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Nukes likely to decline in Obama’s second term

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A Trident II, D-5 missile is launched from the submerged submarine USS Tennessee in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida. 

AP

The Pentagon’s budget is almost assuredly going down in coming years, under heavy pressure from those who wish to trim the federal deficit and see the agency – whose budget increased by two-thirds over the last decade – as a ripe target. But it looks like a specific type of weaponry,  the nation’s stockpile of nuclear warheads, is also headed down, with Barack Obama’s reelection.

This is not a great surprise. Obama promised in a 2009 speech in Prague, after all, that the U.S.-Russian arms control treaty he was then negotiating “will set the stage for further cuts.” But the administration’s planning was not detailed publicly before the election to avoid creating controversy.

Now that the voting is past, a group of independent advisers to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has publicly urged her to consider pursuing an informal accord with Russia aimed at lowering the number of nuclear weapons the two countries might deploy under existing treaties. Its report, issued Nov. 27, has also acknowledged official support for deeper cuts inside the administration.

The idea of an informal agreement would essentially sidestep the need to obtain formal congressional approval for cuts deeper than those authorized in a 2011 U.S.-Russian arms treaty known as New Start. The accord, which caps strategic deployments by both countries at 1,550 warheads, was approved by around a three-quarters margin in both legislatures, but only after months of political debate.

The department’s International Security Advisory Board includes some defense and military heavyweights, such as former defense secretary William Perry, former nuclear weapons laboratory director Michael Anastasio, former generals Montgomery Meigs and Frank Klotz, former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, and former deputy energy secretary Charles Curtis. Two former Republican congressmen, Terry Everett and Douglas Bereuter, are also members, as well as 16 others.

In a bow to the current fiscal debate in Washington, the report noted that lower agreed limits on the number of nuclear warheads would allow both countries to forgo “costly or destabilizing modernization efforts.” In Russia, those efforts include the development of a new land-based missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads to U.S. soil, a weapon system that conceivably could be scrapped if Washington agreed to trim its arsenal, according to the panel.

The report did not detail which weapons might be scrapped or what the associated savings might be. But the Stimson Center, a nonprofit group in Washington, estimated this summer that the United States will spend $352 billion to $392 billion on strategic nuclear offensive forces over the next decade.

As an alternate idea, the report said that Washington and Moscow could promise to accelerate their compliance with the New START treaty limits, slated to take full effect in 2018. Doing so would allow the United States to speed up its withdrawal of warheads and launchers from existing forces, but would not necessarily remove the Russian incentive to modernize its missile force (Russia has around 50 fewer warheads deployed right now than the treaty allows, while the United States has 172 more than the limit.

Parallel but informal U.S. and Russian nuclear reductions have been undertaken before, most notably in the early 1990’s when both sides promised to eliminate some short-range and ship-borne nuclear weapons. “Russia is not believed to have fulfilled all of their unilateral pledges,” the report acknowledged.

The report said that the Pentagon and State Department officials consulted by the group, including deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear policy Brad Roberts, had embraced the idea “that the military missions required of nuclear weapons can be achieved with lower force levels.”

Senior officials have affirmed this view in the last week, with one saying that the idea of reaching an informal accord – or even taking unilateral steps – is now being given a hard look in internal discussions about the next four years.

Now that the secret is out, conservative critics on Capitol Hill have begun to take aim. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), the Senate majority whip and a critic of the New START agreement who is retiring from Congress in a month, last Friday introduced an amendment to the defense authorization bill that would express the “sense of the Senate” that any further U.S.-Russian agreement to limit nuclear arms could only be achieved through a treaty requiring Senate approval. No vote had occurred as of the time this was written.