Obama planning major nuclear weapons cuts

File Photo: Operation Castle, American series of high-energy  nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll (in the Northwest of the Marshall Islands), March 26, 1954.
File Photo: Operation Castle, American series of high-energy nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll (in the Northwest of the Marshall Islands), March 26, 1954.
Roger Viollet/Getty Images, File

In his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, President Obama is set to announce a renewed push for large cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal—the next step in an ambitious effort to lay the groundwork for a nuclear-free world.

Obama isn’t expected to mention numbers. But in recent months, the administration has decided, based on a thorough review, that it can deter potential adversaries with only around 1000 warheads, the Center for Public Integrity reported last week . The U.S. currently has around 1700, and the 2009 New START treaty with Russia—the major achievement in the Obama administration’s first push on the issue—requires no more than 1550 by 2018.

“We’re very pleased to see that he’s now moving on to the second part of that agenda, to reduce arsenals further,” Tom Collina, research director for the Arms Control Association, a leading arms-control advocacy group, told msnbc.com.

The stakes are high. A growing number of national security experts see international weapons reductions, led by the U.S., as crucial to national security. In 2007, Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, George Schultz, and Bill Perry—all hard-headed realists with extensive Cold War experience—endorsed the long-term goal of a nuclear-free world, warning of the “tremendous dangers” that a terrorist group or rogue nation acquiring nuclear material would present. Obama has called nuclear terrorism “the single biggest threat to U.S. security.”

Reductions would also have fiscal benefits, at a time of concern over long-term deficits. Reducing the U.S. arsenal to 900 warheads—a target the administration reportedly considered but rejected as too ambitious—would save an estimated $120 billion over two decades.

On his first foreign trip in office, before a cheering crowd of thousands in Prague, Obama similarly backed the idea of “Global Zero”—a stance cited prominently by the Nobel committee when it awarded Obama its peace prize later that year. In endorsing Global Zero, Obama was echoing President Reagan, who also called for the abolition of all nuclear weapons, which he called “totally irrational, totally inhumane, good for nothing but killing, possibly destructive of life on earth and civilization.”

Serious hurdles remain. Any further cuts would only occur in the context of a new agreement with Russia. The New York Times reported Monday that the administration may opt for an informal pact, rather than a treaty, which would have to be ratified in the Senate and would likely encounter Republican opposition. But even an informal agreement with Russia—which sees its nuclear arsenal as more central to its national interest than does the U.S.—isn’t likely to be easy to reach, experts warn.

Until now, progress toward that goal has been slow, thanks in part to staunch opposition from congressional Republicans, ideologically wedded to a Cold War view of nuclear strategy. At last week’s confirmation hearings for Chuck Hagel, who has been nominated to serve as Secretary of State, Sen. James Inhofe lambasted Hagel for his support for Global Zero, though Hagel’s stance is no different from Obama’s.

Even the New START pact, unquestionably a step forward, came at a cost: GOP senators insisted that, in exchange for ratification, Obama spend $80 billion modernizing some of the existing weapons systems that many see as outdated and obsolete.

Obama’s announcement is set to come on the same day that North Korea said it had conducted its third test of a nuclear missile. Opponents of further cuts might seize on that news as evidence that the world remains too dangerous to contemplate down-sizing our arsenal, Collina warned.

“Those who are opposed to the process of reductions will use this as a reason not to do it,” he said. “But on its face its nonsensical. Our reductions do not in any way reduce our ability to deter North Korea.”