The nuclear excess

How many nuclear warheads are there still remaining in the world today? Five thousand? Ten thousand?

Would you believe 22,500?

Now, consider this: the New START treaty on strategic weapons, which is pending ratification in the Senate, would restrict each side to 1,550 warheads, or a total of 3,100 in both the United States and Russia.

Do the math. This treaty is not taking a big bite out of nuclear arsenals. If approved, there will still be more than 19,000 nuclear weapons in the world. And most of them will still be in the United States and Russia: tactical nuclear weapons (not covered by this treaty) and strategic weapons in reserve (also not covered) as well as warheads that are offline, waiting for dismantlement.

In other words, there is still a ton of work to do. What's odd about the current debate on whether to ratify New START is that no one really is arguing that we need so many nukes. No one can point to the threats that will be deterred. Indeed, now that the Cold War has ended, it is clear we have an overhang of weapons, far more than we need. They are like old clothes stuffed in our closet, and we just won't get around to facing the fact that we will never wear them again.

The current debate over New START is misplaced. The treaty is good for verification and continuity; the right thing to do is ratify it, and get moving to the next phase, which ought to get us to far fewer weapons. Smart roadmaps are already available. A surprisingly good stack of scholarship has come out recently on how we can reach that destination. These reports deserve to be read, not just thrown into a file drawer.

President Obama's Nuclear Posture Review acknowledged the nuclear overhang. The United States and Russia "each still retains more nuclear weapons than necessary for stable deterrence," the report says. This is a document intended to set nuclear policy for the next five to ten years, endorsed by the military leadership. They get it: we could go lower.

Then there's an important essay in the Sept.-Oct. issue of Foreign Affairs, which is based on extensive computer modeling. The five authors, including three from Russia with deep experience in Soviet and Russian nuclear forces, show that it is possible to get down to 1,000 warheads without weakening security on either side. Another report which endorses one thousand as a goal came out this week from the Council on Foreign Relations.

Also, take time to read the article in Strategic Studies Quarterly (pdf) in which three Air Force thinkers concluded that "America's security can rest easily" on a comparatively small nuclear force. The United States, they wrote, could "draw down its nuclear arsenal to a relatively small number of survivable, reliable weapons dispersed among missile silos, submarines, and airplanes." They said such a force might number only 311 nuclear weapons. They get it, too.

For another perspective, read the report last year by the Federation of American Scientists, which calls for a change in the nuclear targeting strategy that would also be a step toward much lower levels of weapons.

And for a vision of a world without nuclear weapons, read the Global Zero action plan, a phased approach that would start with the United States and Russia and then draw in the other nuclear weapons powers.

All of these reports face squarely the reality that times have changed, and the nuclear arsenals need to change too.

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