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Obama’s Big Nuclear Test
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Daryl G. Kimball

President Barack Obama’s campaign to confront global nuclear weapons threats started with a bang. In April in Prague, Obama reiterated the U.S. commitment to “seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons” beginning with renewed U.S. leadership to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons and permanently outlaw nuclear testing.

Since then, Obama has achieved important progress and shifted the terms of debate. U.S. and Russian negotiators have nearly finalized a new verifiable strategic arms reduction treaty, and Obama won UN Security Council support for Resolution 1887, which outlines a comprehensive plan to advance nonproliferation and disarmament objectives and safeguard vulnerable nuclear materials.

Now, the hard part begins. Within the next few months, the administration must finish and win Senate approval of the new START, secure international support for measures to strengthen the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty at the May review conference, and begin to persuade undecided Senate Republicans that the time has finally come to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

To succeed, the president and his cabinet must devote far more energy to these goals and ensure that his administration’s top-to-bottom Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), due by March 1, fully supports his Prague agenda. To do so, Obama needs to implement transformational rather than incremental changes in U.S. nuclear weapons policy in at least four key areas.

First, the NPR should recognize that maintaining a large nuclear arsenal dedicated to performing a wide range of missions is unnecessary and contrary to U.S. security interests. Incredibly, even after two post-Cold War NPRs, the United States still deploys more than 2,200 strategic nuclear warheads mainly to counter a Russian nuclear attack and, if necessary, defend U.S. forces or allies against conventional attack or to counter chemical and biological threats.

Given the U.S. conventional military edge and the catastrophic effects of nuclear weapons, no plausible circumstance requires or could justify the use of nuclear weapons to deal with a non-nuclear threat, and they are useless in deterring or responding to nuclear terrorism. Accordingly, the new NPR should narrow the role of nuclear weapons to a core deterrence mission: maintaining a sufficient, survivable nuclear force for the sole purpose of deterring the use of nuclear weapons by another country against the United States or its allies.

Second, a core nuclear deterrence posture would allow the United States to reduce its nuclear inventory drastically, to no more than a few hundred deployed strategic warheads on a smaller triad of delivery systems within the next few years. To help engage Russia in talks to reduce its arsenal of tactical nuclear warheads, the NPR should also open the way to a joint U.S.-NATO decision to withdraw the militarily obsolete stockpile of an estimated 200 U.S. tactical bombs from Europe.

Third, the NPR should eliminate the requirement and plans for rapid launch in response to a nuclear attack. As Obama noted during the campaign, “[K]eeping nuclear weapons ready to launch on a moment’s notice is a dangerous relic of the Cold War. Such policies increase the risk of catastrophic accidents or miscalculation.” As president, he now has a chance to order changes to operational procedures that give the commander-in-chief far more time to consider his response to a nuclear attack or provocation and work with Russia to adopt a similar posture.

Finally, Obama’s NPR should clarify that so long as nuclear weapons exist, the United States can maintain a reliable and effective arsenal without resuming testing or building new warheads. The U.S. nuclear arsenal has been and can continue to be refurbished through non-nuclear tests and evaluations and, as necessary, the remanufacture of warhead components to previous design specifications.

Department of Energy studies completed in 2006 indicate that weapons plutonium is not affected by aging for more than 85 years, removing any need for new-design replacement warheads for reliability. The JASON independent technical review panel concluded in September that the “lifetimes of today’s nuclear warheads could be extended for decades, with no anticipated loss in confidence.”

Rather than build new plutonium and uranium facilities that increase U.S. bomb production capacity, the administration’s new stockpile management plan should refocus the nuclear weapons laboratories on core stockpile surveillance and maintenance tasks and guard against unnecessary alterations to existing warheads that could undermine reliability. Consistent with Obama’s January 2009 pledge “not to authorize new nuclear weapons,” the NPR should clarify that it is U.S. policy not to develop new-design warheads or modify existing warheads to create new military capabilities.

Obama’s NPR is a crucial test of his commitment to reducing nuclear dangers. If it fails to significantly reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security strategy, the global effort to stem the proliferation of nuclear weapons and prevent their use will falter.

Posted: January 14, 2010