President Barack Obama is set to announce a new round of strategic nuclear warhead reductions in the near future as part of a disarmament agenda that could reduce U.S. strategic warheads to as few as 1,000 weapons.
The next round of U.S.-Russian arms talks would follow Obama's expected announcement that the United States' arsenal of strategic warheads can be reduced unilaterally to around 1,000 warheads. That position is expected as part of the Pentagon's long-delayed Nuclear Posture Review implementation study that Obama was expected to sign earlier this year.
Recent press reports have indicated that President Obama may make the cuts -- fully one-third of the nation's arsenal -- by executive action and without Congressional authorization.
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Specialists on nuclear deterrence say further cuts beyond the 1,550 deployed warheads mandated by the 2010 New START arms treaty could undermine the United States' ability to deter nuclear powers like Russia and China, who have significant modernization programs for their nuclear arsenals underway.
Further cuts also are likely to embolden other non-nuclear states, including Japan, to consider building their own nuclear arsenals, analysts say.
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney said the administration is seeking to unilaterally disarm U.S. nuclear forces, something that is "the most dangerous thing I have ever seen an American president attempt to do."
"This is not the time to embark on such a dangerous path, with China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea increasing their nuclear forces," he said.
A U.S. official familiar with strategic nuclear policy said the delay in signing the implementation study may be the result of concerns among military commanders in charge of nuclear deterrence that China's nuclear arsenal is expanding more rapidly than anticipated, and that Russia and other nuclear states, including Pakistan and North Korea, are modernizing their forces.
"I hear increasing concerns about China," the official said. "We really don't know what they're doing and what decisions are being made" about China's nuclear-force modernization.
In addition to cuts to the nation's nuclear arsenal, the Obama administration appears to be getting ready to limit U.S. missile defenses in a new agreement with Russia.
Obama wrote a still-secret letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin that was delivered in Moscow by White House National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon during a visit there in mid-April.
Putin aide Yuri Ushakov told reporters in Moscow the letter "addresses problems of military policy, including the missile defense and nuclear arsenals issues."
A reply from the Russian president is expected soon, and a deal on both missile defenses and new talks on strategic nuclear reductions could come during Obama's visit to Russia in September.
Despite the Obama administration's pledge to not complete the final phase of its missile-defense program in Eastern Europe, Moscow remains vehemently opposed to the U.S- backed NATO plan to deploy a series of sea- and land-based missile defenses in Europe over the next five years.
Washington says the deployment is meant to counter Iran's long-range missiles, but Moscow insists they are covertly aimed at countering its offensive strategic missiles.
"The administration is hoping to get some sort of missile-defense deal by June, so that by September or October Putin and Obama can announce a new round of nuclear-reduction talks," the official said.
Rogers: Unilateral Reductions of 'Immense Importance'
The impending nuclear cuts and missile-defense concessions are raising concerns among senior Republicans on Capitol Hill who fear the president is now following through on his open-microphone comment in March 2012 to then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev.
Obama was overheard promising the Russians "more flexibility" on missile defenses after the November election.
Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces, said recently the administration's review of the nuclear war plan is nearly complete and "is likely to recommend significant further U.S. nuclear-force reductions."
"As the stockpile shrinks in size, we have reached the point where further reductions take on immense importance to the nation's security and international stability," said Rogers, an Alabama Republican.
Further angering Republicans are concerns that the administration, in order to avoid congressional opposition and a difficult Senate ratification process, is planning to make the next round of cuts through an executive agreement rather than a treaty that requires Senate approval.
Rogers vowed to oppose that process. "Let me be clear: I intend to ensure that no further reductions to U.S. nuclear forces, including New START treaty reductions, will occur without a formal treaty or explicit, affirmative authorization by Congress," he said in an April 24 speech to a breakfast group on Capitol Hill.
In April, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told Newsmax TV that "there will be a tremendous backlash" if Obama moves to unilaterally deactivate a significant portion of the nuclear arsenal without congressional approval.
"What kind of signals are we sending? Our nuclear deterrent arsenal needs to be modernized," said Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
As a further indication of the coming nuclear cuts, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the Air Force to conduct an environmental impact statement of shutting down an entire wing of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles -- one of the clearest signs of coming additional force cuts. The New START treaty contains no provision for shuttering an ICBM facility.
While the United States under Obama's anti-nuclear weapons agenda is seeking to build down its forces, other nations, notably Russia and China, are aggressively modernizing their weapons.
"The problem is not just Russia. Every other nuclear power is building up their arsenals," the U.S. official said.
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The Russia strategic buildup is stark, officials say. It includes the following new systems:
• A new mobile ICBM called the Yars-M to be deployed later this year that will use a more powerful fuel, allowing the missile to better defeat missile defenses. The missile will have a range of up to 6,835 miles and have 10 warheads.
• A new rail-mobile ICBM is being deployed by 2020. The Soviet Union was the first to deploy a rail-mobile SS24 in the 1980s.
• New submarines are being deployed with new submarine-launched Bulava missiles.
• A new strategic bomber to be deployed by 2020.
• A new Kh-102 air-launched cruise missile will be deployed by 2013 and a new Kaliber submarine-launched cruise missile is being developed.
China's strategic nuclear buildup also has been under way for a decade and includes three new road-mobile ICBMs: the DF-31, DF-31A, and DF-41, and a new submarine-launched ballistic missile, the JL-2.
