Former U.S. nuclear commander startles with proposal to cut weapons arsenal by 80%

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Former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff retired Gen. James E. Cartwright, left, and the inside of the deactivated Minuteman II intercontinental ballistic missile near Wall, S.D.

Associated Press

The chairman of a House subcommittee that helps shape the nation’s nuclear arsenal, Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), has been scathing about the Obama administration’s consideration of new cuts in the arsenal’s size. A shift in U.S. targeting policy, now under White House review, “could border on disarmament and significantly diminish U.S. strength,” Turner complained in March. “Clearly, any further reductions will undermine the deterrent that has kept this country safe.”

Turner’s view has strong currency with Republicans in the House, and among some senior military officers at the Pentagon. But it got some politically interesting pushback this week from a former senior military officer, retired Marine Gen. James E. “Hoss” Cartwright.  As head of the U.S. Strategic Command under President George W. Bush from 2004 to 2007, he oversaw the nuclear targeting plan and thousands of warheads atop missiles and inside long-range bombers.

Cartwright, who solidified a reputation for original thinking when he became vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff  from 2007 to Aug. 2011, startled his former uniformed colleagues again by urging in a new report  that the existing American arsenal of 5000 warheads be cut by 80 percent, in an effort meant to be matched by similar reductions in the Russian arsenal.

Cartwright said the proposed cut would boost the credibility of U.S. nuclear non-proliferation efforts, allow the United States to trim its defense budget, and also bolster its security. “No sensible argument has been put forward for using nuclear weapons to solve any of the major 21st century problems we face,” said the report he signed, which was coordinated by former Minuteman missile officer Bruce Blair’s Global Zero project. The report was also endorsed by Richard Burt, a former arms negotiator under President George H.W. Bush, and by Thomas Pickering, Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations.

The report said that only by drastically cutting the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals – and in particular by eliminating all land-based, nuclear-tipped missiles — could the two countries vanquish long-held dreams or fears of a decapitating strike that would destroy leadership and inhibit a robust response. It added that the weapons should also be taken off a high-alert status, in which they are poised for launch on short notice; the purpose of this step, to be taken in conjunction with the reductions, would be to curtail the risk of an accidental launch that would have catastrophic consequence.

The report noted that due to orbital geometries. land-based missiles could not be used against targets in adversarial countries other than Russia and China without first overflying Russian and Chinese territory. (Even hitting Chinese territory from U.S. missile fields would require sending them over Russia, which Moscow would not regard kindly.)

Nuclear deterrence, the report asserted, “is no longer a cornerstone of the U.S-Russian security relationship” but is instead “driven largely by inertia and vested interests left over from the Cold War.” Cartwright’s argument, in short, was exactly the opposite of the Republican thesis that nuclear arms make the nation safer.

Cartwright’s decision to jump into the nuclear debate will enliven it considerably. The Obama administration, as it prepares for the election, has mostly been quiet about the conclusions of its targeting review. And the officials it has sent to Capitol Hill this spring backed new spending on the modernization of nuclear bombs – albeit not as much as the GOP  wants – while saying that no decisions have been made yet on how low the arsenal should go.

The Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, told a Brookings Institution audience in Washington on Wednesday — when asked about the new report — that Cartwright “certainly has credibility.” But Schwartz nonetheless lashed out at his proposal to eliminate the existing force of 450 Minutemen missiles, now under Air Force control.

Schwartz said the plan “is far-fetched and introduces the likelihood of instability in the deterrence equation, which is not healthy.” Adopting an instructional tone, he said: “Here’s the reality: Why do we have a land-based deterrent force? It’s so that an adversary has to strike the homeland.”

Coming from a top U.S. military officer, that claim seems jarring; it makes clear he would be an obstacle to pursuing Cartwright's goals, if he was sticking around. But Schwartz is slated to retire a month before the election.

Cartwright’s report, as if anticipating criticism that a force of just 900 total warheads might leave the United States naked, spells out what it refers to as the “draconian” destruction that nuclear weapons planners could still threaten to wreak:

Russia: Weapons of Mass Destruction (325 warheads including 2-on-1 strikes against every missile silo), leadership command posts (110 warheads), war-supporting industry (136 warheads). Moscow alone would be covered by eighty (80) warheads.

China: WMD (85 warheads including 2-on-1 strikes against every missile silo), leadership command posts (33 warheads), war-supporting industry (136 warheads).

North Korea, Iran, Syria: Each country would be covered by forty (40) warheads.

Cartwright is not the first nuclear force commander to get a close look at the highly classified war plan and wind up as an advocate of much smaller nuclear arsenals. Two other former heads of the Strategic Command – Air Force Gen. George Lee Butler (1992-1994) and Air Force Gen. Eugene Habiger (1996-1998) — also endorsed substantial nuclear cuts.

Their views are not radical: A majority of the public finds merit in keeping nuclear arms and modernizing them, even while it is convinced the current arsenal is too large, according to a national survey conducted in April by the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation, in collaboration with the nonprofit Stimson Center and the Center for Public Integrity.

The survey, mostly about defense spending, found that a strong majority of those sampled favored a deep cut in the nuclear weapons budget as a way of helping to trim the national deficit.

As this year’s authorizing legislation for the Defense Department moves toward enactment, however, Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee have already embraced Schwartz’s view, not Cartwright’s. In a bit of pre-election bravado, they have been trying with unusual determination to turn their concern that U.S. nuclear arms aren’t getting enough love, and enough money, into federal law.

Acting partly at the instigation of Turner, a former Dayton mayor with a major Air Force base in his district, the committee’s majority has approved provisions that would bar arms reductions without more funding for the nuclear weapons complex; would require thousands of nuclear bombs to be held in reserve; and would bar the withdrawal of U.S. nuclear bombs from Europe without specific congressional approval. They also would force the Energy Department and the Defense Department to spend billions more on facilities meant to modernize and expand the country’s manufacturing capability for nuclear arms.

Defense contractors have been applauding the committee's support. As the Center for Public Integrity wrote in March, individuals working at the four biggest companies in the nuclear weapons launch business — Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and General Dynamics — and their corporate political action committees have given $1.89 million just to members of the House Armed Services Committee since the start of the Obama administration.

The White House has started to push back against the committee's decisions. In a statement late Tuesday, it said the president strongly objected to many of the provisions and warned that his top advisers will recommend a veto if the final version of the defense bill impinges on his ability to set nuclear policy and “to retire, dismantle, or eliminate non-deployed nuclear weapons.”

But the Republican-controlled House Rules Committee on Wednesday barred debate on many amendments by Democrats meant to challenge these policies, and so the die appears to be cast for a party-line House vote on the defense bill, then a larger struggle that involves first the Senate – over the summer — and eventually both parties and their presidential candidates.

“The nuclear weapons issue has been thought by many to be dead and forgotten, but it is once again a major question in Washington, especially on Capitol Hill, and could very well become a key foreign policy topic during the presidential campaign later this year,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.

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