US Nuclear Posture Under Review

The military is reviewing America’s nuclear posture for the first time since 2001 at the behest of President Obama.  The Obama administration wants to determine how much the US can shrink its nuclear weapons arsenal as it prepares to sign a new arms control treaty with Russia later this year.  The US currently has 2,200 deployed nuclear warheads and plans to reduce that to 1,500 within seven years.  The US had 10,500 warheads when the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia was signed in 1991 at the end of the Cold War.  The Obama administration wants to lower the cost of maintaining America’s nuclear arsenal and encourage other powers to reduce their arsenals or abandon atomic weapons altogether.

During the review, the military will have to determine how many nuclear weapons the US needs to maintain an effective deterrent. This hinges on which countries the US wants to deter and how many strategic targets it would want to eliminate in a nuclear strike.  During the Cold War, the US had plans to destroy thousands of targets in the Eastern Bloc and China in the case of a major nuclear exchange.  The US will still undoubtedly want to continue to deter Russia and China, as well as smaller powers like Iran and North Korea, but doing so would require far fewer nuclear weapons than America currently possesses.

Another issue is which weapons platforms nuclear warheads will be based on.  The US currently has a nuclear triad consisting of ballistic missile submarines, ground-bases missile silos and nuclear-capable bombers.  Submarines are considered the most effective platforms because they are mobile, difficult to detect and can carry hundreds of warheads.  But each of the services wants to have a nuclear capability, so it is unlikely that any part of the triad will be completely eliminated.  What may change is the proportions of the mix.

The reliability of America’s nuclear arsenal will almost certainly be part of the review. The US has not conducted any live nuclear tests in decades. Some are concerned that older warheads may not be as reliable as they should be, and they have advocated resuming testing or developing a new generation of nuclear weapons. It is unlikely that the Obama administration will pursue either course, because many officials believe that doing so would send the wrong signal to other powers at a time when the US is trying to stem nuclear proliferation and reduce the number of nuclear warheads in the world.

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