How low can you go? That's the central question of nuclear arms reduction. How low can the U.S. strategic arsenal be reduced while still maintaining enough deterrent strength to dissuade any enemy from even thinking about launching a nuclear attack on the United States?
The Associated Press reports that President Obama and his advisers currently are weighing this question once again. The low range would leave the United States with 300-400 strategic warheads. However, the president is more likely to choose a modest proposal that would leave 1,000-1,100 warheads, according to the AP. If that is truly the choice, the president should be bold and go for the lower numbers.
Why? The National Academy of Sciences concluded in 1997 that 300 warheads would be enough for any nuclear power to maintain a credible deterrent without the added danger and expense of maintaining a larger arsenal. The only nations in the world with more nuclear weapons than this are the United States and Russia. The optimum, then, would be for both powers to agree on a 300-warhead limit.
This may seem counterintuitive. If 300 weapons makes you safe, wouldn't 400 or 1,000 or 1,500 make you safer?
No, because nuclear warheads have little practical military value except as a deterrent, particularly if your enemy also has them.
In some ways, a larger arsenal actually increases security risks. With more weapons to maintain on more systems, there are larger chances for accidents, theft or sabotage. Besides, nuclear systems are expensive to maintain. When the greatest threat to U.S. security is terrorism, it makes more sense to spend precious resources on intelligence-gathering and other anti-terrorism systems than on nukes.
Under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) that President Obama signed with Russia in 2010, the two nations agreed to reduce their deployed warheads to 1,550 each over seven years. These limits are about 74 percent lower than the 1991 START treaty and 30 percent lower than the 2002 Moscow treaty signed by President Bush.
Further cuts have enormous implications for containing nuclear proliferation to other nations, such as Iran. Under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which the United States signed, the nuclear have-nots like Iran are supposed to forgo nukes in exchange for the nuclear haves, such as the United States, giving theirs up. Further U.S. reductions would be progress toward keeping our side of this bargain.