Since taking office, the Obama Administration has sought to enact policies that would fundamentally change premises on which the U.S. nuclear posture has lain since the dawn of the nuclear age. If Congress fails to act to prevent them, the United States will end up weaker and allies around the world will further question the validity and credibility of U.S. nuclear security guarantees.
President Obama entered office with a vision he articulated in his 2009 speech in Prague where he committed to work toward a world free of nuclear weapons. He said: “So today, I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” .1 This statement is deeply rooted in a belief that if the United States rids itself of nuclear weapons, other countries will somehow miraculously follow its lead and give up their respective arsenals. Yet, historical evidence contradicts this assumption. South Africa gave up its nuclear weapons while the United States maintained and tested its nuclear arsenal. North Korea and Pakistan conducted tests of their nuclear weapons after the United States self-imposed nuclear weapons moratorium.. The “world without nuclear weapons” really means the “world without U.S. nuclear weapons” in President Obama’s understanding.
In Prague during the same speech, President Obama also said that the United States “will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal.” .2 These words have not been backed up by tangible actions. U.S. nuclear infrastructure is in the worst shape in its history. U.S. nuclear weapons, built with a life expectancy of about 10 years, are now approaching 28 years on average. The United States has never had such an old nuclear arsenal. The weapons it currently has are poorly suited to missions that occurred since the Soviet Union split since they are based on 1970s technologies. U.S. nuclear delivery vehicles do not fare much better. In 2030, when the United States plans to start replacing its systems, it will have 60-year-old intercontinental range ballistic missiles (ICBMs), 40-year-old submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and 35-year-old to 70-year-old bombers. A Trident SLBM replacement is not projected until 2042..3
In 2010, the Administration published its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). The document, which is designed to state presidential priorities and policy boundaries for the executive branch, reiterated a policy that has been detrimental to the nuclear weapons complex since enacted in the early 1990s. This policy precludes nuclear weapons testing, including any yield-producing experiments. .4 It establishes a policy of no new weapons, no new missions, and no new military capabilities.
The NPR also redefined U.S. negative security assurance “by declaring that the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states that are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.” This is somewhat troubling because under some circumstances, biological and chemical weapons can inflict as many casualties as nuclear weapons.
The Obama Administration also negotiated a New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with the Russian Federation. The treaty is a case study in failed U.S. negotiations and is the first arms control treaty in the history in which one side, the United States, has to reduce its nuclear arsenal while the Russian Federation gets to build up. The treaty is a throw-back to the Cold War since it re-establishes a link between strategic offensive and defensive arms. It failed to address the massive disparity in short-range nuclear weapons systems and does not provide for a proper verification regime. This means that over time, the United States will have an increasingly worse understanding of the Russian Federation’s strategic posture.
This problem will be exacerbated by the fact that since New START entered into force, Moscow launched the most expensive nuclear weapons modernization program in its history and has been conducting low yield nuclear weapons experiments. Well aware of these disparities, the Obama Administration certified to the Senate that it would increase investments to the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, currently comprising about one percent of the Department of Defense’s budget. The complex has been described as “decrepit” and has been underfunded for years. In addition, it has taken on other missions not solely focused on nuclear weapons programs, which means not all the resources in that one percent are dedicated to nuclear modernization.
The Obama Administration’s promises have not survived even a year after New START entered into force. Key facilities have been delayed and funds decreased below the Administration’s promised level. While it is true that congressional appropriators cut this funding, the Obama Administration took no effort to prevent these cuts from occurring. Sequestration mandated by the Budget Control Act introduces another layer of uncertainty regarding the future of U.S. nuclear modernization plans.
Even worse, another shoe has yet to drop. Last year, the Administration concluded an NPR implementation study. The study has not been made public yet but it is widely expected that it will recommend steps toward a “minimal deterrence” posture. This would mean further nuclear weapons reductions, potential changes in U.S. targeting and employment policy, or changes in the composition or basing modes of the triad. For decades, successive administrations considered relying on minimal standards of force adequacy to be risky.
The Obama Administration policies are creating a gap between U.S. nuclear capabilities and the future demands of the uncertain strategic environment. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates stated “To be blunt, there is absolutely no way we can maintain a credible deterrent and reduce the number of weapons in our stockpile without either resorting to testing our stockpile or pursuing a modernization program.” .5 The Administration is not intent on doing either.
Michaela Bendíková is a Research Associate for Strategic Issues at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.