As the Pentagon prepares to spend about a half trillion dollars over a decade on new nuclear weapons, a new poll suggests that the public favors a more constrained nuclear posture and is growing more skeptical of weapons that are in the U.S. arsenal already. A majority of respondents also favored restraining the president from launching a nuclear strike before seeking congressional approval.
The poll from the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland asked a bipartisan group of 2,264 people for their opinions on a variety of nuclear weapons issues.
The results showed, for starters, that many Americans don’t know how big the U.S. nuclear arsenal is. When told that the United States has 4,000 nuclear weapons, 41 percent said the number was bigger than they expected (57 percent of Democrats, 34 percent of Republicans.)
Eighty percent of the respondents, including 77 percent of Republicans, favor extending the New START Treaty beyond its 2021 expiration. New START limits the number of strategic nuclear weapons that the United States and Russia can deploy and allows for each party to verify the other’s deployed arsenal. Some military leaders have pointed out that the Treaty doesn’t include some of Russia’s newer nuclear weapons; others have argued for replacing it with a new, similar treaty with China.
On the issue of withdrawing from treaties, two-thirds of the respondents, including most Republicans, said the United States should stay in the INF Treaty, which limits the number of intermediate-range missiles that both sides can deploy. The United States has said it will exit the Treaty, citing Russian violations.
About 60 percent of the respondents favored “phasing out” U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs. Many arms control advocates, including former Defense Secretary William Perry, consider ICBMs to be the portion of the nuclear triad — missiles, bombers, submarines — that poses the most risk of accident for smallest reward in terms of deterrence (since they must be launched with just minutes of warning.) But there was a big caveat among respondents. “Only one-third favor unilaterally reducing the net number of strategic warheads in the U.S. arsenal instead of putting more warheads on submarines and bombers to keep the same total as the Russians,” according to the survey.
On the issue of the presidential power to use nuclear weapons first in conflict, six in ten Republicans, and about 75 percent of the respondents overall, supported legislation requiring that U.S. president obtain permission from Congress before launching an attack. But, when they were presented with the counterargument that such a requirement would weaken deterrence, 53 percent called found the counterargument at least “somewhat” convincing.
Some members of the arms control community welcomed the findings.
“This poll shows that Americans support smart diplomacy over expensive, dangerous nuclear weapons in a big way,” said Tom Collina, who directs policy at the Ploughshares Fund. “They want to limit President Trump’s sole authority to use nukes first. They want arms control, not an arms race. They rightly believe we are spending too much money on nuclear weapons. This should be a wake-up call to President Trump that his excessive and destabilizing nuclear plans are out of step with the American public.”
Kingston Reif, the Director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Association, saw bright spots in the responses for politicians looking to advance a strong arms control agenda. “Majorities view nuclear weapons as necessary, but majorities also support negotiated reductions with Russia and other nuclear-armed states. Majorities are concerned about the President’s sole authority to launch a nuclear strike, but majorities are cautious about a no first use policy. There is also a partisan divide (though less of one in this poll than in some others I have seen). Finally, when provided with cost estimates, the majority of Americans believe we spend too much on nuclear weapons.”
But some nuclear weapons watchers were more skeptical of the survey’s findings. Peter Huessy, President of the defense consultancy group GeoStrategic Analysis, said that many of the poll’s questions were framed in a way that pushed a certain result. For instance, Huessy said, the 4,000 number did not reflect that most bombers and submarines are not on alert, and so the number of “ready-to-go” warheads is under 1000. That includes ”400 Minuteman warheads and one-third of our submarines in their patrol box at sea or four subs each with roughly 20 missiles and each missile with five warheads,” he says.
Huessy further took aim at the way the question on the INF Treaty withdrawal was worded. The survey said, “The U.S. has accused Russia of violating the treaty, but Russia has denied it. Similarly, Russia has accused the U.S. of violating the treaty, but the U.S. has also denied it.”
That wording makes it sound as though the consensus on Russia’s violation was far smaller than it is. In fact, observed Russian violations of the INF go back to the Obama administration, Also, the United States is not alone. NATO has supported U.S. conclusions on the Russian violation.
Said Huessy, “If you rig the poll questions, as the former president of Roper polling once told me, you can get exactly the answer you want.”
Regardless, some members of House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee appear willing to challenge the Defense Department on the size and scale of Pentagon’s nuclear plans. A House Defense Appropriations Bill report that came out on Monday recommends $460 million in funding new ICBM development, nearly $100 million less than the Pentagon requested; and the report zeros out the Pentagon’s $100 million request for new intermediate-range missiles that would violate the INF Treaty.