Catalyst Fall 2013


Our Cold War Leftovers

Lisbeth Gronlund, senior scientist and co-director of the UCS Global Security Program, discusses the ongoing threat of nuclear weapons and what the organization is doing about it.


Dr. Lisbeth Gronlund focuses on technical issues related to U.S. nuclear weapons policy, and new nuclear weapons, space weapons, and ballistic missile defenses. She has authored numerous articles and reports, lectured on nuclear arms control and missile defense policy issues before lay and expert audiences, and testified before Congress.

UCS states that nuclear weapons are more of a liability to national security than an asset. Why?

LG: The cold war ended more than 20 years ago, but the United States still maintains some 4,500 weapons in its arsenal. Just one of these could destroy much of a large city, while a few hundred would be enough to devastate much of the world. Many hundreds of these weapons are kept on high alert so they can be launched within minutes of a Russian attack. In turn, this practice encourages Russia to keep its missiles on high alert. This launch-on-warning policy could lead to an accidental or unauthorized launch, or a launch in response to a false alarm.

We are continuing to risk everything by clinging to this cold war policy. And nuclear weapons do nothing to prevent terrorist attacks, which are a significant threat to U.S. security today.


What is the near-term likelihood of any further reductions in the U.S. stockpile of nuclear weapons?

LG: A Pentagon study concluded that the United States could reduce its deployed long-range weapons to roughly 1,000 while maintaining a robust deterrent, and President Obama has stated that he will seek such reductions in conjunction with Russia. But Russia appears hesitant, in part because it is worried about U.S. missile defenses.

The United States doesn’t need to wait for Russian action¾it can easily cut its arsenal to a total of 1,000 weapons (deployed and reserve, long-range and short-range) while maintaining an effective deterrent, and UCS is working to gain congressional and administration support for a unilateral reduction. Continuing to maintain more nuclear weapons than necessary is not only unwise, it’s a waste of tens of billions of taxpayer dollars.


Federal officials argue that the country’s nuclear weapons are nearing the end of their “useful lifetime.” What does that mean?

LG: As weapons age, some parts degrade and need to be replaced. The administration, however, is seeking to replace the current arsenal by building five new types of weapons, which would undercut the U.S. commitment to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The United States should instead extend the life of existing weapons without making major modifications.

In our new report, Making Smart Security Choices: The Future of the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex [online at], UCS calls for increased funding to monitor the U.S. arsenal. Gaining a better understanding of how existing weapons are aging would be a wiser investment than building new ones.