North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s latest test of a nuclear device is complicating U.S. President Barack Obama’s plan to reduce the American nuclear arsenal.
The Obama administration has concluded that the U.S. has more nuclear weapons than it needs to deter North Korea, Iran and other potential adversaries. As a result, the administration has been preparing for weapons cuts that would save billions of dollars and open a path to cooperate with Russia on shrinking the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals below levels set in a 2010 arms-reduction agreement.
Any new nuclear weapons treaty would need Senate ratification, and the prospect of support from Congress was clouded by North Korea’s underground nuclear test blast yesterday, its third since 2006. Republican lawmakers cited what they called a growing threat from Kim’s totalitarian regime in demonstrating their opposition to further U.S. arms cuts, including to the nuclear arsenal.
North Korea’s nuclear test poses a threat to the U.S. and “underscores the need for the United States to maintain its strong deterrent capabilities,” Republican Senator John Hoeven of North Dakota, a member of Senate Appropriations Committee, said in a statement yesterday.
“Yet now, even before implementing the reductions required under the New START Treaty of 2010, the Obama administration has signaled that it may be willing to reduce unilaterally the U.S. nuclear capability even further,” he said. “In light of North Korea’s actions today, this is clearly not the time to diminish these critical strategic forces.”
The U.S. spends about $31 billion annually to support an arsenal of about 1,700 deployed strategic nuclear warheads and associated delivery systems, according to the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based policy group. Under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty known as New START negotiated by Obama, the U.S. and Russia are limited to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads each by 2018.
The administration is considering cutting warheads by about a third from the levels set by the New START accord, according to a Feb. 8 report by the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington research group. The Senate ratified the treaty in December 2010 over the objections of a majority of Republicans.
White House officials haven’t publicly confirmed the report about planning for possible nuclear cuts. While making no announcements during his State of the Union address last night, Obama pledged that the U.S. would seek to take a leadership role in curbing nuclear arms proliferation.
“We’ll 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,” the president said. “Our ability to influence others depends on our willingness to lead.”
U.S. intelligence estimates have concluded that China, the only other potential adversary with long-range nuclear weapons, has more than 75 single-warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles. North Korea doesn’t have any deployed nuclear weapons.
Further reducing the deployed U.S. strategic arsenal is possible without jeopardizing national security, according to administration officials.
“The overall posture of the administration remains that we have more weapons than we need for our own deterrence, including deterrence in a North Korean context,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said yesterday.
The State Department’s top disarmament official, Rose Gottemoeller, was due to arrive in Moscow yesterday for talks about bilateral and international arms control. White House National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon is scheduled to follow her within a few weeks.
The quick Republican pivot from criticizing North Korea’s nuclear test to faulting Obama’s anticipated arms-reduction plan demonstrates the political hurdles in the president’s path.
Representative Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said North Korea’s provocation shows that, amid other spending reductions, U.S. security can’t afford “even more cuts to U.S. defense capabilities, such as our nuclear deterrent.”
Shadowing the nuclear-weapons debate are broader cuts of $497 billion from previously planned defense spending over the next decade, plus an additional $500 billion in automatic spending reductions that would begin next month if Congress fails to reach a budget accord.
“While North Korea is expanding its weapons programs, the president is contemplating unilateral disarmament,” said Representative Mike Turner, an Ohio Republican who is chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces. “This is the wrong time to say to the North Koreans: ‘We’ll lay down our weapons, while you raise yours.’”
The issue of nuclear arms reduction has surfaced during confirmation hearings on members of the president’s second-term national security team.
Republicans criticized Obama’s nominee for defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, during his confirmation hearing for having co-authored a report for Global Zero, a group that supports the elimination of nuclear weapons.
Hagel, a former Nebraska Republican senator, told lawmakers he supports maintaining the U.S. nuclear deterrent, and that any reductions should be made, as in the past, in tandem with Russia. The Armed Services panel yesterday advanced his nomination to the Senate floor on a 14-11 vote along party lines.
Newly installed Secretary of State John Kerry, a former Democratic senator from Massachusetts who served as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, took the lead in winning Senate ratification of the New START accord. He discussed the possibility for further reductions in his confirmation hearing last month.
“There’s talk of going down to a lower number,” Kerry said. “It’s possible to get there if you have commensurate levels of inspections, verification, guarantees about the capacity of your nuclear stockpile program.”
Among Democrats, the prospect of future cuts is drawing praise from nonproliferation advocates such as Representative Edward Markey of Massachusetts. The U.S. could save $100 billion over 10 years “by cutting unnecessary and outdated nuclear weapons, delivery systems, and facilities,” he said.
“North Korea’s brazen nuclear weapons test will only help to highlight President Obama’s leadership to reduce our nuclear weapons stockpile,” Markey said in a statement yesterday. “Slashing America’s nuclear weapons arsenal will give our country the continuing moral authority to push back against the rogue nations and superpowers that want to build more nuclear weapons.”