The U.S. is the only country to have used nuclear weapons in war. As we approach the anniversary of the nuclear attack on Hiroshima, it’s an appropriate time to take a look at the state of U.S. nuclear policy. American nuclear policy has changed dramatically under the Obama Administration. True or false? It’s true that President Obama has undertaken a program to combat nuclear proliferation (to oppose new countries from joining the nuclear club, i.e., Iran) while making ambitious plans both unilaterally and in consultation with other nuclear powers to drawn down nuclear forces over many years with the broad goal of achieving a nuclear free world. This plan was set forth in a major policy speech that Obama gave in the Czech Republic in 2009. This does indeed sound like dramatic change. However, if by nuclear policy you mean the practical matters that relate to launch procedures and targeting of nuclear weapons, these have not changed much. According to this report from iWatch News:
Little has changed in U.S. objectives or in the targeting process over the past two decades — a period in which the political map of Eastern Europe was redrawn, NATO was expanded, and wars erupted in the Balkans, the Persian Gulf, and the Middle East. “The fundamental objectives of U.S. nuclear deterrence policy have remained largely consistent since 1991, even as the threat environment and the size of the nuclear weapons stockpile has changed,” the GAO report states. The war plan’s structure is different now, of course. That’s because the U.S. arsenal is smaller and “the number of targets” has changed to “cover a wider spectrum of scenarios and potential adversaries,” as the GAO report vaguely states. But the GAO report adds that the arsenal still includes a “hedge stockpile” — no, that’s not a bunch of evergreens in your backyard — that can be yanked into use if the military suddenly somehow runs short of nuclear explosives. No one has said precisely how this might happen, since the United States has about 5,000 nuclear warheads now, including around 2300 that are deployed with U.S. forces and around 2700 held in reserve, according to independent estimates. Even the use of 300 warheads would be catastrophic “on anybody’s territory,” says retired Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, who was vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff until last year and knows the details of the war plans. White House officials say that President Obama has been reviewing new recommendations for precisely targeting U.S. nuclear forces. But defense officials told the GAO that as of this spring, the presidential guidance governing those forces was written by President George W. Bush in 2002.
It’s likely that given the sensitivities surrounding nuclear policy both domestically and internationally (the report notes that the trajectory of a land-based ICBM launch targeted at current hot spots like Iran or North Korea would take the missile over Russia, which could be problematic) Obama may be waiting until after the election to address these issues in American nuclear policy, that is, if the voters give him that chance.