The U.S. nuclear arsenal is too big, too expensive, out of date and desperately needs to be re-thought, according to retired Marine General James Cartwright and retired U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering.

Pickering and Cartwright met with the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development on Wednesday in a hearing about our nuclear arsenal, which was built decades ago to protect this country from a range of threats it no longer faces.  Now, the antiquated system is costing the country money and placing it at risk, said the two men, and a time has come to take steps to modernize the weapons system.

Cartwright, who is a chairman of the nuclear disarmament commission Global Zero, was presenting the Global Zero U.S. Nuclear Policy Commission’s report, which calls upon the U.S. and Russia to reduce the size of their nuclear arsenals by 80 percent to 900 nuclear weapons each.  The proposal outlined in the report calls for a "reduced and de-alerted" nuclear force, one with modernized technology and shortened response times, but which ultimately spends $120 billion less over the next decade.

Joel Rubin of the global security firm The Ploughshares Fund agrees with Cartwright and Pickering that the U.S. arsenal is "out of date, out of synch with our times and out of step with our national budget."  Rubin told Raw Story that our current nuclear arsenal was built in response to the rise of the Soviet Union during the Cold War and is still operating in that mindset.  Seeing the retired general and ambassador, he said, was a sign of a major shift in what he considers the right direction.

"This was a significant hearing," said Rubin, in that having two such well-respected public figures call for a dramatic restructuring of our arsenal is a crucial step forward in the debate.  "It's good to see that kind of validation from people working on the front lines of military and diplomatic forces," he said.

The idea of restructuring the nuclear arsenal dates back decades.  Ronald Reagan made it part of his agenda at his Reykjavík Summit meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986.  Rubin said that until recently, the issue has always been a bipartisan one.  It was only in 2010, when President Obama signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) that Republicans began to argue more vociferously against arms control agreements.

"That was when partisanship crept into the debate," said Rubin, "The treaty was a major accomplishment, the entirety of the Republican foreign policy establishment was saying, 'We needed this treaty.'" It was the United States’ best opportunity since the expiration of the previous arms control treaty with Russia to verify exactly what weapons Russia had and what it was doing with them.

But as Cartwright said on Wednesday morning before the panel, our defense stance is no longer based on a "bipolar relationship" with Russia.  "We live in a multipolar nuclear capable world," he said, and our refusal to update our notions of defense is costing the country billions of dollars and eroding the stability of our position in the world.

"Our systems are aging," he said, "Russia and China's systems are aging.  Response times are in minutes, not seconds."  The system of new technology that the military has layered on top of old tech, coupled with systems backing up redundant systems creates a picture that Cartwright characterized as "worrisome."

Ambassador Pickering agreed with Cartwright, saying that the time to fear the Russians as our top enemy has passed, "The Russians get it," he said, "They know the destruction" that would result from both countries launching simultaneous nuclear attacks.  "They value highly their ability to speak with us."

Pickering said that our nation is currently faced with a set of unique opportunities to base its defense in facts and move beyond our traditional thinking from the Cold War.  The Russians, he said, are also facing severe budget constraints, and are ready to move on to more practical policy.  Russia has already met and exceeded its own timetables for weapons reductions under the START II treaty.

Rubin said he found today’s hearing encouraging, in that our nuclear arsenal needs to provide a strong deterrent, be flexible, economically sustainable, modern and safe, and that it can do so by being both smaller and configured to counter the threats of the 21st century, not those of the Cold War.

The global security situation has changed profoundly since our nation's defenses were designed, he said, "We need to live in this reality."