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Q&A: As Fiscal Constraints Mount, New Group Looks to Defend Nuclear Arsenal

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

A B-2 stealth bomber takes off from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri for a 2002 training run to a bombing range in Alaska. A new grassroots coalition is looking to preserve the U.S. nuclear-weapons triad of bomber aircraft, submarines and ground-based missiles, amid growing fiscal constraints. A B-2 stealth bomber takes off from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri for a 2002 training run to a bombing range in Alaska. A new grassroots coalition is looking to preserve the U.S. nuclear-weapons triad of bomber aircraft, submarines and ground-based missiles, amid growing fiscal constraints. (Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images)

At a time when discussions about how best to refurbish the U.S. nuclear arsenal are increasingly being shaped by financial constraints, a new grassroots organization is emerging that aims to convince Americans that maintaining existing weapons is essential to national security.

But the group, called the Strategic Deterrent Coalition, is not taking a position on whether the arsenal must be modernized in exactly the way the Energy and Defense departments currently plan -- not yet, anyway.

For instance, Congress is requesting additional information regarding the departments’ increasingly controversial plan to replace both the W-88 submarine-launched warhead and the W-78 ground-based warhead with a single, interoperable weapon. Lawmakers and arms control advocates have suggested it might be cheaper to simply refurbish the two existing warheads separately, but the Obama administration has been critical of the call for more study -- at least publicly.

Members of the new coalition, however, are not opposed to studying the issue more before committing.

"That decision is not yet ripe," coalition leader Sherman McCorkle told Global Security Newswire during a recent interview. "There needs to be additional information provided around that feasibility."

McCorkle is chairman and CEO of the Sandia Science & Technology Park Development Corporation, located near the Energy Department’s Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M.

At some point in the future, McCorkle hopes the coalition will be able to take a unified stance on what items in the current modernization plan must stay and what can go. The alliance includes McCorkle's Sandia-based organization and also several other community-based groups located near Energy and Defense Department nuclear facilities, such as the Montana Defense Alliance located in Great Falls near Malmstrom Air Force Base, and the Whiteman Area Leadership Council of Warrensburg, Mo., linked to Whiteman Air Force Base.

"I think that as with any coalition, each community group is particularly concerned about what particular piece happens to be in their general vicinity and so that creates very active conversation," McCorkle said. "But part of our effort is to have that very proactive conversation and at some point in time being able to speak with one voice -- it is true that we are not yet there."

One thing the coalition has agreed on is what it sees as the necessity of maintaining all three legs of the so-called nuclear triad -- atomic warheads on land-based missiles, submarine-based missiles at sea and long-range bomber aircraft.

"The general belief is that that, yes, we do support all three legs and … keeping all three legs but hollowing out one of them is not the same as keeping all three legs," McCorkle told GSN. "So we do support the current configuration by and large, with the understanding that modernization needs to occur with the weapons themselves as well as the delivery systems. There’s not many of us driving a 1961 vehicle, but we do have 1961 [nuclear] weapons and 1961 delivery systems."

The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies recently released a report asserting that the current modernization plan would cost at least $1 trillion over the next 30 years and be fiscally impossible to implement, but McCorkle says he doesn’t put too much stock in such studies.

"I think most people in America have learned over the last three or four decades that [for] anybody’s point of view there can be a study that would support that point a view," he said. "There are as many studies as there are points of view."

McCorkle said the coalition believes the arsenal in its current formation is essential, despite the nature of threats to national security having changed since the Cold War, when Soviet nuclear weapons were the main concern.

"The nuclear deterrent is an umbrella and there are of course situations that will occur underneath the umbrella, but it is the umbrella that creates the opportunity to engage in international diplomacy with near-superpowers" such as Russia and China, McCorkle said. "It didn’t prevent 9/11, it didn’t prevent Syria -- there are [non-nuclear] actions that will occur but I don’t think that the nuclear deterrent was conceived to prevent those sorts of [non-nuclear] conflicts."

The coalition leader acknowledged that individual community-groups may be concerned about the impacts their local economies in the event of a nuclear scale-down. But he said that would not be the new coalition’s focus and maintained that the current arsenal has merit on its own.

"I realize that in some ways perhaps it’s hard for people to separate, but I think they are two separate issues," McCorkle said.

In order to bolster its argument, the new group has enlisted the endorsements of high-profile former lawmakers, government officials and high-ranking military officials. The list of backers includes former Senator Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), former National Nuclear Security Administrator Linton Brooks and retired Maj. Gen. C. Donald Alston, formerly a 20th Air Force commander.

"We thought it important to say these are not just the mission visions and positions of the various community groups, but of prominent Americans who have dealt with these issues as elected officials or as … senior generals who have had strategy and mission requirements in their jobs," McCorkle said.

