If he has his way, President Barack Obama will dramatically change the nuclear weapons policy of the U.S. – leaving behind Cold War doctrine and looking to a model of a minimal nuclear arsenal -- just ominous enough to do the job of deterrence.
Obama may be mired in the economic stimulus debate, but the clock is also relentlessly ticking on some volatile policy decisions regarding the nation’s aging nuclear arsenal – the stuff of that deterrence. Foreign nations, friend and foe, are poised to discover Obama’s nuclear agenda, while some critics within the U.S. are fearful that the new president will go too far, too fast.
Among the weighty decisions on the president’s plate is whether to extend or renegotiate the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START II) with Russia, which run outs at the end of 2009, and whether to press for ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) -- with which the U.S. only voluntarily complies, according to a report in USA Today.
The CTBT bans all nuclear explosions in all environments, for military testing or civilian purposes.
“This is not just a decision about the future of U.S. nuclear weapons, but about how the United States will address the challenges of … nuclear terrorism, nuclear proliferation and our entire 21st-century nuclear strategy,” Clark Murdock, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told USA Today.
It’s not just the calendar that is putting the pressure on Obama. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov in February called on the U.S. to deliver a “constructive response” to open negotiations on START II, which he said should include a ban on deployment of strategic offensive arms outside national territories.
“This will allow us to arrive in the foreseeable future at an arrangement which will mark a new substantial step forward along the road to missile and nuclear disarmament,” said Ivanov at the recent 45th Munich Security Conference, according to a report by Xinhua.
The Challenge of Change
President Obama comes to office with some heavy baggage – most significantly the failure of the Bush White House to make real progress on their Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)-related disarmament commitments, including the negotiation of a global verifiable fissile material cut off, according to a report in Foreign Policy in Focus.
Meanwhile, overall U.S.-Russian relations have gone south because of the previous administration’s election to abandon the bi-lateral strategic nuclear arms control framework with Moscow.
In 2002, the administration pulled out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in order to develop a strategic missile defense system. George W. Bush then proposed the deployment of a controversial anti-missile site in Poland.
According to the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph, however, an on-the-ball Obama is already reaching out to repair relations with Russia.
This past December, while still president-elect, Obama reportedly dispatched former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to meet with Russian President Medvedev in order to get a jump start on thawing things in Moscow.
Kissinger, credited with nurturing detente during the Nixon presidency, reached out for a nuclear disarmament initiative.
During talks, Kissinger reportedly met with Russian officials to win their support for an important Obama’s initiative -- having Russia and the U.S. both cut their nuclear warhead inventory to 1,000 warheads.
Moves such as the dispatching of Kissinger may get both parties to the negotiating table after eight years of reticence to do so by Washington, according to the Telegraph report.
Meanwhile, Kissinger has not retreated from the frontlines.
In mid-February, Kissinger publically called on the U.S. and Russia to negotiate on new cuts in nuclear weapons, according to the ChinaView. He pushed for a quick start to negotiations,
“The immediate need is to start negotiations to extend the START II agreement,” said Kissinger at the Munich Security Conference.”
Promises to Keep
During the campaign, Obama pledged: “As president, I will set a new direction in nuclear weapons policy and show the world that America believes in its existing commitment under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to work to ultimately eliminate all nuclear weapons.”
President Obama has a tough row to hoe with this promise. It’s a brave new dangerous world out there.
Experts estimate that all the nuclear-weapon states together possess about 27,000 intact nuclear warheads, of which 97 percent are in U.S. and Russian stockpiles, according to an analysis in Truthout.
About 12,500 of these warheads are considered operational, with the balance in reserve or retired and awaiting dismantlement. The Pentagon has custody of nearly 10,000 stockpiled warheads, of which 5,735 are considered active or operational. Russia, in one estimate, has 16,000 intact warheads, of which about 5,830 are considered operational.
No wonder that in January 2007, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists warned that, despite the reduction of arsenals, the world had entered a “Second Nuclear Age marked by grave threats.”
And it is just this perceived grave threat that may hamper Obama’s visions of universal disarmament.
President Barack Obama’s pledge of no new nukes for the U.S. is wholly impractical say experts who have examined not only the issue of maintaining the hardware of nuclear deterrence, but the human factor of keeping competent trained managers at the nation’s nuclear switch.
