When President Barack Obama declared that his national security officials agree they can cut the U.S.'s deployed, strategic nuclear arsenal by up to one-third beyond planned limits if Russia and the U.S. ratified a new nuclear-reduction treaty, he received the expected, seemingly knee-jerk, criticism from the far left and right of the American political spectrum.
But what came as a surprise was the political resistance that quickly sprung from the middle of both parties, despite their historic, bipartisanship support of nuclear cuts from the Nixon administration's original Strategic Arms Limitation Talks to the latest iteration of a Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty (Start) early in Obama's term.
Take centrist politicians from the Great Plains. “A strong ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] force is absolutely critical to our national defense strategy, and I won't support anything that puts our American security in jeopardy,” says Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, where Malmstrom AFB and its roughly 4,000 workers are responsible for one of three Minuteman III ICBM fields. He and Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) issued a joint communique with the state's lone congressman, a Republican, after Obama's June 19 speech in Berlin.
Why are the moderates suddenly resisting? Because unlike in previous rounds of nuclear reductions, further cuts to warhead inventories now will spur existential questions of the “delivery platforms” on which they are flown. Analysts and officials across the field believe that cuts beyond the 1,550 deployed strategic warheads on 800 platforms mandated under the New Start treaty with Russia by February 2018 would put one or more legs of the triad of U.S. nuclear-armed bombers, submarines and land-based ICBMs at risk. This is especially likely because costs and federal spending have gained prominence in Washington.
Still, Montana's congressional caucus and everyone else concerned with cuts can breathe easier, as there is little cause to worry in their lifetime, starting with the fact that Russia seems opposed to any additional Start-like deals. But it is also because an unprecedented slew of forces beyond just politics and foreign relations—including military and economic—are combining to keep the U.S. nuclear triad alive and well for decades to come.
“We see this as the best means to continue to promote strategic stability at a reasonable cost, while hedging against either technical problems or future vulnerabilities,” says James Miller, undersecretary of defense for policy. That is despite Obama's Pulitzer-Prize winning vision of a world without nukes, the 2011 Budget Control Act with its threat of annual sequestration cuts over a decade and the fact that each triad leg—and the warheads they carry—will have to undergo high-priced upgrade or life-extension programs in the next 20 years.
It was never supposed to be this way. As an October report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS)—and countless books and essays before that testify to—the U.S. triad owes more to early Cold War interservice military rivalry than anything else. While none of the military departments necessarily wanted to take on nuclear duties, due to fears of competing with traditional air, sea and land-power missions, neither did they want another branch to win more funding or political importance by doing so. Only later in the 1960s and '70s did defense analysts develop a rationale for the nuclear triad that had evolved.