforcement measures that will be needed to assure adherence to the convention.

A treaty banning nuclear weapons would help to further delegitimize nuclear weapons and put pressure on those nuclear-weapon states that are reluctant to meet their obligations under Article VI of the NPT. The Obama administration, which “seek[s] the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,”[17] should embrace this initiative.

A first principle of the medical community is that health care decisions must be based on informed consent: patients need to understand the consequences of proposed treatment and the consequences of declining that treatment. Yet, the world today continues to maintain arsenals of nuclear weapons that threaten its existence, and the public’s continued consent to this profoundly dangerous situation cannot be considered informed. Indeed, even many decision-makers do not seem to be aware of the consequences that could arise from the policies they are pursuing.

It is the central belief of the physicians’ movement that when the global community does become informed, it will again demand that nuclear weapons be eliminated. The movement for nuclear disarmament secured a great but partial victory in the closing years of the Cold War. The new data on the consequences of nuclear war underscore the importance of finishing the job.

Ira Helfand is co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and a past president of the organization’s U.S. affiliate, Physicians for Social Responsibility. He is an internist and emergency medicine physician practicing at the Family Care Medical Center in Springfield, Massachusetts.


1. Alan Robock et al., “Climatic Consequences of Regional Nuclear Conflicts,” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, Vol. 7, No. 8 (2007): 2003-2012.

2. Michael Mills et al., “Multi-Decadal Global Cooling and Unprecedented Ozone Loss Following a Regional Nuclear Conflict” (copy on file with author).

3. Andrea Stenke et al., “Climate and Chemistry Effects of a Regional Scale Nuclear Conflict,” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, Vol. 13, No. 19 (2013): 9713-9729.

4. Mutlu Özdogan, Alan Robock, and Christopher J. Kucharik, “Impacts of a Nuclear War in South Asia on Soybean and Maize Production in the Midwest United States,” Climatic Change, Vol. 116, No. 2 (January 2013): 373-387.

5. Lili Xia and Alan Robock, “Impacts of a Nuclear War in South Asia on Rice Production in Mainland China,” Climatic Change, Vol. 116, No. 2 (January 2013): 357-372.

6. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), “World Food Situation,” http://www.fao.org/worldfoodsituation/wfs-home/csdb/en/ (release date July 11, 2013).

7. FAO, “The State of Food Security in the World 2013,” 2013, p. 8, http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3434e/i3434e.pdf.

8. Ira Helfand, “Nuclear Famine: A Billion People at Risk,” International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, April 2012, http://www.ippnw.org/pdf/nuclear-famine-ippnw-0412.pdf.

9. Mark A. Harwell, Nuclear Winter: The Human and Environmental Consequences of Nuclear War (New York: Springer-Verlag, 1984).

10. Benjamin B. Fischer, “A Cold War Conundrum: The 1983 Soviet War Scare,” Center for the Study of Intelligence, July 7, 2008, https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/books-and-monographs/a-cold-war-conundrum/source.htm.

11. Defense Science Board, “Resilient Military Systems and the Advanced Cyber Threat,” January 2013, http://www.acq.osd.mil/dsb/reports/ResilientMilitarySystems.CyberThreat.pdf.

12. U.S. Department of State official, conversation with author, Washington, DC, September 10, 2013.

13. International Committee of the Red Cross, resolutions of the 2011 Council of Delegates of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and of the 31st International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, October 2012, http://www.icrc.org/eng/assets/files/publications/icrc-002-1130.pdf.

14. Government of South Africa, “Joint Statement on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons,” April 24, 2013, http://papersmart.unmeetings.org/en/secretariat/unoda/second-session-of-the-preparatory-committee-2013/statements/ (statement by South Africa on behalf of the Humanitarian Initiative during the second session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2015 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons).

15. Permanent Mission of Austria to the United Nations, statement by President Heinz Fischer at the High Level Meeting of the General Assembly on Nuclear Disarmament, September 26, 2013, http://www.un.org/en/ga/68/meetings/nucleardisarmament/pdf/AT_en.pdf.

16. Ray Acheson and Beatrice Fihn, “Preventing Collapse: The NPT and a Ban on Nuclear Weapons,” Reaching Critical Will, October 2013, http://www.reachingcriticalwill.org/images/documents/Publications/npt-ban.pdf.

