January 12, 2017

Biden Announces Reduction in US Nuclear Stockpile, Expresses Support for No-First-Use Policy

Science Group Calls Announcement Commendable, but Modest

WASHINGTON (January 12, 2017)—In a speech yesterday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Vice President Joe Biden announced that over the past year, the United States moved almost 500 weapons from the active stockpile of deployed and reserve weapons into the dismantlement queue—a reduction of roughly ten percent. 

 “I’m pleased the administration made this decision, which will enhance U.S. and international security,” said Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). “While the reduction is fairly modest, it is laudable.” 

UCS has urged the administration to reduce the deployed arsenal by 500 weapons and the reserve stockpile by 1,300 weapons—1,000 long-range strategic weapons and 300 tactical bombs. While Biden did not specify which weapons had been cut, it is likely these weapons came from the stockpile of reserve or “hedge” weapons. 

The United States keeps weapons in reserve for two reasons. If an entire class of deployed weapons experiences a technical problem, weapons of a different type can be deployed from the hedge in lieu of the faulty ones. In addition, if political leaders want to rapidly increase the number of deployed weapons for geopolitical reasons, weapons from the hedge can be added to existing delivery systems. 

In 2013 the Department of Defense and Department of Energy reported that a new, more efficient hedging strategy would allow the United States to “maintain a robust hedge against technical or geopolitical risk with fewer nuclear weapons.” Biden’s announcement is the first indication that the administration has acted on these findings. 

Biden also discussed U.S. policy on using nuclear weapons first. Under current policy, as spelled out in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the United States reserves the right to use nuclear weapons first against countries with nuclear weapons or countries not in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. While the document doesn’t name names, in practice, this policy applies to just three countries: Russia, China, and North Korea. 

The 2010 NPR also articulated a commitment to create the conditions that would allow the United States to adopt a no-first-use policy. 

Biden stated that he and the president are “confident we can deter and defend ourselves and our allies against non-nuclear threats through other means.” He added that they “strongly believe” that “deterring and if necessary retaliating against a nuclear attack should be the sole purpose for the U.S. nuclear arsenal.” 

“We’ve long urged the administration to adopt a no-first-use policy,” said Gronlund. “Biden’s statement is a small step in that direction, but it is extremely disappointing that President Obama, who, as commander-in-chief, has the authority to set this policy, didn’t do so while he had the opportunity.”  

The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with people across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.