Jeffrey LewisAP Story on “Steep” Nuclear Cuts

It’s time for the annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit featuring speeches by luminaries including Senator Jon Kyl and Representative Michael Turner, which means it is also time for a damaging (and false) leak about the Obama Administration’s nuclear policy!

The Associated Press’s Robert Burns — what? Eli Lake was busy? — reports that “the Obama administration is weighing options for sharp new cuts to the U.S. nuclear force, including a reduction of up to 80 percent in the number of deployed weapons …”

The story is misleading, at best, and most likely false. Let me explain.

First, let’s examine the key claims and sourcing. Here is the key graf:

No final decision has been made, but the administration is considering at least three options for lower total numbers of deployed strategic nuclear weapons cutting to around 1,000 to 1,100, 700 to 800, or 300 to 400, according to a former government official and a congressional staffer. Both spoke on condition of anonymity in order to reveal internal administration deliberations.

Now, words like “considering,” “weighing,” and “deliberations” do not describe specific events in bureaucratic life. White House spokesperson Tommy Vietor, responding to the leak, provided a more direct description of the process:

As part of the NPR Implementation study, DOD used a range of policy criteria to develop options for the Presidential guidance that will be used to develop force structure, force postures and stockpile requirements. The implementation study is still underway and the Department of Defense has not yet presented the study to the President.

Burns claims that these three options are “under consideration at the White House.”  Since the study is not completed, that indicates the terms of reference must have made specific reference to the notion of 300 warheads. Indeed, that is what Hill sources are telling reporters.  An anonymous Congressional staffer told Bill Gertz that  “no president in the past ever told the Pentagon to conduct a review based on specific numbers of warheads.”  For all I know, the anonymous Congressional staffer is the same person — but the meaning is clear, even if Burns writes carelessly.  What is alleged is that the Obama Administration directed the White House to provide a 300 option.  I am pretty sure that is not true.

My understanding, which is also hearsay, is different.  I believe the terms of reference for the study do not, in fact, direct the Pentagon to study a 300 warhead option.  Presidential Policy Decision-11, according to Representative Turner, is the document that establishes the terms of reference for the 90-day Nuclear Posture Review Implementation Study. (Just for comparison, here is an unclassified version of the terms of reference for the NPR itself which probably derived from Presidential Study Directive 4; the TOR for the Implementation Study are presumably similar.)

Having asked around, I am reasonably confident that PPD-11 does not contain the 300 number.  Burns cites two sources — a “former government official” and a “congressional staffer,” which may explain his mistake.  I know that the White House has not made available a copy of terms of reference to members of Congress or their staff members.  So, the source on the Hill is simply repeating hearsay about its contents, possibly an Administration briefing. For direct knowledge, we are left with our disgruntled former official.  Burns does not claim to have seen the document himself.

There is a simple way to resolve all this, of course, which is to declassify the terms of reference.  Representative Turner is complaining about not having a copy of the terms of reference, which actually I think is a reasonable request.  I don’t see why the Administration couldn’t release an unclassified version like they did for the NPR.  The deliberations, of course, need to remain confidential.  But the terms of reference could be shared.  (The White House better have written them on the assumption they would leak!)

The timing of this leak is suggestive: Senator Kyl and Representative Turner are giving speeches this week.  One or both of them will certainly make reference to the reports that Obama plans to unilaterally disarm the United States — without, of course, mentioning that someone on their payroll probably planted the story in the first place.  Turner already has the story posted on his website.

Leaks like this harm a Presidency in two ways.  Obviously, the leak inflicts a political cost, but it also threatens the integrity of the interagency process — if internal deliberations are leaked to the press, participants may no longer speak frankly to the President, nor will the President  feel comfortable in seeking their advice and counsel.

This same thing, by the way, happened to President-elect Jimmy Carter after his first meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  The Chiefs welcomed Carter to Washington, with help from the late Bob Novak. The canonical version of the story appears in Thomas Powers’ article “Choosing a Strategy for World War III”, but I can’t find my copy right now.  Here is how I summarized the episode in my piece on minimum deterrence:

For example, when a newly inaugurated Jimmy Carter asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff for a study of a minimum deterrent posture based on 200–250 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, the request was leaked to conservative journalists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak who raised the issue of the nuclear umbrella and modestly warned that the proposal would “presage the end of democratic Western Europe.”

The Department of Defense ended up doing the study anyway.  Harold Brown, Carter’s Secretary of Defense, forwarded the now declassified study to the President, noting that senior officials “believe it is unproductive to give serious attention to such levels, even as goals.”

