Less than a month ago, the Obama administration amended the US nuclear-response policy to remove all strategic ambiguity from the process, explicitly delineating when the US would consider a nuclear response to an attack. Yesterday, the White House did the same with our nuclear inventory. After decades of deliberate ambiguity about the exact numbers of nuclear weapons the US has, the Obama administration leaked the exact number:
The United States has 5,113 nuclear warheads in its stockpile and many thousands more that have been retired and are awaiting dismantling, according to a senior defense official.
The release of the number of warheads marks only the second time in U.S. history the government has released the once top secret information.
The Pentagon statistics show the nuclear stockpile was reduced by 75 percent between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and September 30, 2009, and 84 percent since its peak of more than 31,255 in 1967.
The 5,113 warheads include active and inactive ones, according to the senior defense official.
The number of military assets has long been considered strategic information. Giving out those numbers would give potential enemies an advantage, if for no other reason than to know how many to eradicate, if possible to do so. Clearly the Obama administration thinks that the numbers are so massive as to be irrelevant. That may be true, but it would also be equally true that releasing the number holds no strategic advantage for the US, either. One can imagine that Iran will use that number to argue against any sanctions for its intransigence on its own development of nuclear weapons.
John Noonan notes that the ambiguity served another purpose as well:
Yesterday, the Obama administration released the DoD’s official nuclear stockpile figures. For decades, the size and shape of America’s atomic arsenal have been deliberately kept secret, and for good reason. There’s always been a calculated sense of ambiguity around our nuclear forces and our deterrence strategies, with the logic being that an enemy –if left to speculate about how, when, where, and if we’d use our nukes– would err on the side of caution and keep his fangs tucked.
Releasing the stockpile tally, which comes in at slightly over 5k warheads, doesn’t really endanger national security. But it does provide ample fodder to nuclear disarmament types, most of whom haven’t breathed through their noses since yesterday afternoon’s announcement. …
After the Cold War ended, the stockpile was kept classified for precisely this reason: politics. Transparency in this sense is not a threat to national security, but the ensuing disarmament fever — fueled by an ill-informed anti-nuke movement — certainly could. Our nuclear inventory consists of 5k –soon to be 4600– bombs for good reason. It keeps the deployed operational force of approximately 800 warheads ticking. So Obama may have declassified the stockpile to build some extra political muscle for his various disarmament initiatives, but instead the president ended up making a superb case for nuclear modernization.
The question is what purpose does all of this shedding of strategic ambiguity serve. It’s as if Barack Obama’s political consciousness has been stuck in amber since his college days in the 1980s. The only real nuclear threat right now comes from Iran and non-state actors, neither of which has anything to do with the size or strategic planning of our stockpile. The main threat against the US is the increasing numbers of terrorist attacks that seem to be getting through our counterterrorism efforts with regularity over the last six months or so.
The 1980s are over, as is the Cold War. We should be focusing not on decades-old disarmament hobby horses but the real threats arrayed against us now.