President Obama gave a somber and apparently heartfelt speech Friday while visiting Hiroshima, the Japanese city where the U.S. detonated the first of the two nuclear weapons at the end of the Second World War. In his remarks, the president expressed his desire to see a world free of nuclear weapons.
“We may not be able to eliminate man’s capacity to do evil, so nations and the alliances that we form must possess the means to defend ourselves,” he said. “But among those nations like my own that hold nuclear stockpiles, we must have the courage to escape the logic of fear and pursue a world without them.
“We may not realize this goal in my lifetime, but persistent effort can roll back the possibility of catastrophe. We can chart a course that leads to the destruction of these stockpiles. We can stop the spread to new nations and secure deadly materials from fanatics.”
There was a certain irony to this, though, because in his more than seven years in the Oval Office, President Obama has presided over a dramatic slowdown in the process of reducing the country’s stockpile of nuclear weapons. He has also approved a plan to spend tens of billions of dollars every year, adding up to $1 trillion over the next three decades, to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal and to develop new kinds of nuclear weapons.
Hans M. Kristensen, director of the nuclear information project at the Federation of American Scientists, writes that, “the Obama administration has reduced the U.S. stockpile less than any other post-Cold War administration, and ... the number of warheads dismantled in 2015 was lowest since President Obama took office.”
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According to data declassified by the Defense Department, the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile stood at 4,571 at the end of fiscal year 2015, down just 146 from the previous year. All told, the arsenal has been reduced by only 13 percent under the Obama administration. Also under the Obama administration, there is a significant backlog in warheads that have been officially retired but not actually physically dismantled and rendered harmless.
Further, the Pentagon continues to pursue the development of new kinds of delivery devices, including a new nuclear-capable cruise missile, capable of delivering relatively small nuclear weapons virtually anywhere in the world.
The Department of Energy anticipates a more than 20 percent increase in its “Weapons Activities” budget between 2016 and 2021, with the total budget request reaching $10.5 billion per year. This is largely to manage a stockpile of aging weapons that, in theory, should be getting smaller (and cheaper) every year.
“To be fair, it is not all President Obama’s fault,” Kristensen allows. “His vision of significant reductions and putting an end to Cold War thinking has been undercut by opposition ranging from Congress to the Kremlin. An entrenched and almost ideologically opposed Congress has fought his arms reduction vision every step of the way. And the Russian government has rejected additional reductions while New START is being implemented.”
While there may be blame to spread around for the slowdown in nuclear disarmament, it didn’t make Obama’s appearance in Hiroshima any less ironic.