Harold Brown’s advice was probably sensible for late 1970s, but today it makes sense to think about much lower force levels — especially if sequestration forces drastic budget cuts.  If the Pentagon concludes that the possibility of severe deterioration in the budgetary situation makes 300 look like a plausible outcome, I want the President to know that.  And, if 300 is possible with very significant investments in conventional strike and missile defense, I bet some conservatives would be interested in such an outcome.

My best guess about what happened, by the way, is far less dramatic than any of this.  I would bet the White House issued very general terms of reference that asked fundamental questions about the goals for US nuclear weapons policy as outlined in the Nuclear Posture Review.  The Pentagon has a preferred option that is probably around 1000 deployed strategic warheads, give or take a hundred or so.  Obama will be able to tell it is the preferred option, because there will be lots of little dark and light green boxes next to it on the memo.  But to make the preferred option stand out, there must be at least two unpalatable options: a status quo scenario and a budget-driven low scenario like 300 scarred with little yellow and red boxes.  The President will then pick the middle option, because that is what Presidents always do with memos.


One closing note: Burns writes that “The notion of a 300-weapon arsenal is featured prominently in a paper written for the Pentagon by a RAND National Defense Project Institute analyst last October, in the early stages of the administration’s review of nuclear requirements.”

The actual paper, however, is about establishing a decision-making framework; the force levels are purely illustrative. The author, Paul Davis, clearly states that he made “evaluations separately for at least two very different and longstanding strategic perspectives.”  In other words, 300 weapons was explicitly a straw-person — usuing two very different cases to illustrate how the method distinguishes between two postures.  It is more than a little misleading to imply that the 300 warhead option as outlined in the paper offers some insight into the course of the NPR Implementation Study.  It’s a little nitpick, but it shows that Burns is not a careful reporter even when he has the relevant document at his disposal.


  1. Anon (History)

    I was there. That “former government official” was Peter Huessy. He made a comment along the lines of (not a direct quote, because I was not taking notes [too busy crying]) “No president until now has ever said, ‘Tell me what you can do with 300 warheads'”.

    • Anon (History)

      I might add, it’s not clear if Mr. Huessy is the progenitor of the 300 figure in this context, or was merely repeating it. But, he definitely said staked that argument up, along with 37 other strawmen, and proceeded to blow them down in a neocon tornado.

  2. Mark Gubrud (History)

    * I think you meant to write “What is alleged is that the White House directed the Pentagon to provide a 300 option.”

    * This may the other shoe you were looking for:

    “Obviously this is going to create a huge stir in Congress,” Senator Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said on Thursday in an address to the deterrence symposium. “I think we’re looking at a battle royal in the Congress if the president moves forward with these kinds of plans.”

    Also: gop-lawmakers-blast-proposed-nuclear-arms-deployment-cuts/

    * Yes, if in fact the Pentagon will present such a menu of 3 options, whether specifically directed to or not, obviously the one on the high end, but still lower than New Start, will be the “preferred option.” If this were a normal political issue, the option in the middle would be the “sensible Center.” But when you’re trying to drag a herd of dinosaurs snapping and snarling out of the night and into the light of what is by now already mid-day, you need extra rhetorical pressure, and more modest expectations.

    * Still, couldn’t you have waited a bit longer to burst our collective bubble of badly-needed euphoria?

  3. Arch Roberts (History)

    Great, and thanks. I also suspect that 300, if it’s in the mix, exists as a bracket option not recommended, but there for contrast. But it’s nice if it’s there. It would also be in character for the President to ask for more than 3 options.

    BTW, one of the signal failures of the Reagan presidency is directly attributable to the change in chiefs-of-staff from Baker (3 options on any decision memo) to Regan (binary decision: staff recommendation: agree or disagree). Don Regan was thus directly responsible for the advance of President Reagan’s Alzheimer’s.

    Maybe Obama needs to move away from the 12-option decision memo. He better not know who’s playing on the damn tennis court….

  4. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    I suggested the other day that the three options are bounds and a “reasonable middle.”

    I also noted (but didn’t say in the post) that that statement was very vaguely sourced. I was wondering whether Burns made up the numbers, but figured that was far beyond reasonable reporting. It was hard to see why the numbers would have been floated by an administration rep, though, hence my questions.

    Jeffrey has added in so many more anonymous sources now that it’s hard to tell them apart without numbers. So I’ll continue to consider this undetermined until, as Jeffrey suggests, the terms of reference or some other hard evidence comes out.

