New Strategy Recognizes Nuclear Realities

Today, standing with his top military officials, President Obama rolled out new guidance that realigns the Pentagon toward today’s strategic realities. It might not seem like it from the report’s stoic language, but this is part of a set of once-in-a-generation decisions that could reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Experts agree that the U.S. should shift to a smarter security strategy that would shed excessive and obsolete nuclear weapons while investing in tools best suited for the real threats of the 21st century. Such moves are needed to put the U.S. on a stronger strategic and fiscal posture.

The Pentagon’s new strategy (pdf) is a first step toward that goal. It is intended to prepare the U.S. military for the new strategic landscape while helping the Pentagon find $450 billion plus in budget savings over the next 10 years. In doing so, the strategy opens the door to nuclear reductions.

Two years ago in its Nuclear Posture Review, the Obama administration said that any future nuclear reductions would continue to strengthen deterrence and stability. The NPR said, “This will require an updated assessment of deterrence requirements.”

The Pentagon’s new strategy guidance updated that assessment:

“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 less than two years, the Pentagon has officially moved from “We’ll look into it,” to “It is possible.” Sure, the presentation was muted. However, it signals that the Pentagon is ready for the nuclear arsenal to get scaled back.

Why? Three forces are converging upon nuclear weapons policy that will likely result in fewer weapons with fewer roles.

  • First, the White House and Pentagon are currently working to update guidance for how the military should plan for the potential use of nuclear weapons. Potential changes could scale back Cold War-era policies lessening the number of targets and nuclear warheads deemed necessary to provide for the security of the U.S. and its allies.
  • Second, Washington is grappling with plans to replace or overhaul large pieces of the U.S. nuclear enterprise – including new nuclear submarines, bombers, and production facilities. These decisions will shape the composition of the nuclear arsenal for the next fifty plus years - either enshrining the current force size, or dramatically scaling it down.
  • Third, the Pentagon’s budget is getting trimmed to be aligned with strategic needs and budget realities. The Pentagon might not want to fit excessive nuclear programs under its tightening belt. The new nuclear sub alone is expected to cost $350 billion over the lifetime of the program.

None of these forces favor the nuclear status quo. So the President and the Pentagon are crafting a security strategy that makes more sense for the United States’ strategic needs, nuclear assets, and budget priorities.

With today’s announcement, the Pentagon recognized that a smarter strategy might mean fewer nuclear bombs.