Strategic revelation

Executive Director John Isaacs discusses the AP leak of cutting our nuclear force over at Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. His piece, "Strategic Revelation" was published February 23, 2012.

One of the time-honored traditions for influencing debates in Washington, DC, is to leak confidential information to the press. The Pentagon Papers, Watergate, Valerie Plame, Wikileaks, are just a few examples of use of the tactic. By exposing classified or private information, a strategic leaker can then rise in high dudgeon to head off the "appalling" policy being considered, or divulge actions that those in the government were not yet ready to publicize.

The most recent leak, of course, was on February 14, when Robert Burns, a seasoned national security reporter for the Associated Press, wrote an article that detailed a confidential, Pentagon-led interagency process on the future of the US nuclear arsenal.

His article began:

"The Obama administration is weighing options for sharp new cuts to the U.S. nuclear force, including a reduction of up to 80 percent in the number of deployed weapons, The Associated Press has learned."

Burns attributed the information to two unnamed sources, a former government official and a congressional staffer.

He also reported that the administration is considering at least three options to cut the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons -- all of them below the New START limit of 1,550. The three options include limiting weapons at levels of 1,000 to 1,100; of 700 to 800; and even of 300 to 400. Calling the possible reductions "a politically bold disarmament step," Burns homed in on the 80 percent reduction option -- that is, taking the arsenal down to 300-400 weapons -- as the central theme of his article.

Timing. A well-planted leak always has a time hook -- and this one was likely pegged to the Nuclear Deterrence Summit in Washington, DC, where dozens of key current and former government officials made presentations, including Ohio Republican Rep. Michael Turner, the chair of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee and a key opponent of President Barack Obama's nuclear security agenda.

On February 15, while the Nuclear Deterrence Summit was being held, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before the House Armed Services Committee on further budget reductions. The committee, of course, had read Burns's story, which broke the previous day, and both officials were forced to respond. Dempsey called the article "a Cliff Notes version of internal discussion on what is the next negotiating strategy with Russia."

Nevertheless, within days, the ballyhoo surrounding the article had been hyped and hustled throughout the Beltway. On February 17, Turner used the summit to reflect on Burns's article, saying, "It has not yet been explained to me how fewer nuclear weapons in the US deterrent is necessarily better for the country's security." Then, Turner and Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, wrote a letter to President Obama calling for congressional involvement in strategic planning; 32 House colleagues signed in support. Rep. Trent Franks, a Republican from Arizona, called the 80 percent cuts "reckless lunacy." And Arizona Republican Senator Jon Kyl went to the Senate floor (PDF) to thunder that such drastic cuts are "almost unthinkable." The list goes on, including an editorial in the conservative Washington Times, which opined that President Obama's "unilateral disarmament" imperils the world.

Why here? Why now? The back story is that the Obama administration is following up on the April 2010 Nuclear Posture Review -- a major Pentagon assessment of nuclear strategy, forces, and readiness -- with options for the future size of the US nuclear arsenal. This study has been delayed for many months; thus, it comes as little surprise that this leak would occur in the middle of a hot political campaign.

But do these suggested reductions really warrant such a media frenzy and political circus? The simple answer is: No; they are nothing new. The United States has significantly reduced its nuclear stockpiles since the 1960s, when America deployed more than 30,000 nuclear weapons -- and the Soviets even more. The United States has remained more than secure from nuclear attack despite these reductions. In fact, as nuclear expert Hans Kristensen recently pointed out: It has been Republican presidents who have led the way in both bilateral and unilateral reductions, with few complaints from Republican members of Congress.

Despite those reductions and the end of the Cold War more than 20 years ago, the United States still maintains about 5,000 active nuclear weapons in its stockpile, plus another 4,500 intact but slated for disassembly. Almost every one of these weapons is many times the size of the two smaller nuclear bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Through the fog of this leak, one thing has been made clear: The US nuclear arsenal is still postured with Cold War-era nuclear war-fighting objectives in mind -- and it is time to reevaluate the country's strategy to put it on a 21st century footing.

Whether it was intended or not, the premature debate sparked by the leak produced a testing of the waters for the policy options being considered by the administration. There was even some Machiavelllian speculation that the administration was directing the policy community's attention to the smallest nuclear arsenal option -- 300 -- to make the final decision appear more moderate. Brilliant move, indeed.

When the Obama administration finally makes its decision, it may have learned that while it will face the howls of outrage from the Republicans in the Turner and Kyl camps, the rest of the country might simply shrug. For what some call a "bold disarmament step," others ask: Can a country maintaining thousands -- or even hundreds, if we were to be so optimistic -- of nuclear weapons be credited for significant disarmament? Arms reductions, maybe; but disarmament, no. When that number is closer to zero, we can have that serious disarmament debate.