17. Office of the Press Secretary, The White House, “Remarks by President Barack Obama, Hradcany Square, Prague, Czech Republic,” April 5, 2009.

Recent studies have provided extensive data on the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear war, but the five recognized nuclear-weapon states are boycotting efforts to focus attention on this issue.

Obama Calls for Deeper Nuclear Cuts

Jefferson Morley and Daryl G. Kimball

President Barack Obama last month outlined a nuclear arms control agenda for his second term, calling for negotiated arms reductions with Russia, a fourth nuclear security summit, and a renewed push for treaties banning nuclear testing and the production of fissile materials.

In a June 19 address at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Obama said, “We may no longer live in fear of global annihilation, but so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are not truly safe.” Obama’s initiatives build on the goals he announced in his April 2009 speech in Prague and on the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which mandates reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear arsensals by 2018.

While noting that New START would reduce deployed nuclear warheads “to their lowest levels since the 1950s,” Obama said, “[W]e have more work to do.”

“To move beyond Cold War nuclear postures,” Obama said he would seek to reduce the numbers of U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third. If implemented, the reductions would trim the two countries’ strategic nuclear arsenals from the limit of 1,550 deployed warheads mandated by New START to about 1,000 to 1,100.

Obama announced that the United States would host a nuclear security summit in 2016, aimed at protecting nuclear material around the world from theft or diversion by terrorist organizations or rogue states. It would be the fourth such gathering of Obama’s presidency. The third summit is scheduled to be held in the Netherlands next year. Until Obama’s announcement, it was unclear if the summits would continue beyond 2014.

The president pledged “to build support in the United States to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty,” echoing a promise he made in Prague four years ago. Obama also renewed his call for negotiations on a treaty that would end the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons.

Obama did not provide any details about how he would promote the test ban treaty, which was rejected by the Senate in 1999. He also provided no specifics on advancing a fissile material treaty in the 65-nation Conference on Disarmament, which has been thwarted by objections from Pakistan.

Obama promised to work with NATO allies “to seek bold reductions in U.S. and Russian tactical weapons in Europe,” where the United States now maintains an estimated 180 nuclear warheads. The alliance’s 2012 Deterrence and Defence Posture Review document links changes in the alliance’s nuclear posture to Russia’s nuclear policy by stating that “NATO is prepared to consider further reducing its requirement for non-strategic nuclear weapons assigned to the Alliance in the context of reciprocal steps by Russia.” (See ACT, June 2012.)

The president announced that, after a “comprehensive review,” he approved new nuclear weapons employment guidance for the Defense Department that will lay the groundwork for the additional reductions, according to a June 19 White House summary.

The guidance directs the Pentagon to align U.S. military plans with the policies of Obama’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, which resulted in a report stating that the U.S. government will consider the use of nuclear weapons only in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners. Sources familiar with the review say that it was completed approximately 18 months ago.

The resulting strategy, says the summary, “will strengthen regional deterrence, and reassure U.S. allies and partners, while laying the groundwork for negotiations with Russia on how we can mutually and verifiably reduce our strategic and nonstrategic nuclear stockpiles.”

Administration sources say that senior U.S. and Russian officials soon will begin discussions on the options for further strategic nuclear reductions. “We are in close contact with our Russian counterparts and will be in the days and weeks and months ahead,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters June 20.

In their public comments, senior Russian officials have responded coolly to Obama’s proposal. On June 23, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggested that reductions beyond the levels in New START will make nuclear arsenals of the United States and Russia comparable to those of other countries with nuclear weapons.

“This means that further moves possibly proposed for reduction of actual strategic offensive arms will have to be reviewed in a multilateral format. And I’m talking not just official nuclear powers, but all countries that possess nuclear weapons,” Lavrov said on Rossiya 1 television. Russia has insisted that further offensive nuclear reductions also depend on a resolution of its concerns about U.S. strategic missile defense plans.

Obama’s speech was met with praise and criticism in the U.S. Senate. In a June 19 statement, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the intelligence committee, said that “the world will be better off without an unnecessarily high number of these powerful weapons. The Cold War is long gone and the United States and Russia must do more to adjust their deterrents to practicable standards.” Feinstein, along with 22 other Democratic senators, wrote to Obama earlier this year to encourage further action on nuclear reductions, the test ban treaty, and securing nuclear materials.