The new Administration has declared without equivocation that Commander-in-Chief Barack Obama “will stop the development of new nuclear weapons,” but much like the pledge to close the detainee center at Gitmo, this may turn out to be more a commitment to a complex process rather than an event.
So far, White House staffers will say only that President Obama and his Secretary of Defense, Roberts Gates have not yet had an opportunity to fully debate the particulars, but on the record Gates has consistently argued that building a new generation of more reliable nuclear warheads would give the U.S. the wherewithal to downsize its overall nuclear arsenal.
Gates’ logic: If you have confidence that only a 50 percent of your aged nuke stockpile will detonate at full capacity, you many need to stock twice as many – and that looks bad if you are the nation ostensibly leading the way to the bright shinning day when terms such as “deterrence” and “assured mutual destruction” have passed from the lexicon.
In the final analysis, it’s all about that operative word “new.”
Frank Gaffney of the Washington-based Center for Security Policy points to the work of that think tank’s “New Deterrent Working Group,” which is charged to provide input to the nation’s Strategic Posture Commission.
The group goes beyond the Gates’ argument and logic to profess why “new” is not and cannot be a dirty word when the nation’s leaders consider nuclear weapons policy:
“We must adopt anew a national commitment to design, test and produce, on a continuing basis, new nuclear weapons. These activities are ‘performance arts.’ Expertise can be maintained only by engaging in them. Simply put, the extreme complexity and hazards of the work are such that there is no substitute for competent, integrated management. Such management, in turn, requires continuing, hands-on experience.”
An Eroding Deterrence
Bottom line to the group’s argument: the U.S. can’t even maintain a shaky status quo by simply nursing along its dusty degrading inventory of nukes. Yet this is exactly what Obama seems to favor.
Scienceline reports that the U.S. has maintained its 5,400-warhead arsenal by replacing degraded plastic and rubber parts. But the vital explosive radioactive core in the warhead naturally decays over time and has not been replaced.
The warheads will remain dependable for at least 82 more years, or until the year 2091, according to a 2006 report by JASON, an independent scientific advisory group that provides consulting services to the U.S. government on matters of defense science and technology. It was established in 1960.
This perceived cushion alone may contribute to why Congress has been reticent to fund replacements for the aging warheads. Last May, Congress refused to fund a $9.4 million RRW (Reliable Replacement Warhead) research initiative. In fact the RRW budget request for fiscal year 2010 has been nixed.
“The bottom line is that the current U.S. arsenal is safe and reliable,” notes Stephen Young, a senior analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Boston-based advocacy group lobbying to reduce nuclear threats, according to the Scienceline report.
“A Democratic Congress is not going to approve a budget created by a Republican [like Pres. Bush],” said RRW supporter Maj. Gen. Robert L. Smolen, deputy administrator for defense programs for the National Nuclear Security Administration, to Scienceline.
RRW has become a touchstone in the great nuclear deterrence debate.
Gaffney and his group pull no punches when it sings the praises of RRW.
“RRW must be reestablished as a vital program in order to prevent the loss of core nuclear weapon capabilities in National Nuclear Security Administration’s labs and plants, and to provide the optimum replacement approach for those over-age weapons in our stockpile which will be needed for decades to come.
“The RRW provides our only opportunity at the moment to recapture the experienced, integrated management expertise necessary to guide new nuclear weapons from concept definition to service introduction. Without RRW, this invaluable capability will, for all intents and purposes, be lost,” concludes the Center for Security Policy group.
Says Gaffney: “At the very least, the Strategic Posture Commission -- and assuredly the next president -- is going to have to wrestle with a problem that cannot be effectively addressed by straddling, let alone by wholly wrong-headed thinking to the effect that the world will become nuclear free -- if only the United States would de-nuclearize.”
In the final analysis, however, in these times of economic downturn, what may decide the fate of RRW is just the price tag -- estimated to cost at least $100 billion.
Meanwhile, there is no such heady debate going on in the inner sanctums of other major nuclear powers. Great Britain, France, Russia and China are all marching briskly ahead modernizing their nuclear arsenals, according to USA Today.
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