WASHINGTON - A review of President Obama’s promised plan to substantially reduce America’s nuclear arsenal is nearing completion, triggering a new phase of the deliberations: how to deal with the political consequences and whether the unveiling should wait until after the November election.
Senior officials are engaged in an internal debate over how and when to reveal the results of the secret review by a national security team, according to several current and former advisers who have been involved in the discussion.
The president and his team strongly believe the nation can adequately deter nuclear attacks with a much smaller and less expensive weapons stockpile - which now costs about $50 billion a year to maintain.
The White House is said to be weighing a variety of election-year factors. One is the inevitable criticism from probable Republican rival Mitt Romney, who has said he opposes any reduction in nuclear arms. Another is the concerns of Democrats in Congress whose states do not want to lose the economic benefit of having nuclear silos and air bases, or of building ships and submarines armed with nuclear weapons.
Even some backers of steeper reductions worry that the political risk may be too great to release the details in the heat of an election.
“I see the tensions’’ in internal discussions among the president’s advisers, said a senior Obama campaign adviser.
Another adviser, a former senior White House official who has been directly involved in the discussions, said the Obama team is devising arguments to counter any GOP accusations that the president is soft on national security.
“One of the questions [that is being debated] is how does he communicate these decisions,’’ said the former official. “The Republicans are going to try to paint the president as weak and naive and hit these old talking points.’’
Both advisors asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the private discussions.
The White House review is just one step in a multiyear endeavor. Any reductions would almost certainly be pursued along with Russia, the second-largest nuclear power after the United States, in the form of a new treaty, the officials said. That would require approval from the Senate. The House and Senate also would have to sign off on any scaled-down budget for nuclear arms.
Arms control advocates argue that a smaller arsenal would still guarantee US security and that of its allies, while helping reduce the spread of nuclear weapons around the world and saving the government billions of dollars each year for other priorities.
Various assessments of nuclear strategy since Obama took office have supported that view. For example, in April 2010 the Pentagon’s Nuclear Posture Review more narrowly defined the mission of the nuclear arsenal to deterring nuclear attacks, rather than its Cold War mission of prevailing in a nuclear war or acting as a hedge against conventional armies and chemical or biological weapons.
More recently, the Pentagon published a strategy that stated “it is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force.’’
According to officials who have been consulted by the White House, the president will probably decide to keep about 1,000 strategic nuclear weapons on alert, down from the 1,550 the United States plans to maintain under its latest treaty with Russia.
“Almost certainly that is what he is going to decide, but whether he announces it is unclear,’’ said Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, an arms control group that has recently discussed the issue with White House officials.
The White House declined a request for an interview, and calls to Obama’s reelection campaign in Chicago were not returned.
“The study is still underway,’’ said a White House official who was not authorized to speak publicly. “We do not have a specific timeline.’’
But speculation about how Obama will handle this touchy subject is increasing as lawmakers from both parties pressure the president - for and against reductions.
“The problem with the president’s approach is that he has stated we are going to go lower even before this study is completed,’’ said Robert G. Joseph, a former senior State Department official now advising Romney on nuclear strategy. “It still is a very dangerous security environment, and we need to be prudent and realistic. Russia is increasing its nuclear arsenal. China is modernizing. Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. And many expect North Korea to conduct yet another nuclear test in the days ahead.’’
Joseph was mainly referring to Russia’s efforts to modernize its weapons.
The Romney camp is particularly skeptical of the claim that reducing America’s arsenal will drive other countries to do the same.
“If we lead by example and no else is following we can do real harm,’’ said Joseph, who served in President George W. Bush’s administration. “The last thing we want is to signal to adversaries and friends that our nuclear deterrent is no longer credible.’’
The White House also has to consider the political fortunes of some key Democrats - especially if they want to maintain their majority in the Senate this fall.
A particularly wary block of lawmakers represents the three western states - Wyoming, North Dakota, and Montana - that are home to the nation’s 450 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles.
In Montana, where Malmstrom Air Force Base has 150 nuclear missile silos, Democratic Senator Jon Tester is locked in a tough reelection fight. His ability to protect his state’s military assets is seen by voters as a plus.
Tester joined a number of Democrats and Republicans last month in urging Senate colleagues to safeguard the missile force from significant cutbacks.
“Montana is less than a million people, so the revenue that a place like Malmstrom brings into the state is substantial,’’ said Adam Lowther, a professor at the Air Force Research Institute at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama and a specialist in nuclear weapons studies. “A senator who is representing his constituents is going to fight to maintain that.’’
The nuclear weapons lobby extends to other regions of the country. In New England, for example, where shipbuilding is a key part of the industrial base, there are concerns about potential cuts to the fleet of 14 ballistic missile submarines.
Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who is retiring this year and whose seat Democrats hope to win, wrote a letter recently to the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Armed Services Committee advocating that cuts be postponed until the White House provides a detailed funding plan for how it is going to upgrade the reliability of older weapons systems.
Others, meanwhile, believe the president has a real opportunity this year to advance the issue.
“There is a pretty powerful case than can be made for nuclear cuts,’’ said Representative Edward J. Markey, a Malden Democrat who has proposed legislation to slash $100 billion from the nuclear weapons budget over the next decade. “It’s wasted money that should be spent on grandma’s nursing home bed because she has Alzheimer’s. I think the public would understand it if it was explained to them.’’
Senator John F. Kerry, who as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee would oversee the ratification of any nuclear treaty, said he believes the discussion about the future of the nuclear arsenal must take place, especially in an election year.
“These debates are healthy and in many ways overdue.’’
Bryan Bender can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.