HOW MANY NUCLEAR weapons make us "safe"?
At the height of the Cold War, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union had tens of thousands of nuclear warheads, aimed at each other's cities, towns, and military targets. Not many felt that the world was somehow made safe by this hair-trigger, apocalypse-risking standoff.
The Soviet Union is long gone, but the Cold War mentality that fueled the era's nuclear arms race seems to linger on. According to a December report by the Federation of American Scientists, the world's combined stockpile of nuclear warheads is still more than 17,000. Of these, the report continues, "some 4,300 warheads are considered operational, of which about 1,800 U.S. and Russian warheads are on high alert, ready for use on short notice."
President Obama, for his part, has laid out what he called his "vision of a world without nuclear weapons." In a speech last March in Seoul, South Korea, Obama said the goal of a nuclear-free world "would not be reached quickly, perhaps not in my lifetime," but that it must begin "with concrete steps." He continued, the "massive nuclear arsenal we inherited from the Cold War is poorly suited for today's threats," and "we can already say with confidence that we have more nuclear weapons than we need." (That could be considered a gross understatement, since the next leading nuclear threat—China—has only about 50 warheads on ICBMs that could reach the U.S.)
Despite this dangerous—and expensive—overkill capacity, the U.S. intends to spend hundreds of billions of dollars in the years to come enhancing its already-bloated arsenal.