Obama pushes big cut in nuclear weapons. Is that a good idea?

In Berlin, President Obama calls for cutting US deployed nuclear weapons by one-third and urges NATO allies to pursue 'the security of a world without nuclear weapons.'

Evan Vucci/AP
President Obama waves before speaking at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on Wednesday. Mr. Obama called for a reduction in the world's nuclear stockpiles, including a proposed one-third cut in US and Russian arsenals.

In a Berlin speech on Wednesday, President Obama proposed cutting deployed US strategic nuclear weapons by one-third. These reductions would occur pursuant to US-Russian negotiations aimed at getting the world’s two big nuclear powers to move beyond “cold war nuclear postures," Mr. Obama said.

The US president also said he would work with NATO allies to see big cuts in smaller, tactical nuclear weapons based in Europe.

“Peace with justice means pursuing the security of a world without nuclear weapons – no matter how distant that dream may be,” said Obama.

Obama’s new move to slash US and Russian arsenals comes two years after the last arms agreement between the two nations, New START, went into effect. That pact calls for both to reduce their deployed strategic nukes to 1,550 each by 2018. Further one-third cuts would result in a level of approximately 1,000 such weapons.

Given that the US had an estimated 10,000 strategic warheads in 1980, are further cuts to the 1,000 level a good idea?

Many nuclear experts believe that yes, it would be a good thing. The cuts would lighten the load of nuclear arsenals while still providing enough power to keep the US safe, some say.

One thousand strategic weapons “are still more than sufficient to assure that the US can deter any major adversary from launching major strikes against the US,” said Jon Wolfsthal, Vice President Joe Biden’s former nuclear adviser and current deputy director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, in a video commentary.

The reduction would allow the US to cut back on plans to build a new generation of nuclear delivery vehicles, saving $58 billion over the next decade, according to an Arms Control Association statement on the speech.

Obama’s push might help NATO and Russia overcome “inertia” on tactical nuclear weapons, the ACA added. Russia maintains some 2,000 tactical nukes, of which 1,000 are obsolete air defense warheads, according to an ACA estimate. The US maintains 180 air-delivered nuclear bombs in Europe, in part because some US NATO allies see them as insurance against aggression from Moscow.

Nor do these moves depend on signing a formal new agreement, argued ACA. The US and Russia could simply move forward with parallel, reciprocal reductions.

“In the months ahead, President Obama must re-energize and sustain the nuclear risk reduction enterprise and US policymakers must overcome partisan politics to help address today’s grave nuclear challenges,” writes ACA executive director Daryl Kimball.

Some Republicans believe Obama’s proposal could harm US national security if implemented, however.

Rep. Michael Turner (R) of Ohio, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, charged Obama with cozying up to America’s former superpower nuclear adversary. The president “seems only concerned with winning the approval of nations like Russia, who will applaud a weakened United States,” said Representative Turner, according to the Associated Press.

At the right-leaning Heritage Foundation, defense analyst Michaela Dodge says Obama’s moves could sow doubt in the minds of allies and adversaries alike as to the solidity of US nuclear guarantees.

The House Armed Services Committee’s version of fiscal year 2014 defense authorization legislation prohibits elimination of the nuclear triad (bombers, submarines, and ballistic missiles) while limiting the availability of further funds for nuclear reductions, points out Ms. Dodge.

“It is only prudent to wait and assess the effects of the reductions under New START before conducting yet another round of unilateral nuclear weapons reductions, because the treaty does not provide for predictability, and its degraded verification regime makes it more difficult to assess Russia’s nuclear weapons capabilities,” she writes.

There’s also the question of whether Russia is interested in further nuclear cuts. This is especially apropos in light of the strained personal relations between Obama and President Vladimir Putin evident at the recent G8 summit in Northern Ireland.

Alexei Pushkov, head of the foreign affairs committee of the Russian Duma, told Interfax that Obama’s proposals need “serious revision so that they can be seen by the Russian side as serious and not as propaganda proposals," according to AP.

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