Obama’s nuclear targeting revisions create a path to smaller arsenals

But Moscow remains reticent for now to endorse the cuts that Washington seeks

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 Updated:

President Obama disclosed in Berlin on June 19 that he has ordered the Pentagon to revise its plan for targeting America’s arsenal of nuclear weapons in wartime, a decision that opens the door to negotiated reductions in all three categories of these devastating weapons: strategic or long-range; tactical — meaning those deployed in Europe; and the large U.S. inventory of bombs and warheads held in reserve.

Obama signed the classified directive to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on June 18, a senior administration official said. That was one day after Obama and Russian president Vladimir Putin had what several officials describe as a difficult private conversation about nuclear weapons policy, the conflagration in Syria, and other thorny foreign policy issues.

Obama’s speech thus signaled his determination to press for deeper bilateral arms reductions despite Russia’s often-stated reluctance to trim its nuclear forces beyond the cuts called for by the New START treaty both countries signed in 2010.

Obama told a crowd at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate, the historic symbol of the Cold War rivalry between East and West, that “peace with justice means pursuing the security of a world without nuclear weapons — no matter how distant that dream may be.” He said that “after a comprehensive review, I’ve determined that we can ensure the security of America and our allies … while reducing our deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third. And I intend to seek negotiated cuts with Russia to move beyond Cold War nuclear postures.”

A senior administration official, asked yesterday how rapidly a agreement with Russia about nuclear reductions might come, said it’s necessary to take the long view. “We’ll get there eventually,” said the official, who along with several others spoke under ground rules that prevented the use of any name. “I won’t predict when.”

In fact, U.S. nuclear policy and weaponry generally has resisted sudden change.

The classified directive — which guides advanced planning for using nuclear weapons in response to the U.S. or its allies — codifies the conclusions of an internal administration review of nuclear policy completed three years ago. The review confirmed the obvious, namely that the nature of the threat to the United States has changed. It called for reducing the role of nuclear weapons on grounds that they are “poorly suited to address the challenges posed by suicidal terrorists and unfriendly regimes seeking nuclear weapons.”

Obama’s aides reached a consensus a year ago about the shift in targeting policy that he just approved. The secret directive he signed has been sitting in draft form at the White House since last winter. The president was reluctant to sign it before the 2012 presidential election, out of concern that it might sow political controversy, according to several officials. This spring, he deferred the issue again while his new national security team got settled, the officials said.

Presidential directives such as this traditionally have set guidelines, which the defense secretary translates into strike options. The Joint Chiefs of Staff uses those to write instructions to the commander of U.S. strategic forces. That officer in turn passes instructions to a 430-person targeting staff, which produces detailed nuclear war plans for the commanders of combat forces.

This process will take at least another year, according to one official, and possibly eighteen months if past targeting revisions are any guide. That means a policy change Obama initially blessed in the second year of his presidency will not fully impact U.S. nuclear forces — the network of deployed bombers, submarines, and missiles — until five years will have passed.

These steps along the road toward a new nuclear policy are laborious and shrouded in secrecy. Admiral James O. Ellis Jr., in a 2004 interview about nuclear planning when he was commander of U.S. strategic forces, said that the "president's direction to me was less than two pages; the Joint Staff's explanation of what the president really meant to say was twenty-six pages," according to an account by nuclear analyst Hans Kristensen. The war plans themselves are book-length.

Obama and his aides provided only a vague account of what the directive says. A White House fact sheet summarizing the document states that Obama told the Pentagon and its war planners that nuclear weapons should only be used in “extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners” — phraseology used by Obama in a March 2012 speech in South Korea.

The directive does not, as the Center for Public Integrity previously predicted, push the military to a “deterrence-only” plan, in which nuclear arms would only be targeted against an enemy’s economic capacity. Nor does it reduce the emphasis on attacks on leadership figures, or restrict the use of nuclear arms solely to conflicts in which the United States or its allies are hit first by a nuclear strike. Both approaches have been urged by some independent arms control advocates, but neither attracted support within the Pentagon.

