What Will President Obama’s Nuclear Legacy Be?

Published Apr 1, 2015 Updated Apr 8, 2015

Click to enlarge. Obama speaking in Prague, 2009. Photo: Adrigu

In April 2009, President Obama gave a stirring speech in Prague, vowing the United States would take “concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons.” He sought to “put an end to Cold War thinking” and “reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy.” Earlier, as a presidential candidate, he recognized that “[K]eeping nuclear weapons ready to launch on a moment’s notice is a dangerous relic of the Cold War,” and suggested we “address this dangerous situation.”

While there have been some positive changes, President Obama has yet to make dramatic improvements to U.S. nuclear weapons policy. The Union of Concerned Scientists suggests the President take the following four steps to improve U.S. safety, save taxpayers money, and establish the United States as leader on global security issues.

1. Remove land-based missiles from hair-trigger alert

Today, just as at the height of the Cold War, U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are on hair-trigger alert, ready to be fired in minutes. Numerous close calls and safety incidents illustrate how this posture dramatically increases the likelihood of an accidental, erroneous, or unauthorized launch. Removing land-based missiles from hair-trigger alert would increase U.S. security without affecting deterrence, as U.S. submarines hiding in the oceans carry missiles that can’t be targeted.

2. Cut deployed U.S. strategic forces

Reducing the number of U.S. long-range nuclear weapons by a third (from 1,550 to 1,000) would cut costs and encourage reciprocity from Russia, all without requiring a new treaty or endangering U.S. capabilities or deterrence.

3. Cancel the proposed nuclear cruise missile

The Obama administration has proposed a new nuclear-armed cruise missile. Developing such a weapon—which carries significant reliability, security, and financial issues—would directly contradict the administration’s Nuclear Posture Review of 2010, which stated the United States “will not provide for new military capabilities.”

4. Declare nuclear deterrence as the sole purpose of nuclear weapons

Current U.S. policies allow the use nuclear weapons for a range of military missions—but by attaching value to nuclear weapons, the United States encourages other countries to pursue them as well. President Obama should declare that the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack on the United States and its allies, and to respond to such an attack if necessary. 

Learn more by downloading the fact sheet.

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