A year after ratification of the New START Treaty, conventional wisdom holds that little can be accomplished in nuclear-arms control in 2012. The U.S. presidential campaign makes it difficult to pursue serious arms control in Washington. Moscow has a presidential transition to manage and appears not to have decided what to do next on nuclear weapons. Moreover, the Russians want to know who will be the next American president before they proceed too far.
While this year may not be the most propitious time for nuclear-arms control, the Obama administration can take key actions to prepare the ground for future reductions—working with the U.S. military, consulting with the Russians and talking to Republicans.
First, the administration has important homework to complete. The Pentagon is leading a review that will recommend options to the president for nuclear-weapons employment. His subsequent guidance will shape the structure and size of U.S. nuclear forces. This guidance should lead the military to conclude it could get by with fewer nuclear weapons than at present.
The review offers an opportunity to examine fundamental questions, such as what targets are needed for effective deterrence. For example, the one scenario in which targeting Russian intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos makes sense is a U.S. first strike. But that is virtually impossible to imagine. So does it make sense to target warheads on those silos?
A smaller target set would require fewer warheads. Former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff James Cartwright has already suggested that, given the large costs of maintaining and modernizing the triad of ICBMs, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and nuclear bombers, Washington should consider whether it could get by with something less.