Source Says White House Never Floated Cut to Only 300 Warheads

Former U.S. ambassador weighs in on bitterly partisan debate over the needed size of America's nuclear arms fleet.

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The White House never asked for options about shrinking the U.S. nuclear arsenal to just 300 deployed warheads, a former senior official says.

"The Pentagon was never asked to look at options for going to 300," says Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, citing conversations with Defense Department officials.

Several media outlets reported earlier this year that the Obama White House had directed the Pentagon to draw up plans for three nuclear force sizes smaller than the current arsenal: one as low as 1,000; another around 700; and third as small as 300.

The Pentagon continues to play coy--perhaps giving the White House cover since congressional Republicans react violently to any talk of further trimming America's most lethal weapon fleet.

"The Pentagon explored the full range of options with the White House," says a senior U.S. defense official.

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Ohio GOP Rep. Mike Turner, who chairs a House subcommittee that oversees nuclear weapons, hit Obama hard over the issue in a recent speech: "It has not yet been explained to me how fewer nuclear weapons in the U.S. deterrent is necessarily better for the country's security."

Turner went on to imply Obama is not taking the issue of nuclear weapons seriously enough.

"We have to be adults about these issues; the nuclear deterrent is too important to our national security," Turner said. "Every other president has asked one simple question" about arsenal size: "What level of nuclear forces do I need to ensure that a potential enemy or adversary knows that if he attacks the United State or our allies, we will have the ability to respond with nuclear forces that could result in nothing less than total devastation," the lawmaker added.

A White House National Security Council spokesman did not reply to a request for comment.

The U.S. has between 1,700 and 2,000 operational strategic nuclear warheads and bombs right now, according to the Brookings Institution. Under an arms-reduction treaty with Russia implemented last year, that figure is set to fall to around 1,500 deployed nuclear weapons.

The United States also has 4,900 "additional strategic and non-strategic warheads not limited by the treaty that the U.S. military wants to retain as a 'hedge' against unforeseen future threats," states a Brookings fact sheet.

Obama has talked of a "nuclear-free world," and has pushed hard for nuclear weapons reductions between the Cold War foes. Some more pragmatic Obama administration officials want to pare the arsenal because the weapons are very expensive to maintain and upgrade. These officials have said trimming the arsenal would save hundreds of millions annually, while leaving more than enough warheads to deter or respond to a nuclear strike on U.S. targets.

But longtime national security expert Loren Thompson of the Lexington Insitute tells DOTMIL political pressure likely will lead Obam away from more nuclear reductions.

"The Obama administration considered a series of nuclear force postures including some that were very low," Thompson says. "However, Obama is already running up against the limits of what Congress will approve. Sometimes, cutting weapons too much makes you less safe rather than more safe."

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