The Pentagon revealed in its latest annual report to Congress on the Chinese military that China is building two new classes of missile submarines -- one for nuclear ballistic missiles and one for conventional cruise missiles. It was the first time the Pentagon revealed the new missile submarines, which were disclosed as China has begun deploying Jin-class nuclear-missile submarines and new Shang-class nuclear-powered attack submarines.
U.S. intelligence agencies estimate China has a relatively small nuclear arsenal of around 240 warheads. The intelligence estimate was based in large measure on China's declared policy of "no-first-use" -- that it would not be the first to use nuclear arms in a conflict.
However, the recent Chinese defense white paper, the authoritative statement of Chinese military and defense policy, for the first time made no mention of the no-first-use nuclear policy, raising new concerns that China is on the path for a large-scale strategic nuclear-warhead buildup.
Former State Department intelligence analyst John Tkacik said the rapid deployment of Chinese missile submarines and the shift from single-warhead to multiple-warhead missiles is changing the strategic balance.
"Doing the math, we're looking at 60 JL-2s on five submarines, each with at least three MIRVs (multiple, independently targetable re-entry vehicles), so that's 180 new Chinese nuclear warheads that we have to plan for," Tkacik said. "It gives me the heebie-jeebies."
Additionally, China recently deployed the first of its unique intermediate range anti-ship ballistic missiles designed to defeat U.S. aircraft carriers that are the key platform that would be used in any defense of Taiwan, the island state that China has said it is prepared to use force to retake. The missiles, known as the DF-21D, are considered a major threat to U.S. naval forces operating in the western Pacific.
Asked during a recent congressional hearing if Chinese naval forces are a worry, Adm. Jonathan Greenert said: "I would just say that I'm vigilant. I would hate to say that I'm worried, yet, because I'm not necessarily worried. Very vigilant, and we need to pay attention and understand the intent. And challenge them on that intent."
North Korea, which has conducted three underground nuclear tests, also is said to be developing small warheads for missiles. Asahi Shimbun reported in January, quoting intelligence sources, that North Korea was ready to test a "fusion-boosted fission bomb" in its next test. The sophisticated bomb could be placed on a long-range Taepodong-2 missile, or North Korea's new road-mobile ICBM, the KN-08.
Pakistan also is developing more modern nuclear warheads and missiles to deliver them, U.S. officials said. Pakistan is said to be getting assistance from China, which provided the designs for Pakistan's first warheads, which in turn were based on stolen U.S. nuclear-warhead designs.
India, Pakistan's rival, also recently tested a new intercontinental-ballistic missile and is working on an advanced ICBM.
U.S. Strategic Command Calls for Modernization
With other nations making efforts to expand and modernize their nuclear forces, U.S. military officials have voiced concerns about the need to upgrade America's existing stockpile of nuclear weapons.
The commander of U.S. nuclear forces said he is concerned about cuts in both the number of warheads as well as shortages in funding needed to modernize aging nuclear weapons and infrastructure.
Nuclear forces that need upgrades include delivery systems, weapons life-extension programs, stockpile monitoring, naval-reactor design work, and upgrades for nuclear command and control, Gen. Robert Kehler, head of the Omaha-based U.S. Strategic Command, said during a talk last June at the Council on Foreign Relations.
If further funding cuts are made, "we will have to go back and do what we did with this round of reductions: completely review what those impacts could be and make the appropriate recommendations," the four-star general said.
"Of all the elements of the nuclear enterprise, I'm most concerned with the potential for declining or inadequate investment in the nuclear-weapons enterprise itself; some declining investment that would result in our inability to sustain the deterrent force," he said.
Rogers said he is concerned about "the sorry state of the nuclear modernization commitments made during the last round" of talks with Russia.
Most Senate Republicans opposed the New START Treaty, noting its significant gaps. While bringing Russia and the United States to parity in strategic nuclear weapons of 1,550 each, it allowed Russia to maintain its sizeable advantage in tactical nuclear warheads, with an estimated stockpile of 3,800 such weapons. The United States, in comparison, has less than 500.
In the end, a handful of Senate Republicans supported ratification of New START after Obama promised to invest $85 billion over 10 years after 2010 to fix the aging U.S. nuclear arsenal and infrastructure, which is largely based on outdated technology that spans the Cold War period from the 1960s to the 1980s.
While the Pentagon has said it will try to protect nuclear-force modernization from the devastating effect of across-the-board cuts as part of congressional sequestration, funding for nuclear modernization is being cut.
Rogers said in a recent speech that funding levels agreed to in 2010 were the "minimum required to accomplish this modernization." However, the administration is underfunding nuclear forces by between $1 billion and $1.6 billion, he said.
"Setting aside the gross budget numbers and looking at capability, it is easy to see that nuclear modernization is in grave danger," Rogers said.
Among the weapons systems in jeopardy is the replacement for the Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine, which is being delayed. Other programs that are being delayed are urgently needed life-extension programs for W-78 and W-88 nuclear warheads, the long-range standoff cruise missile, and numerous other programs. And one of the most urgently needed facilities -- a plutonium laboratory in New Mexico -- was canceled.
U.S. programs being delayed included the submarine-launched Trident D-5, which is now two years late and will not be deployed until 2029 at the earliest.
In addition, Congress and the Obama administration have blocked any development of newer and safer nuclear weapons, allowing only the refurbishing of older warheads.
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The U.S. official knowledgeable about nuclear forces said the Obama administration's approach to strategic nuclear cuts fits the model of what the late U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Jeanne Kirkpatrick called the "blame America first" advocates.
"They see everything in the world as all the United States' fault and want to restrict our strategic forces as a solution," the official said.
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