In a separate June 19 statement, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, warned that additional limitations of the U.S. nuclear arsenal without modernization of existing forces could amount to “unilateral disarmament.” The same day, Corker and 23 other Republican senators wrote a letter to Obama insisting that “any further reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal should only be conducted through a treaty subject to the advice and consent of the Senate.”

Arms control advocates have said reciprocal, parallel reductions in strategic deployed nuclear forces can be implemented without a treaty and verified under the inspection procedures established by New START. A November 2012 report from the secretary of state’s International Security Advisory Board recommends a similar approach if the United States and Russia cannot agree on a new treaty. The report suggests the United States could accelerate its reductions under New START, allowing both sides to avoid “costly or destabilizing” programs to modernize strategic forces. (See ACT, November 2012.)

In his statement, Corker said Secretary of State John Kerry had assured him that any further reductions would occur in bilateral treaty negotiations subject to the advice and consent of the Senate. But a State Department spokesman denied that, saying Kerry had only agreed that the Senate would be “consulted.”

“At this point, it’s premature to speculate on precisely what such agreement…might encompass or how it would be established,” the spokesman said.

The U.S. president laid out his arms control agenda, prompting a cool reply from Russia and a partisan reaction from Capitol Hill.

Administration Poised to Trim Costly Nuclear Weapons Excess



Volume 4, Issue 1, February 8, 2013

According to a new report published today by the Center for Public Integrity, the Barack Obama administration has determined that the United States can further reduce its nuclear force while maintaining a strong deterrent against any threat. The report cites administration sources who say the reductions will not occur immediately nor would they be undertaken unilaterally, but they suggest the administration will seek to pursue deeper nuclear arms cuts in tandem with Russia.

Further reductions in the U.S. arsenal have been expected for some time. The Pentagon's Jan. 2012 strategy document, "Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense," found: "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."

In a March 26, 2012 speech President Obama said:

"My Administration's nuclear posture recognizes that the massive nuclear arsenal we inherited from the Cold War is poorly suited for today's threats, including nuclear terrorism. So last summer, I directed my national security team to conduct a comprehensive study of our nuclear forces.  That study is still underway.  But even as we have more work to do, we can already say with confidence that we have more nuclear weapons than we need. I firmly believe that we can ensure the security of the United States and our allies, maintain a strong deterrent against any threat, and still pursue further reductions in our nuclear arsenal."

Budget Realities

The decision to seek further U.S. nuclear force reductions will not only help reduce excess Russian and U.S. nuclear stockpiles and reduce nuclear risks, but as the Center for Public Integrity report notes, the administration's decision "opens the door to billions of dollars in military savings."

If Congress and the White House are serious about reducing the growing federal deficit, they must seize the opportunity to scale-back costly schemes for building a new generation of strategic nuclear delivery systems and rebuilding tactical nuclear bombs. The Department of Defense is on the verge of making major, long-term decisions worth hundreds of billions of dollars about how many new missiles, submarines and bombers the nation needs for the next 50 years. Overbuying now would have adverse budget implications down the road.

Existing U.S. Navy plans call for 12 new ballistic missile submarines with a lifetime cost of almost $350 billion. The Air Force is seeking up to 100 new, nuclear-armed strategic bombers that would cost at least $68 billion, as well as a new fleet of land-based ballistic missiles (price unknown). The Pentagon and National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) have been pursuing a costly, $10 billion plan for upgrading B61 nuclear bombs in Europe, which may no longer be there by the time the upgrades are finished.

With an unlimited federal budget, some might argue that these new programs should continue until it is clear how much further the U.S. and Russia might reduce their nuclear stockpiles. But given the current budget crisis, it simply makes no sense to build major weapons systems that we can't afford and that the United States clearly does not need.

The United States spends about $31 billion annually, according to independent estimates, to support an arsenal of about 1,700 deployed strategic warheads and associated delivery systems-missiles, submarines, and bombers-and to maintain the other warheads (including non-deployed and non-strategic) in the active nuclear stockpile, which total approximately 5,000 weapons.

The 2010 New START Treaty will take the United States down to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads by 2018; Russia is already below that level.

