Got nukes? Be bold

When we think of nuclear warheads, we imagine those cone-shaped, threatening weapons perched atop missiles, ready to be launched, or bombs loaded aboard airplanes. These are known as operationally-deployed strategic weapons. But there are other strategic nuclear warheads that are not deployed, sitting in storage in both the United States and Russia. In fact, each country has several thousand of them. They are not covered by any treaty, and not checked by verification. There is no public accounting of the exact numbers.

Here’s a chance for President Barack Obama to take a lasting step toward his vision of a world without nuclear weapons. It’s time for both countries to get rid of these excess warheads.

The U.S. warheads were put in a reserve, or “hedge,” in 1994. This was only about three years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and not long after Boris Yeltsin had prevailed in a violent confrontation with hardliners in parliament. William Perry, then the defense secretary, said on Sept. 20, 1994 the hedge was necessary because of a “small but real danger that reform in Russia might fail.”

Well, we are 17 years beyond that. While reform in Russia has been very rough and incomplete, it certainly did not turn into the worst-case scenario that Perry worried about.

The nuclear hedge is still around. Why?

President Barack Obama’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review said these non-deployed strategic weapons were good for spares. They are needed, the review said, in case there is some kind of terrible surprise:

Non-deployed warheads … provide a hedge against technological surprise, such as discovery of a technical problem in a warhead that renders it (and all of its type) non-operational. They also serve as a hedge against geopolitical surprise, such as an erosion of the security environment that requires additional weapons to be uploaded on delivery systems.

But the review explicitly acknowledged, the hedge “currently includes more warheads than required for the above purposes.”

The administration has pledged $85 billion in additional spending over 10 years for the U.S. nuclear weapons complex—we can get by without as many spares.

We know a lot less about the strategic warheads in reserve on the Russian side, but they exist.

Recently, Obama directed the Pentagon to study next steps in reducing nuclear arsenals. In an op-ed this week in the Financial Times, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon said the next round of negotiations “must be as wide as possible.” This means, as Donilon told the Carnegie nuclear conference last month, that the agreement with Russia “should include both” the non-deployed strategic warheads as well as tactical or shorter-range weapons, which have also never been covered by a treaty.

Since the Russians have more tactical weapons than we do, one line of thinking in the United States has been to negotiate overall totals for all kinds of warheads, allowing each side to determine the composition of cuts. Thus, both sides could agree to eliminate, for example, 2,000 warheads of any type, and that would give some flexibility in each category.

But negotiations could take years. Both countries are now entering election cycles, with all the uncertainty that suggests. Should we wait until 2012 or beyond--when new presidential terms are underway--for the next round of nuclear reductions?

Both Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev (plus his partner in power, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin) could do something bolder, and sooner. Both countries could agree this year to consign to the scrapheap a large number of non-deployed strategic warheads. All they’d have to do is say: we agree these weapons are no longer being kept for future use, but will be taken apart.

Sure, it takes time to destroy them; there are already several thousand warheads awaiting dismantlement in the United States alone, and it may take a decade to work down the backlog. Sure, there are questions about how and whether such a deal with Russia could be verified. Sure, there are some who would like to keep the warheads in the strategic reserve as a bargaining chip for a future negotiation. 

But ditching the excess “reserves” now could be a potent statement. It would close a kind of grey zone for these warheads, marking them for certain elimination, rather than retention to be put on delivery systems someday. The warheads are now off-line, not part of the deployed nuclear deterrence forces, so getting rid of them should not become a big test of strength.

This fall will mark the 20th anniversary since the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives. In  September and October 1991, as the Soviet Union was in its final months, Presidents George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev each unilaterally withdrew a large number of nuclear weapons. The agreement was described by Raymond L. Garthoff, the historian, as an arms race in reverse—and downhill. There has been legitimate criticism in the years since  that it was done without verification. But it was real arms reduction without the long treaty negotiations.

Might this September be a good time for a new Presidential Nuclear Initiative? Are our presidents bold enough?

Getty Images/Alex Wong