US President Barack Obama has set a goal of a “world without nuclear weapons” but the Pentagon is leaning in a seemingly contradictory direction: a modernized nuclear arsenal.
The new administration has signaled its intent to swiftly engage Russia in negotiations on deeper cuts in their respective arsenals, with the ultimate aim of reducing them to zero.
But US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has been leading another kind of charge, arguing in the final months of the previous administration that deeper cuts must be underpinned by production of a new warhead to replace an ageing nuclear stockpile.
“To be blunt, there is absolutely no way we can maintain a credible deterrent and reduce the number of weapons in our stockpile without either resorting to testing our stockpile or pursuing a modernization program,” he said in an Oct. 28 speech.
Gates’ speech at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, said Jan Kristensen, an analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, was “an attempt to set a bottom line.”
In Kristensen’s view, the secretary’s message was: “You can cut the numbers, but below that we need to have a strong capability, not only to maintain what we have, but also to build up if we need to.”
“That is the big clash,” Kristensen said.
Gates is not alone in his thinking. General Kevin Chilton, head of the US Strategic Command, warns that the US is “living today off the largesse of an industrial base and a concept that was developed to support the Cold War which is many years in the rearview mirror right now.”
A Pentagon advisory panel led by former defense secretary James Schlesinger warned last month of a weakening US deterrent.
On the other hand, former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former defense secretary William Perry and former Senator Sam Nunn say that nuclear weapons are increasingly ineffective as a deterrent.
They called for a “world free of nuclear weapons” in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece two years ago.
The debate is likely to intensify over the next year as the new administration reviews the US nuclear posture. A bipartisan commission appointed by Congress is expected to report in April, and the Pentagon will undertake its own review later this year.
The White House has already staked out its position, declaring on its Web site that “Obama and [Vice President Joe] Biden will set a goal of a world without nuclear weapons, and pursue it.”
Proponents of modernization argue that as weapons in the existing stockpile age, doubts about their safety and reliability will inevitably grow, thereby lessening their deterrent value.
They want Congress to fund the production of a new so-called “Reliable Replacement Warhead” (RRW), which would incorporate safety features in its design to prevent accidental detonation or unauthorized use of the weapons.
The Congress, however, has been skeptical of the need for the RRW. Studies have shown no decline in the safety or reliability of the existing arsenal, and programs currently exist to extend their shelf life.
Moreover, critics fear that the program will open the door to production of new types of nuclear weapons for military uses.