Other than Russia, the only potential U.S. adversary with a long-range nuclear capability is China, which has no more than 50 to 75 single-warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles, according to the Pentagon.

After signing New START, President Obama said he would pursue a new treaty with Russia to further reduce strategic weapons, as well as seek new limits on tactical weapons and warheads in storage.  According to the latest Center for Public Integrity report, the administration has determined it can and will reduce U.S. strategic forces to 1,000-1,100, or about one-third below New START levels.

Modest Nuclear Cuts Produce Major Budget Savings
There are several pathways that the administration and the Congress can reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal and save billions. The following are some potential options:

  • Right-size the Strategic Sub Fleet. The strategic submarine program is where the big money is, and the United States can safely reduce the size of the force. In January 2012, the Pentagon said it would delay deployment of the new replacement submarine (called the SSBNX) by two years, from 2029 to 2031, saving $6-7 billion over the next 10 years. Without a reduction in the size of the force, however, the overall cost of the program will remain the same (or even rise) and take resources away from the Navy's other high-priority shipbuilding projects.

    By reducing the existing Ohio-class nuclear-armed sub fleet from 14 to 10 or fewer boats and building no more than eight new nuclear-armed subs, the United States could save up to $18 billion over 10 years. By revising Cold War-era prompt launch requirements and increasing the warhead loadings on each submarine, the Navy could still deploy the same number of strategic nuclear warheads as currently planned under New START (about 1,000) at sea on a smaller fleet of eight subs.

    Procurement of the first new SSBNX can be delayed until 2024 and its deployment postponed until the Ohio class fleet is reduced to seven in 2033. Savings include personnel costs, procurement costs from pushing back the SSBNX purchase dates, and operations and management costs saved by   reducing the current Ohio class fleet.
  • Delay Spending on New Strategic Bombers. The United States can postpone work on a new $68 billion, nuclear-armed strategic bomber fleet. There is no rush to field a fleet of new bombers given the Pentagon's plan to retain 60 of the existing nuclear-capable, long-range B-2 and B-52 bombers into the 2040s. Delaying development of the new bomber would save $18 billion over the next decade.
  • Trim the ICBM Force. The Air Force can trim the land-based intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force from 450 to 300 or fewer by cutting one squadron at each of the three Air Force bases where such missiles are deployed. This move would save approximately $360 million in operations and maintenance costs in the coming fiscal year and $3-4 billion over the next decade.

    As for a new ICBM, in January the Air Force requested proposals to build a new force starting in 2025, including the possibility of basing the missiles on underground railcars, or above ground on trucks. Another option is to keep the current Minuteman III until 2075.
  • Scale Back the B61 Tactical Nuclear Bomb. The White House and Congress must enforce greater budgetary discipline for the B61 bomb life extension program (LEP). According to a 2012 Pentagon audit, the cost of upgrading about 400 bombs is estimated to exceed $10.4 billion, or roughly $25 million each. This is an increase of $6 billion over the NNSA's original estimate.

    It is possible that a future agreement between Russia and the United States would, as the Senate has directed, address tactical nuclear weapons, which could reduce or eliminate these warheads. Thus, B61 tactical bombs might not be deployed a decade from now, when the proposed rebuilding program would be complete. There is time to reevaluate the LEP plan and scale it back, or to delay the program into the mid 2020s.

Fresh thinking is in order. The United States does not need and cannot afford an oversized nuclear arsenal. Programs that address low-priority threats can be scaled-back to make room for more pressing national priorities and reduce the deficit.

By revising outdated nuclear war-fighting plans, President Obama is opening the way for lower U.S.-Russian nuclear force levels, reductions involving the world's other nuclear-armed states, and much needed federal budget savings.--Daryl G. Kimball and Tom Z. Collina


The Arms Control Association (ACA) is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing information and practical policy solutions to address the dangers posed by the world's most dangerous weapons. ACA publishes the monthly journal, Arms Control Today


According to a new report published today by the Center for Public Integrity, the Barack Obama administration has determined that the United States can further reduce its nuclear force while maintaining a strong deterrent against any threat. The report cites administration sources who say the reductions will not occur immediately nor would they be undertaken unilaterally, but they suggest the administration will seek to pursue deeper nuclear arms cuts in tandem with Russia.

