Obama administration reportedly on cusp of proposing reducing nuclear arsenal by a third

| Friday, Feb. 8, 2013, 7:48 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Senior Obama administration officials have agreed that the number of nuclear warheads the military deploys could be cut by at least a third without harming national security, according to those involved in the deliberations.

Such a reduction would open the door to billions of dollars in military savings, which might ease the federal budget deficit. It would improve prospects for a new arms deal with Russia before President Obama leaves office, those involved said, but it's likely to draw fire from conservatives, if previous debate on the issue is any guide.

The results of the internal review have not been announced, but they're reflected in a proposed classified directive prepared for Obama's signature that details how nuclear weapons should be targeted against potential foes, according to four people with direct knowledge of the document's content. The sources, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, described the president as fully on board, but said he has not signed the document.

The document directs the first detailed Pentagon revisions in U.S. targeting since 2009, when the military's nuclear war planners last took account for the substantial shrinkage — roughly by half from 2000 to 2008 — in the number of nuclear weapons in the American arsenal. It makes clear that an even smaller nuclear force can still meet all defense requirements.

The officials said Obama's advisers had reached their consensus position last year after a review that included the State Department, the Defense Department, the National Security Council, the intelligence community, the Strategic Command, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the office of Vice President Joe Biden.

Participants said the results were not disclosed at the time, partly because of concerns that any resulting controversy might affect Obama's re-election. Some Republican lawmakers have said they oppose cutting the arsenal out of concern that it might diminish America's standing in the world.

Under the new policy, America would target fewer, but more important, military or political sites in Russia, China and several other countries.

Obama first adopted a policy to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in 2010, explaining in a Defense Department report that they're “poorly suited to address the challenges posed by suicidal terrorists and unfriendly regimes seeking nuclear weapons.”

Much of the policy has yet to be implemented, but with the election behind him and a new national security team selected, Obama finally is prepared to send this new guidance to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and to open a dialogue with Russia about corresponding reductions in deployed weapons, according to two senior officials involved in the deliberations.

While the draft directive opens the door to scrapping a substantial portion of the U.S. arsenal, it does not order those reductions immediately or suggest that they be undertaken unilaterally, the officials said.

Instead, the Obama administration hopes to negotiate an addendum to the 2010 New START treaty with Russia in the form of a legally binding agreement or an informal understanding. Officials said the latter path might be chosen if gaining the assent of two-thirds of the Senate to a treaty were not possible.

The New START treaty limits each side to deploying no more than 1,550 strategic nuclear weapons by 2018, but it uses a counting rule that pretends strategic bombers carry only a single warhead each, instead of up to 20. The actual arsenals after the treaty takes effect are likely to be closer to 1,900, a number that Obama's advisers think is too high.

Under the new deal envisioned by the Obama administration, Russia and the United States would agree not only to cut deployed warhead levels below 1,550 — to between 1,000 and 1,100 — but also, for the first time, to begin limiting the number of tactical weapons as well.

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