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Juliette Kayyem

Smart nuclear reduction

The US could save billions of dollars and still have plenty of bombs

THERE ARE many ways for war to end: a decisive win, a painful defeat, a slog toward a tenuous political transfer, or even a “surge’’ in the guise of an exit. Any way you look at it, President Obama has gotten us out of two long wars.

Surely, the Cold War can’t be harder? But wait, it’s already been won. Nonetheless, from the cacophony of chest-thumping hard-liners over the mere suggestion, leaked to the press, that the White House may be considering reductions in our nuclear arsenal, the good old days of duck-and-cover live on.

So, just to make this clear: America still needs the Bomb.


Everybody together now: We Love the Bomb.

President Obama, you the loudest: The Bomb is My Friend.

Reductions in the kill-them-a thousand-times-over nuclear weapons program are not a sign of weakness or a reversion to a 1960s peace campaign. They are the consequence of reality. Size no longer matters.

There are over 20,000 deployed and reserve nuclear weapons somewhere on the earth. Between Mother Russia and America, we own about 95 percent of them. The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) between Russia and the United States still allows both countries to maintain 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear weapons, plenty by any accounting measure.

Today, under the mandate of a 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, the Pentagon is considering additional reductions to 1,000, 700, or, in one option, 300 deployable weapons. Conservative pundits and House Republicans criticized the mere suggestion of a review as reckless lunacy, part of America’s strategic retreat.

Republican presidents, of course, have overseen the largest reductions in our nuclear weapons, proof that this issue continues to have bipartisan support among those in the know. The first President Bush nearly halved the count from over 22,000 deployed weapons to 13,500 warheads. Then, after further reductions in the Clinton administration, President George W. Bush cut the stockpile he inherited by half again; by most accounts, he left Obama 1,968 deployed warheads to manage. These numbers do not include warheads held in reserve.


Obviously, reviewing our nuclear weapons cache is an exercise in resource allocation. For example, a reduction to 1,000 weapons would save $120 billion on the number of submarines required to maintain them.

But money aside, here’s the not-so-shocking reality of our times: the likelihood of nuclear Armageddon between the Cold War players is negligible.

America’s nuclear posture no longer needs to be death by annihilation; there is no “winning’’ nuclear war, and that hardly seems a radical notion. Instead, almost every review of a post-Cold War deterrence suggests that the numbers should reflect a strategy of proportional deterrence: having enough weapons to threaten our enemies and their strategic interests, and to guarantee nuclear security to our allies.

Sadly, a reduction of nuclear weapons would have almost no impact on the most pressing nuclear issues of our time: nuclear proliferation by unsavory nations and nuclear terrorism. Neither can be discouraged by the sheer threat of the massive nuclear arsenal maintained by the United States or Russia. Ironically, fears about Iran acquiring such weaponry are a case study in how just a few bombs (or none at all) can alter the course of foreign policy.

Nor would a 2,000-bomb arsenal protect us against a future superpower, such as China. For those who fear Chinese power, the bad news is that China is way ahead of us in perfecting the 21st-century nuclear strategy of proportional deterrence. It has, possibly, up to 300 nuclear weapons in its entire stockpile.


The nuclear debate in Washington is only about the past, about a notion of this nation as the better of only two options. It’s as if the critics are wondering: why must we tinker with everything that made America once spectacular? Endless discussions about whether America is exceptional or not (and whether this president thinks we are or not) are preconditioned on a memory that equates the size of our nuclear arsenal with our own relevance. It is simplicity in its most perverse form. What makes us exceptional is our capacity to adapt to a world that has changed, not holding onto a world dynamic that ended long ago.

All together now: We still love the Bomb. We need the Bomb.

We just don’t need so many of them.

Juliette Kayyem, who served in the Obama administration as assistant secretary of homeland security, can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com and Twitter @juliettekayyem