  5. Stephen Young (History)

    Both Kyl and Turner did talk about the AP story in their speeches at the deterrence summit (where I’ve slummed it for the last three days). Kyl and Turner’s staff also spoke and also mentioned it – Turner’s staffer, Tim Morrison, happens to be Kyl’s former staff, led his talk with it.

    And I too have been told that PPD-11 does NOT include any specific numbers to consider. (Recall that, when George Bush did this, he didn’t tell them to consider several options, he just told them “You get 2,200 warheads. Deal with it.”)

    Finally, yes, the HASC is still seeking a copy of the PPD. I’ll paste their press release and letter the president in another comment.

  6. Stephen Young (History)

    For Immediate Release: February 17, 2012 Contact: Claude Chafin or John Noonan 202-225-2539

    Thirty Four Members of Congress Express Concern to President over Nuclear Reductions

    Washington – Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and Rep. Mike Turner, Chairman of the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, wrote to President Obama today, responding to reports that the White House is exploring sweeping cuts to the US nuclear arsenal. Thirty two other Members joined McKeon and Turner in calling on the White House to further involve Congress in their strategic planning.

    In the letter, McKeon and Turner ask, “with the erosion of U.S. conventional military capabilities under the Budget Control Act and your recent defense strategy, the negation of your pledged modernization program in your FY13 budget request, and the growth in quantity and quality of nuclear weapons capabilities in Russia, the People’s Republic of China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and, perhaps soon the Islamic Republic of Iran, we seek to understand the basis on which you would instruct the National Security Staff to pursue these radical reductions in U.S. nuclear forces. As you know, your former Commander of U.S. Strategic Command, General Kevin Chilton stated that, ‘I think the arsenal that we have is exactly what is needed today to provide the deterrent.’ By definition, therefore, any further reductions will undermine the deterrent that has kept this country safe since the U.S. won the Second World War in August 1945.”

    Earlier this week, the Associated Press reported that the White House was exploring strategic options that include cuts of up to 80% of America’s deployed nuclear weapons, a move that would leave the United States with a smaller nuclear arsenal than China. “Our nuclear deterrent has helped keep us safe for decades,” Chairman McKeon said. “We are a responsible nation that treats the awesome power of these weapons with respect. A nuclear United States is not a threat to world peace, but rather has a deeply positive impact on global security and order. We relinquish our nuclear deterrent at our own peril and that of our allies.”

    President Barack Obama
    The White House
    1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
    Washington, D.C. 20500
    Dear Mr. President:
    We write to share our deep concern with reports that you specifically instructed the National Security Council to undertake a study that could result in U.S. nuclear weapons reductions of up to 80%. At a time when every other nuclear weapons state has an active nuclear weapons modernization program and many are growing their stockpiles and capabilities, it is inconceivable to us that you would lead the United States down such a dangerous plan as has been reported. We are doubly concerned that you have abandoned your pledge to support the U.S. nuclear weapons modernization program by your latest budget submission. As you know, your pledge for a long-term commitment to the modernization of our nuclear deterrent was key to the agreement to permit even the reductions under the New START Treaty, for which our Committee has yet to authorize funding.
    With the divestment of U.S. conventional military capabilities under your recently announced defense strategy, the negation of your pledged modernization program in your FY13 budget request, and the growth in quantity and quality of nuclear weapons capabilities in Russia, the People’s Republic of China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and, perhaps soon the Islamic Republic of Iran, we seek to understand the basis on which you would instruct the National Security Staff to pursue these radical reductions in U.S. nuclear forces. As you know, your former Commander of U.S. Strategic Command, General Kevin Chilton stated that, “I think the arsenal that we have is exactly what is needed today to provide the deterrent.” By definition, therefore, any further reductions will undermine the deterrent that has kept this country safe since the U.S. won the Second World War in August 1945.
    We are not aware of any prior case when a President has directed specific force levels as part of a review of the Nation’s nuclear employment strategy. We firmly believe such review should begin and end with one question: what levels of U.S. nuclear forces are necessary to convince our enemies and adversaries that they cannot succeed in an attack on this country or its allies?
    However, as we understand it, the NPR Implementation Study presently underway, which by no means is being done to implement the 2010 NPR as was suggested by Secretary Panetta, is only considering options for further reductions in nuclear forces. We are especially concerned that senior White House national security officials have suggested that such cuts may be unilateral. Indeed, your own Secretary of Defense stated, “I don’t think we ought to do that [cut U.S. nuclear weapons] unilaterally – we ought to do that on the basis of negotiations with the Russians and others to make sure we are all walking the same path.”
    We seek your assurance that in view of the ambitious nuclear weapons modernization programs of Russia, communist China, Pakistan and others, the deep cuts to U.S. conventional capabilities per the Budget Control Act, and your failure to follow through on your pledged section 1251 plan, that you will cease to pursue such unprecedented reductions in the U.S. deterrent and extended deterrent. Surely you agree that blind ideology cannot drive a matter as important as U.S. nuclear forces over reality. This will certainly be our starting point when drafting this year’s national defense authorization bill.
    We further urge you to direct your Administration to involve the Congress in your planning efforts. Such involvement should involve sharing the terms of reference of the NPR Implementation Study, (i.e., your PPD-11), with the Armed Services Committees, which this Committee has sought unsuccessfully for at least half a year.
    Members of Congress
    Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee
    Mac Thornberry, Vice Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee
    Michael Turner, Chairman of Strategic Forces Subcommittee
    Roscoe Bartlett
    Doug Lamborn
    Todd Young
    Trent Franks
    Bobby Schilling
    Frank LoBiondo
    Austin Scott
    Scott Rigell
    Joe Wilson
    J. Randy Forbes
    Jeff Miller
    Todd Akin
    Allen West
    John Kline
    Joe Heck
    Mike Coffman
    Vicky Hartzler
    Bill Shuster
    Tim Griffin
    Todd Platts
    Duncan Hunter
    Rob Wittman
    Mo Brooks
    Mike Rogers
    John Fleming
    Walter Jones
    Martha Roby
    Mike Conaway
    Steven Palazzo
    Rob Bishop
    Tom Rooney
    The Honorable Leon Panetta, Secretary of Defense
    The Honorable Heather Higginbottom, Deputy Director, Office of Management and Budget
    The Honorable Thomas D’Agostino, Administrator, National Nuclear Security Administration
    General Martin Dempsey, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff
    General C. Robert Kehler, Commander, United States Strategic Command

