WASHINGTON President Barack Obama will use his State of the Union speech on Tuesday to reinvigorate one of his signature national security objectives — drastically reducing nuclear arsenals around the world.
The administration’s effort comes after securing agreement in recent months with the United States military that the U.S. nuclear force can be cut in size by roughly a third.
Obama, administration officials say, is unlikely to discuss specific numbers in the address, but White House officials are looking at a cut that would take the arsenal of deployed weapons to just above 1,000. There now are about 1,700, and the new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia that passed the Senate at the end of 2009 calls for a limit of roughly 1,550 by 2018.
But Obama, according to an official who was involved in the deliberations, “believes that we can make pretty radical reductions — and save a lot of money — without compromising American security in the second term. And the Joint Chiefs have signed off on that concept.”
The big question is how to accomplish a reduction that Obama views as long overdue, considering that Republicans in the Senate opposed even the modest cuts in the new arms reduction treaty, called New START. The White House is loath to negotiate an entirely new treaty with Russia, which would lead to Russian demands for restrictions on U.S. and NATO missile-defense systems in Europe and would reprise a major fight in the Senate over ratification.
Instead, Obama is weighing whether to announce unilateral cuts or, more likely, to attempt to reach an informal agreement with President Vladimir Putin of Russia for mutual cuts within the framework of the New START — but without the need for ratification.
Obama’s national security adviser, Tom Donilon, is planning to travel to Russia next month, officials say, to lay the groundwork for those talks. Obama and Putin will hold two summit meetings in the early summer.
Even as he revives a nuclear agenda that has been nearly moribund for two years, Obama is also expected to try to address new threats.
Within days of the State of the Union address, officials say, he plans to issue a long-anticipated presidential directive on combating cyberattacks aimed at U.S. companies, financial institutions and critical infrastructure like the electric grid. The announcement comes at a moment of heightened attacks from China and, most recently, from Iran.
The nuclear reduction plan has been debated inside the administration for two years, and the options have been on Obama’s desk for months. But the document was left untouched through the presidential election.
The president wanted to avoid making the reductions a campaign issue with Mitt Romney, who declared at one point that Russia was now America’s “No. 1 geostrategic foe,” a comment that Obama later mocked as an indication that Romney had failed to move beyond the Cold War.
Romney, in turn, leaped on a remark that Obama intended to make privately to Russia’s then-president, Dmitry Medvedev. Obama was picked up by an open microphone telling Medvedev that “after my election I have more flexibility” on missile defense, which Republicans said was evidence that he was preparing to trade away elements of the arsenal.
Among the most outspoken advocates of a deep cut has been a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. James Cartwright, whom Obama continues to turn to on strategic issues. Cartwright has argued that a reduction to 900 warheads would still guarantee U.S. safety, even if only half of them were deployed at any one time.
“The world has changed, but the current arsenal carries the baggage of the Cold War,” Cartwright said last year.
It is unclear how much money would be saved by the nuclear reduction plan that Obama is about to endorse. That partly depends on how the cuts are spread among the three elements of America’s nuclear “triad”: land-based missiles in silos, missiles aboard hard-to-find nuclear submarines, and nuclear bombers.
“These cuts don’t require a radical change in the triad, and that makes it politically easier,” said Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, which has argued for deep cuts.