Under Obama, U.S. Nuclear Alert Policy Still Stuck in the Cold War

By Daryl Kimball

In a September 2008 Arms Control Today Presidential Q & A, then-candidate for president Barack Obama committed “to working with Russia and other nuclear-armed states to make deep cuts in global [nuclear weapons] stockpiles by the end of my first term.” He went on to say, “As a first step, I will seek Russia’s agreement to extend essential monitoring and verification provisions of the START I before it expires in December 2009.”

Obama has fulfilled that pledge with the negotiation and active support for New START, which is awaiting Senate approval for ratification next month. New START is a vital step in the right direction. It would keep Washington and Moscow on track to reduce their arsenals by about 30 percent below current limits—to no more than 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads on no more than 700 delivery vehicles. The U.S. would retain a large and modern nuclear force more than sufficient to deter a nuclear attack by Russia or any other potential adversary.

Without New START, each side would be tempted to engage in more costly force modernization and hedging strategies. “If we don’t get the treaty, [the Russians] are not constrained in their development of force structure and… we have no insight into what they’re doing. So it’s the worst of both possible worlds,” General Kevin Chilton, STRATCOM Commander, said June 16.

Preserving “a dangerous relic of the Cold War”

When it comes to some other pledges on reducing nuclear threats left over from the Cold War, however, President Obama’s actions aren’t living up to his rhetoric.

In the September 2008 ACT Q&A, he also said “I will work with Russia in a mutual and verifiable manner to increase warning and decision time prior to the launch of nuclear weapons.” He also noted that “Keeping nuclear weapons ready to launch on a moment’s notice is a dangerous relic of the Cold War. Such policies increase the risk of catastrophic accidents and miscalculation. I believe that we must address this dangerous situation–something President Bush promised to do when he campaigned for president back in 2000, but did not do once in office. I will work with Russia to end such outdated Cold War policies in a mutual and verifiable way.”

Back in 2001 Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin declared that “The United States and Russia have overcome the legacy of the Cold War. Neither country regards the other as an enemy of threat.” Yet to this day, U.S. nuclear-capable heavy bombers are off full-time alert, nearly all ICBMs remain on alert, and a significant number of SSBNs are at sea at any given time. Russia deploys most of its 2000-some strategic nuclear warheads on land-based ICBMs. Russian military officials claim that at least 96 percent of all Russia missiles are “ready for deployment within several dozen seconds.” China is the only other potential adversary that has nuclear-armed missiles that can reach the United States and it has less than 50 on a low-alert posture.

The Obama administration’s Pentagon-led April 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) acknowledges that “Maximizing decision time for the President can further strengthen strategic stability at lower force levels” and the NPR examined possible adjustments to the current alert posture of U.S. strategic forces. Regardless, the NPR “concluded that this posture should be maintained.”

Instead of real change the NPR will only lead to long-term studies “that may lead to future reductions in alert posture. For example, in an initial study of possible follow-on systems to the Minuteman III ICBM force, the Department of Defense will explore whether new modes of basing may ensure the survivability of this leg of the Triad while eliminating or reducing incentives for prompt launch.” Current plans call for sustaining the Minuteman III strategic missile “for at least another two decades.”

Sounds like the 21st century edition of Dr. Strangelove was involved in the NPR discussion and was hyperventilating about Soviet first strike scenarios and a dreaded “mine shaft gap.”

As if to underscore the failure to lead the United States away from the dangerous legacy of keeping thousands of U.S. and Russian weapons on alert and ready to launch within minutes of an order from Presidents Obama and Medvedev, this past week the United States–along with France and the United Kingdom–were the only three countries to vote “no” on a United Nations resolution that “Calls for further practical steps to be taken to decrease the operational readiness of nuclear weapons systems, with a view to ensuring that all nuclear weapons are removed from high alert status.” The final vote was 144-3, with 22 abstentions. Russia had the good sense to abstain rather than vote “no.” China voted “yes.”

As we noted in the new Arms Control Association study Assessing Progress on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament: 2009-2010 Report Card, the Obama administration provided strong rhetorical support for the vision of a world without nuclear weapons, but the record shows clearly that the world’s nuclear weapons possessor states all have work to do in order to meet the standards established by the international community aimed at reducing and eventually eliminating the nuclear weapons threat. Getting to zero remains a long-term endeavor but it still requires sustained progress by many states, on many levels. Action in some areas but not others is not going to get the job done.

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