  7. krepon (History)

    If I’m not mistaken, Tim Morrison now works for Rep. Turner.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      You are not mistaken nor is it an accident, comrade.

  8. John Hallam (History)

    My friend and colleague steven Starr is fond of pointing out that large-scale or not so large scale use of nuclear weapons is likely, according to peer-reviewed research by Toon et al, to result in at least the end of civilisation and possibly in human extinction.

    When viewed in these terms (and I also view it in such terms), then the question is, why have we not gone to zero yesterday?

    And why do we listen at all to the likes of those congresspeople who wrote the letter?

    There is a need for the disarmament lobby to write out own letter in strong support of both deep cuts and decreased alert status.

    John Hallam

  9. CastleBravo (History)

    Nuclear planners are a cautious bunch. Hans K. has shown through his research time and time again that changes to employment policies are marginal. And today, any weapon being taken out of the stockpile is not going back in. My suggestion is for everyone on the left and right to catch your breath until this review is over. There are parallel echo chambers at work here, neither of which has a full picture of the truth.

  10. Edward Marshall (History)

    That is really too damn bad. I was assuming that the 300 number was based on a U.S. Air War College study that estimated a very similar number on the number of countervalue weapons needed for deterrence in the United States. I was told this number was incredibly similar to what popped out of the Russian Federations counterpart.

  11. Mark Lincoln (History)

    Two republicans wouldn’t lie about Obama.

    Or would they?

  12. Daryl Kimball (History)

    Thanks for the post Jeffrey … a well reasoned critique of the reporting and the motives for the leak.

  13. Driller (History)

    As a Los Alamos employee the leak does not seem false to me since LANL announced a 10% workforce reduction yesterday due to the FY13 budget.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      There is no obvious relationship between force levels and lab funding. Recall that the reductions under the New START Treaty were ratified on the basis of a significant increase in funding for modernization of remaining forces.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I’ve never seen a cost per warhead, but it has to be higher now than at any time since the Manhattan Project costs were fully amortized. Presumably, the man-hours per warhead cost is also at an all time high.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I’ve never seen a cost per warhead, but it has to be higher now than at any time since the Manhattan Project costs were fully amortized. Presumably, the man-hours per warhead cost is also at an all time high.

  14. Walt Slocombe (History)

    Since Jeffrey has usefully posted the memo Sec Brown sent in response to Pres Carter’s request for an analysis of a US strategic nuclear force of 200-250 delivery vehicles (NOT warheads/weapons), I am in the embarrassing position of having to correct a typo I should have caught 40 years ago: The phrase in the first double-dashed paragraph in Brown’s cover memo should be “achieving practical, yet far-reaching measures which may NOW [not “not”] be possible in SALT.”