WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will use his State of the Union speech on Tuesday to reinvigorate one of his signature national security objectives — drastically reducing nuclear arsenals around the world — after securing agreement in recent months with the United States military that the U.S. nuclear force can be cut in size by roughly a third, the New York Times reported Sunday, citing unnamed officials.
The administration officials said Obama is unlikely to discuss specific numbers in the address, but White House officials are looking at a cut that would take the arsenal of deployed weapons to just above 1,000. Currently there are about 1,700, and the new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia that passed the Senate at the end of 2009 calls for a limit of roughly 1,550 by 2018.
But Obama, according to an official who was involved in the deliberations, believes that the United States can make radical reductions and save a lot of money without compromising American security. The Joint Chiefs of Staff have signed off on that concept, the officials said.
The question is how to accomplish a reduction that Obama views as long overdue, considering that Republicans in the Senate opposed even the modest cuts in the new arms reduction treaty, called New START. The White House doesn't want to negotiate a new treaty with Russia, which would lead to demands for restrictions on U.S. and NATO missile-defense systems in Europe and would reprise a major fight with Republicans in the Senate over ratification.
Instead, Obama is weighing whether to announce unilateral cuts or to attempt to reach an informal agreement with President Vladimir Putin of Russia for mutual cuts within the framework of the New START — but without the need for ratification.
Obama's national security adviser, Tom Donilon, is planning to travel to Russia next month, officials said, to lay the groundwork for those talks. Obama and Putin will hold two summit meetings in the early summer.
The nuclear reduction plan has been debated inside the administration for two years, and the options have been on Obama's desk for months. But the document was left untouched through the presidential election.
The president wanted to avoid making the reductions a campaign issue with Mitt Romney, who declared at one point that Russia was now America's "No. 1 geostrategic foe," a comment that Obama later mocked as an indication that Romney had failed to move beyond the Cold War.
Romney, in turn, leapt on a remark that Obama intended to make privately to Russia's then president, Dmitry Medvedev. Obama was picked up by an open microphone telling Medvedev that "after my election I have more flexibility" on missile defense, which Republicans said was evidence that he was preparing to trade away elements of the arsenal.
Among the most outspoken advocates of a deep cut has been a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. James Cartwright, whom Obama continues to turn to on strategic issues. Cartwright has argued that a reduction to 900 warheads would still guarantee U.S. safety, even if only half of them were deployed at any one time.
"The world has changed, but the current arsenal carries the baggage of the Cold War," Cartwright said last year.
It is unclear how much money would be saved by the nuclear reduction plan that Obama is about to endorse. Officials say Obama is already moving quietly to explore whether he can scale back a 10-year, $80 billion program to modernize the country's weapons laboratories.