Senior Obama administration officials have agreed that the number of nuclear warheads the U.S. military deploys could be cut by at least a third without harming national security, according to sources involved in the deliberations.
They said the officials' consensus agreement, not yet announced, opens the door to billions of dollars in military savings that might ease the federal deficit. It might also improve prospects for a new arms deal with Russia before the president leaves office, the sources said, but is likely to draw fire from conservatives, if previous debate on the issue is any guide.
The results of the internal review are reflected in a draft of a classified decision directive prepared for Obama's signature that guides how U.S. nuclear weapons should be targeted in the future against potential foes, according to four sources with direct knowledge of it. The sources, who were not authorized to talk to a reporter about the review, described the president as fully on board, but said he has not signed the document.
The document directs the first detailed Pentagon revisions in U.S. targeting since 2009, when the military's nuclear war planners last took account of a substantial reduction -- roughly by half from 2000 to 2008 -- in the total number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal. It makes clear that an even smaller nuclear force can still meet all defense requirements.
Although the document offers various options for Obama, his top advisers reached their consensus position last year, after a review that included the State Department, the Defense Department, the National Security Council, the intelligence community, U.S. Strategic Command, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the office of Vice President Joseph Biden, according to the sources.
Several said the results were not disclosed at the time partly because of political concerns that any resulting controversy might rob Obama of votes in the November election. Some Republican lawmakers have said they oppose cutting the U.S. arsenal out of concern that it could diminish America's standing in the world.
The new policy directive, which formally implements a revised nuclear policy Obama adopted in 2010, endorses the use of a smaller U.S. arsenal to deter attack and protect American interests by targeting fewer, but more important, military or political sites in Russia, China, and several other countries. This can be accomplished by 1,000-1,100 warheads, the sources said, instead of the 1,550 allowed under an existing arms treaty.
The 2010 policy called for reducing the role of nuclear weapons, arguing that they are "poorly suited to address the challenges posed by suicidal terrorists and unfriendly regimes seeking nuclear weapons." But many critics have charged that not much of the policy has been implemented. Obama himself even joked in a video message to the Jan. 26 annual dinner of Washington's exclusive Alfalfa Club that he could not recall why he won his 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. (The Oslo committee attributed it partly to his stimulation of "disarmament and arms control negotiations.")
With the election behind him and a new national security team selected, Obama is finally prepared to send this new guidance to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and to open a new dialogue with Russia about corresponding reductions in deployed weapons beyond those called for in a 2011 treaty, according to two senior U.S. officials involved in the deliberations.
"It is all done," said one. "We did so much work on that there is no interest in going back and taking another look at it." The second official said completion of the new directive would become public in coming weeks, when Obama may mention the issue in his State of the Union address on Feb. 12, or in another speech specifically dedicated to the subject, similar to the April 2009 Prague address in which he promised to "take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons."
Arms talks now being explored
While the draft directive opens the door to scrapping a substantial portion of the U.S. arsenal, it does not order those reductions immediately or suggest they be undertaken unilaterally, the officials said. Instead, the administration's ambition is to negotiate an addendum of sorts to its 2010 New Start treaty with Russia, in the form of a legally-binding agreement or an informal understanding. Officials said the latter path could be chosen if gaining the assent of two-thirds of the Senate to a treaty is not possible.
Preliminary discussions about this ambition occurred in Munich on Feb. 2 between Vice President Biden and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and additional talks are slated in Moscow this month with acting Undersecretary of State Rose Gottemoeller and White House National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon. Obama "believes that there's room to explore the potential for continued reductions, and that, of course, the best way to do so is in a discussion with Russia," Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said on Jan. 31.
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor declined comment on Feb. 6 on the draft directive.