Defense Secretary Hagel, who before his nomination signed a Global Zero report asserting that the current U.S. nuclear arsenal vastly exceeds what is needed “to satisfy reasonable requirements of deterrence,” does not appear to have put a substantial personal stamp on the directive.

The Global Zero report had suggested Russia and the United States shrink their arsenals to 900 nuclear weapons on each side, including reserve weapons, and scrap all of their land-based missiles on the grounds that they are vulnerable to accidental or unauthorized launch. The report also called on both sides to abandon the practice of keeping their nuclear forces on high alert for “launch under attack,” meaning one side would launch a nuclear strike if sensors warned of incoming missiles or bombers. Many experts have said the practice unacceptably raises the risk of accidental, catastrophic conflict.

Obama did not embrace any of these proposals, officials said. “The new guidance states that the United States will maintain a nuclear Triad” that includes land-based and sea-based missiles as well as bombs delivered by aircraft, a separate Defense Department summary of his directive for congressional members stated late Wednesday.

The policy also commits the United States to maintaining “strategic stability” with Russia and China, explaining that while numerical parity is “no longer as compelling” as it was during the Cold War, “large disparities in nuclear capabilities could raise concerns on both sides and among U.S. Allies and partners, and may not be conducive to maintaining a stable, long-term strategic relationship,” the summary stated.

The Pentagon's summary also states that the United States will continue deploying tactical nuclear weapons aboard bombers and fighter aircraft in Europe, a posture that independent arms control advocates and some European government officials have criticized as a relic of the Cold War. UPDATE: A senior administration official said on June 20 that while the directive requires a persistent capability to deploy these weapons in Europe, it does not specifically order their deployment -- a circumstance that leaves room for their withdrawal if NATO agrees. 

On the other hand, Obama instructed the Pentagon to “work toward” the goal of targeting nuclear weapons for use only against a nuclear attack — and not attacks involving conventional, chemical, or biological weapons, according to the Pentagon’s summary. Advocates of that shift say it would further restrict the purpose of nuclear arms.

Obama also told the Pentagon to prepare a series of non-nuclear strike options “to assess what objectives and effects could be achieved” with this approach. While the White House directive calls for retaining a “launch under attack” capability, it orders the military to consider reducing the role this option plays in U.S. planning.

The president’s directive also instructs the Energy Department to work with the Pentagon to redesign warheads so they can be used in more than one type of missile or plane, a plan that would leave the U.S. with five types of warheads instead of eight. Officials said that by creating a smaller group of warheads that could be swapped in and out of different weapons, the United States would not have to keep as many warheads in reserve as a hedge against the failure of any one of them.

By most accounts, the United States could save hundreds of billions of dollars if missile launch sites were closed, nuclear weapons facilities were scaled back, and fewer new missile-carrying submarines constructed. But Obama has so far firmly tied these reductions to similar reductions in Russia’s arsenal, eschewing unilateral cuts. The two former superpower rivals still control the vast majority of the world’s nuclear arms.

One U.S. official explained that while Washington is eager to negotiate a binding agreement with Russia on further cuts to strategic, tactical, and reserve forces, the form of that agreement — a treaty or an exchange of promises to be verified under procedures already in place — remains uncertain. Congressional Republicans want the White House to pursue a treaty, which they would have a say in approving or rejecting. UPDATE: A senior administration official said on June 20 that "we don't necessarily have to address everything all at once and in one agreement," suggesting that a new deal might just cover strategic arms alone.

Russia is not, however, in the mood for quick treaty negotiations, as a senior official put it. “They are not right now focused on reductions in any category … [but on] fulfilling obligations” under the 2010 agreement, which limits both sides to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear weapons. Russia also is still objecting to the growing U.S. missile defense system and to a new high-tech, intercontinental, non-nuclear, missile system now in early stages of development.

The two sides “obviously have different perspectives” on missile defenses, one official said, despite Obama’s decision to kill the portion of the defensive system that most alarmed Moscow. In any case, little progress is expected before the first week of September, when another U.S.-Russian summit is scheduled, this time for Moscow.

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