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The Globe and Mail

Nuclear cuts, yes, but still plenty of U.S. bombs

President Barack Obama is expected to slash America's arsenal of nuclear warheads by thousands, but keep the controversial "first use" option when he unveils his long-awaited and now-overdue nuclear-war strategy.

In recent days, White House officials have touted Mr. Obama's plan to cut thousands of warheads, although most of the reductions will come from permanently destroying weapons already in storage.

Even if Mr. Obama cuts operationally ready nuclear-warhead numbers in half - to roughly 2,000 - there will still be four for each of the roughly 500 cities on the planet with more than a million inhabitants, accounting for about two billion people. And each of those warheads will remain significantly more powerful than the bombs that devastated Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

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The new Nuclear Posture Review, which had been due March 1, is expected to be unveiled in the next few weeks.

Mr. Obama, who pledged more than a year ago "to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons," has yet to decide how dramatically he wants to reshape U.S. nuclear-weapons strategy as well making the mostly symbolic cuts in warhead numbers.

Even when he made the sweeping pledge in Prague last spring, Mr. Obama was careful to warn that a nuclear-weapons-free world "will not be reached quickly - perhaps not in my lifetime."

Mr. Obama isn't expected to abandon the first-strike option, although he may limit its use to deterring nuclear attack. He is also expected to remove medium-range U.S. nuclear warheads and missiles from bases in Europe.

"The decision on no first-use is, most likely, the big sticking point," says Ivan Oelrich, the vice-president for the strategic security program for the Federation of American Scientists, a group with its origins among those who developed the first atomic bomb, which now advocates reducing the number and role of nuclear weapons. "It seems to be a huge leap. Why would any president give up the pre-emption option? Although Mr. Obama is under pressure from many in his own party to make dramatic progress on reducing America's reliance on nuclear prowess as the centrepiece of its war policy, the commander-in-chief is widely seen by critics as lacking the martial mettle to lead the sole remaining superpower.

The nuclear conundrum is made worse by conflicting needs to woo China, confront Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs and restart stalled nuclear-disarmament talks with Russia.

Reshaping America's nuclear posture - defining what threats and which adversaries potentially warrant launching nuclear warheads - may be far more important that the number of warheads.

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"Our Nuclear Posture Review will reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy," Mr. Obama said in a statement prepared for the Global Zero summit in Paris last month.

But scrapping some threats worthy of nuclear response may require fielding a new type of weapon - conventional warheads atop missiles with global range, which in turn would create new uncertainties. Other great powers - including China and Russia - would need to be confident that a U.S. intercontinental missile launch at, perhaps, a terrorist camp in Pakistan or a North Korean bunker, didn't carry a nuclear warhead.

The Cold War nuclear strategy was simple: mutually assured destruction meant both the United States and the Soviet Union maintained sufficient nuclear firepower that they could survive a catastrophic first strike and still guarantee the annihilation of the other power, thereby making any nuclear attack suicidal.

Paradoxically, U.S. strategies for nuclear-weapons use grew - rather than shrank - after the end of the Cold War. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both expanded nuclear targets, which now include pre-emptive strikes to forestall attacks by chemical and biological weapons as well as the possibility of using nuclear weapons against non-state actors.

"If anyone at the end of the Cold War had suggested that the strategic war plan 20 years later would include more options for a wider range of contingencies against more adversaries, they would have been dismissed as completely unrealistic," the FAS says. "Yet that is how the plan has evolved."


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Who has the bomb?

The exact number of nuclear weapons in each country's arsenal is a closely held secret, but publicly available information and occasional leaks make it possible to estimate the size and composition the stockpiles.

Country / Strategic / Non-strategic / Operational / Total

Russia / 2,600 / 2,050 / 4,650 / 12,000

U.S. / 2,126 / 500 / 2,626 / 9,400

France / 300 / n/a / 300 / 300

China / 180 / n/a / 180 / 180

Britain / 160 / n/a / less than 160 / 185

Israel / 80 / n/a / n/a / 80

Pakistan / 70-90 / n/a / n/a / 70-90

India / 60-80 / n/a / n/a / 60-80

North Korea / less than 10 / n/a / n/a / less than 10

Total / 5,600 / 2,550 / 7,900 / 23,300


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International Affairs and Security Correspondent

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