Obama’s Second Chance

Daryl G. Kimball

In a dramatic speech in Prague less than 100 days after his 2009 inauguration, President Barack Obama warned that “the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up. More nations have acquired these weapons. Testing has continued. The technology to build a bomb has spread.”

Like other U.S. presidents, Obama said the United States has a “moral responsibility” to prevent nuclear weapons use and proliferation. In his address, he outlined a step-by-step plan to move closer to “the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

In relatively short order, Obama and his team negotiated the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia and won Senate approval of the pact, helped secure an action plan to strengthen the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, accelerated global efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism, completed a top-to-bottom review of the U.S. nuclear weapons posture, and took steps to engage Iran in negotiations and build international pressure on Tehran to meet its nonproliferation commitments.

But following the significant progress achieved during Obama’s first two years in office, the administration’s nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation effort has lost energy and focus. Talks with Russia on deeper nuclear cuts have not begun, implementation of the new U.S. nuclear posture review has been delayed, plans to seek Senate approval for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) were never pursued, and the off-and-on talks on Iran’s nuclear program have not produced results.

To move the United States and the world farther away from the nuclear precipice, Obama and his team should focus on three high-priority nuclear risk reduction initiatives. First, the White House needs to move with greater urgency to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran through sustained multilateral diplomacy. Iran apparently has not yet made a decision to build nuclear weapons, but its capabilities are improving.

In the coming rounds of talks, the U.S. negotiators must adjust their tactics and focus on the most important nonproliferation goals: restricting (not permanently suspending) Iran’s uranium enrichment and securing Iranian agreement to more-intrusive international inspections to ensure that Tehran has halted all weapons-related work. A near-term deal to halt Iran’s accumulation of 20 percent-enriched uranium, which is closer to weapons grade, in exchange for supplies of medical isotopes and a phased rollback of some international sanctions is within reach. This could buy time and build momentum for a more comprehensive deal that limits Iran’s ongoing uranium-enrichment work to normal power reactor-grade levels.

Second, Obama can follow through on his 2009 pledge to “end Cold War thinking” and further reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons. To do so, the White House should implement a saner, “nuclear deterrence only” strategy that eliminates outdated targeting assumptions and removes U.S. weapons from prompt-launch status. In addition, the White House should delay plans for more-advanced but still unproven U.S. missile interceptors in Europe, which are leading the Kremlin to resist further cuts in offensive nuclear weapons.

These adjustments in U.S. policy would help clear the way for far deeper Russian strategic nuclear reductions. As a 2012 report from the secretary of state’s International Security Advisory Board suggests, with New START verification tools in place, further reciprocal U.S.-Russian nuclear reductions need not wait for a formal follow-on treaty.

To jump-start progress, Obama could announce that he is prepared to accelerate reductions under New START and, along with Russia, move below the treaty’s ceiling of 1,550 deployed warheads. This would help reduce the enormous cost of planned strategic force modernization by both countries in the coming years. Such actions would put pressure on China to abandon its slow increase in nuclear forces and open the door for serious, multilateral disarmament discussions.

U.S. ratification of the CTBT should also be a major nuclear nonproliferation objective for Obama’s second term. As the president said in 2009, “After more than five decades of talks, it is time for the testing of nuclear weapons to finally be banned.” U.S. ratification of the treaty would advance prospects for global entry into force; increase Washington’s leverage with Iran, North Korea, and other states of concern; build momentum ahead of the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference; and improve capabilities to detect and deter nuclear testing.

As with any treaty, securing Senate approval will not be easy. But with a sustained campaign like the one the administration waged for New START, approval of the CTBT is within reach before the end of 2014. Advances in stockpile stewardship and improvements in nuclear test monitoring make the technical case for U.S. ratification stronger than ever. There is substantial bipartisan support for the treaty, including from a number of former skeptics.

By taking these bold steps, President Obama would advance U.S. and global security, reinforce the beleaguered nuclear nonproliferation system, and establish a lasting nuclear security legacy. Doing nothing in the face of persistent nuclear dangers is not an option.

In a dramatic speech in Prague less than 100 days after his 2009 inauguration, President Barack Obama warned that “the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up. More nations have acquired these weapons. Testing has continued. The technology to build a bomb has spread.”


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