This article first appeared in Aviation Week & Space Technology.
On the heels of a North Korean nuclear weapon test, U.S. President Barack Obama is preparing to move forward with a new approach to the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
The changes have been a long time coming. Obama outlined a vision for a world without nuclear weapons in a 2009 speech. After securing initial reductions in a New Start treaty with Russia, administration officials discussed deeper cuts, but progress was stalled during the 2012 presidential campaign.
With a new four years in office, greater reductions are coming. Yet basic philosophical differences about the future role of nuclear weapons could fuel a backlash among Republicans.
Obama gave the issue a brief mention in his State of the Union address last week: "We will engage Russia to seek further reductions in our nuclear arsenals, and continue leading the global effort to secure nuclear materials that could fall into the wrong hands because our ability to influence others depends on our willingness to lead," Obama said.
Obama is preparing to endorse a plan that calls for revisions to the nation's nuclear strategy and discusses the possibility of a one-third reduction to the arsenal, according to the Center for Public Integrity. The document does not call for immediate changes to the nuclear force; rather, officials are seeking to negotiate further reductions in nuclear weapons with Russia.
USMC Gen. (ret.) James Cartwright, a former vice chief of staff, participated in administration talks about reducing the nuclear force and is an outspoken advocate of the need to revamp it. The difficulty that the U.S. has with Iran and North Korea is symptomatic of a larger problem facing the globe -- that even though nuclear weapons are expensive, nations that truly want the weapons can obtain them, Cartwright said over the summer. The relationship between the U.S. and Russia on nuclear weapons is governed by a sense of responsibility. But now a nation would export its nuclear capability to a third party that operates outside the bounds of global governance. "The response to that is not a nuclear response," Cartwright said.
Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, agrees. "We can reduce the size of our nuclear arsenal, potentially saving billions of dollars and strengthening national security, while at the same time maintaining a strong deterrent and the ability to destroy any entity that threatens our nation with nuclear weapons," he said.
Other arms control think tanks are also promoting the change on economic terms. Reducing the arsenal to 1,000 strategic weapons could save more than $113 billion over 10 years, according to the National Security Network.
Republicans are pre-emptively balking at any consideration of reductions, dismissing the savings that could be achieved through nuclear weapons cuts as negligible and cautioning against unilateral action. Republicans also say that reductions to the numbers of U.S. nuclear weapons would only embolden North Korea, Iran and other nations to pursue new nuclear weapons.
"It is even more disturbing to learn that while North Korea is expanding its weapons programs, the president is contemplating unilateral disarmament," said Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), who last year led the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee. "This is the wrong time to say to the North Koreans: 'we'll lay down our weapons, while you raise yours.' It is no coincidence that this test has occurred hours before the president's State of the Union Address."
Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.) leads Republicans on the corresponding panel of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He says that while the U.S. could continue to reduce the arsenal to a figure of about 1,500 nuclear weapons, reductions beyond that would be "outside the mainstream." Sessions warned Obama against using illustrations outlined by Global Zero, which included reductions down to 800 nuclear weapons, including ending the intercontinental ballistic missile leg of the nuclear triad.
"Congress will need to be engaged to see exactly what his plans are, and we need to be sure that they're not destabilizing," Sessions says. "The president needs to be careful about what he says."
When Obama made his 2009 speech in Prague, he laid out three themes: using an agreement with Russia to set an arms control example, countering the threat of proliferation from North Korea and Iran, and policing loose nuclear materials, says a Republican aide on the Senate Armed Services Committee. If Obama keeps stressing the first goal at the expense of the other two, he will squander valuable time and will not be able to work on other aspects of his nuclear agenda, the aide says.
Republicans will also be closely watching the administration's support for nuclear modernization promises that were made to secure passage of the New Start treaty with Russia. If they sense the administration is backing off from those commitments, Obama will face strong GOP opposition. "We can do a lot to gum up the works," the aide says.