Nuclear Weapons

Nuclear Commanders Endorse New START

07.28.10 | 4 min read | Text by Hans Kristensen
The men behind a decade and a half of U.S. strategic nuclear planning say the New START treaty will enhance American national security.

By Hans M. Kristensen

Seven former commanders of U.S. nuclear strategic planning have endorsed the New START treaty and recommended early ratification by the U.S. Senate.

In a letter sent to Senator Carl Levin and John McCain of the Senate Armed Services Committee and Senators John Kerry and Richard Lugar of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the retired nuclear commanders conclude that the treaty “will enhance American national security in several important ways.”

The list includes four former commanders of U.S. Strategic Air Command (SAC) and four former commanders of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) – one served both as SAC and STRATCOM commander – who were responsible for U.S. strategic nuclear war planning and for executing the strategic war plan during the last phases of the Cold War and until as recently as 2004.

In doing so, the nuclear commanders – who certainly can’t be accused of being peaceniks – effectively pull the rug under the feet of the small number of conservative Senators who have held the treaty and U.S. nuclear policy hostage with a barrage of nitpicking and frivolous questions and claims about weakening U.S. national security interests.

The endorsement by the former nuclear commanders adds to the extensive list of current and former military and civilian leaders who have recommended ratification of the New START treaty. In fact, it is hard to find any credible leader who does not support ratification.

It’s time to end the show and do what’s right: ratify the New START treaty!


July 14, 2010

Senator Carl Levin, Chairman, Armed Services Committee
Senator John McCain, Ranking Member, Senate Armed Services Committee

Senator John F. Kerry, Chairman, Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Senator Richard G. Lugar, Ranking Member, Senate Foreign Relations Committee


As former commanders of Strategic Air Command and U.S. Strategic Command, we collectively spent many years providing oversight, direction and maintenance of U.S. strategic nuclear forces and advising presidents from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush on strategic nuclear policy.  We are writing to express our support for ratification of the New START Treaty.  The treaty will enhance American national security in several important ways.

First, while it was not possible at this time to address the important issues of non-strategic weapons and total strategic nuclear stockpiles, the New START Treaty sustains limits on deployed Russian strategic nuclear weapons that will allow the United States to continue to reduce its own deployed strategic nuclear weapons.  Given the end of the Cold War, there is little concern today about the probability of a Russian nuclear attack.  But continuing the formal strategic arms reduction process will contribute to a more productive and safer relationship with Russia.

Second, the New START Treaty contains verification and transparency measures—such as data exchanges, periodic data updates, notifications, unique identifiers on strategic systems, some access to telemetry and on-site inspections—that will give us important insights into Russian strategic nuclear forces and how they operate those forces.  We will understand Russian strategic forces much better with the treaty than would be the case without it.  For example, the treaty permits on-site inspections that will allow us to observe and confirm the number of warheads on individual Russian missiles; we cannot do that with just national technical means of verification.  That kind of transparency will contribute to a more stable relationship between our two countries.  It will also give us greater predictability about Russian strategic forces, so that we can make better-informed decisions about how we shape and operate our own forces.

Third, although the New START Treaty will require U.S. reductions, we believe that the post-treaty force will represent a survivable, robust and effective deterrent, one fully capable of deterring attack on both the United States and America’s allies and partners.

The Department of Defense has said that it will, under the treaty, maintain 14 Trident ballistic missile submarines, each equipped to carry 20 Trident D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).  As two of the 14 submarines are normally in long-term maintenance without missiles on board, the U.S. Navy will deploy 240 Trident SLBMs.

Under the treaty’s terms, the United States will also be able to deploy up to 420 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and up to 60 heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments.  That will continue to be a formidable force that will ensure deterrence and give the President, should it be necessary, a broad range of military options.

We understand that one major concern about the treaty is whether or not it will affect U.S. missile defense plans.  The treaty preamble notes the interrelationship between offense and defense; this is a simple and long-accepted reality.  The size of one side’s missile defenses can affect the strategic offensive forces of the other.  But the treaty provides no meaningful constraint on U.S. missile defense plans.  The prohibition on placing missile defense interceptors in ICBM or SLBM launchers does not constrain us from planned deployments.

The New START Treaty will contribute to a more stable U.S.-Russian relationship.  We strongly endorse its early ratification and entry into force.


General Bennie Davis (USAF, Ret) [SAC CINC 1981-1985]

General Larry Welch (USAF, Ret) [SAC CINC 1985-1986]

General John Chain (USAF, Ret) [SAC CINC 1986-1991]

General Lee Butler (USAF, Ret) [SAC CINC 1991-1992, STRATCOM CINC 1992-1994]

Admiral Henry Chiles (USN, Ret) [STRATCOM CINC 1994-1996]

General Eugene Habiger (USAF, Ret) [STRATCOM CINC 1996-1998]

Admiral James Ellis (USN, Ret) [STRATCOM CINC 2002-2004]

The original letter is here.

This publication was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.