"So the idea is this is not just the point of view of a coalition of unelected community groups,” he said, “but it is a point of view in terms of deterrence -- and the reliability and sustainability of that deterrence -- that is agreed to by these folks who have endorsed these efforts."

The coalition is not a lobbying group, however, McCorkle said. Rather, it hopes to "reeducate the American public about why strategic deterrence is still important."

He added: "The last 15 years we’ve had Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, on and on, and I honor everything about it; I’m just saying the nuclear deterrent is not a part of almost anybody’s conversation."

Below are edited excerpts from this week's telephone interview:

GSN: What brought about the formation of this new group?

McCorkle: There’s community-based groups in various states and as people kind of passed each other in the night, so to speak, the conversation became more about "maybe we should form some kind of coalition and we could have a stronger, more national voice than each of us in our communities."

GSN: So the members of the coalition are all these smaller, community-based groups that are found around various nuclear sites?

McCorkle: Yes, it is some of them, it’s a growing number, it is not yet all of them.

GSN: Your website lists several endorsers including Pete Domenici, Linton Brooks and several retired military officials. Can you tell me more about what their role is with the coalition?

McCorkle: One of the things we attempted to do was to design a mission vision and position statement, which would be common to a community group no matter what their location or what their affiliation is …

We thought it important to say these are not just the mission visions and positions of the various community groups, but of prominent Americans who have dealt with these issues as elected officials or as … senior generals who have had strategy and mission requirements in their jobs.

So the idea is this is not just the point of view of a coalition of unelected community groups, but it is a point of view in terms of deterrence and the reliability and sustainability of that deterrence that is agreed to [by] these folks who have endorsed these efforts.

GSN: Do you expect that these individuals will be speaking out on behalf of the group and the things that it is trying to lobby for?

McCorkle: We’ve been very careful that we indicate and inform rather than lobby, and we anticipate that these individuals will speak on their own behalf and, on occasion, on behalf of the coalition.

GSN: If you’re not doing lobbying per se, how do you plan on influencing decisions? What’s the strategy?

McCorkle: We are very embryonic. Calling us a start-up is almost an exaggeration. We hope to reach a point where we are able to create white papers that inform the public … with a focus on [understanding] what nuclear deterrence means in 2014 or 2015 or 2016.

For many Americans, nuclear deterrence is simply no longer part of their vocabulary; it’s not part of any conversation with any family member or any part of their societal group or anyone else at any point during the year. So we certainly want to somehow reeducate the American public about why strategic deterrence is still important.

GSN: I’m assuming you mean that it’s not as prominently discussed since the end of the Cold War?

McCorkle: Correct. The last 15 years we’ve had Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, on and on and I honor everything about it; I’m just saying the nuclear deterrent is not a part of almost anybody’s conversation.

And so yes, we’d like to have white papers, we’d like to have op-eds, we’d like to have people that appear at Kiwanis or … whatever civic function is occurring that has an understanding of -- and an appreciation for -- strategic deterrence. So it’s a pretty grand vision for this little tiny embryonic entity.

GSN: So the focus is more on educating the public, as opposed to trying to influence folks in Washington?

McCorkle: We want to influence certainly anyone who in the course of their duties would impact the direction, certainly.

GSN: What are some of the underlying beliefs or benchmarks? Is it the belief of the coalition that all three legs of the triad need to be maintained no matter what, or is there some degree of flexibility there?

McCorkle: The general belief is that that, yes, we do support all three legs and … keeping all three legs but hollowing out one of them is not the same as keeping all three legs.

So we do support the current configuration by and large, with the understanding that modernization needs to occur with the weapons themselves, as well as the delivery systems. There’s not many of us driving a 1961 vehicle, but we do have 1961 [nuclear] weapons and 1961 delivery systems."

GSN: When you say hollowing out -- that it wouldn’t be a good idea to hollow out one of the legs -- what exactly do you mean by that?

McCorkle: If you sufficiently reduce the number of delivery vehicles in any one of the three legs, you’ve somewhat hollowed out that particular leg.

GSN: There’s been a lot of talk, particularly in the past few months, about the increasingly tight budget environment. There was a study put out by one group arguing that the current modernization plan would cost about $1 trillion and that it is so expensive that it couldn’t be implemented the way it is, and that it has to be modified. Does your group have a position on that?

McCorkle: … I think most people in America have learned over the last three or four decades that [for] anybody’s point of view there can be a study that would support that point a view. There are as many studies as there are points of view…

GSN: Given the financial pressures that are upcoming, are there any areas across the nuclear complex and the nuclear deterrent within the modernization plans that you see potential areas for cost savings or compromise?

McCorkle: … On almost any project you can find a half-dozen cost estimates by various different groups, and depending on which cost estimate you choose to use as an example, you can say that there is money being wasted or you can say that it’s underfunded, which makes the conversation a little more difficult and complex because there are so many estimates. So which estimate gets credence?

GSN: To use one example, there’s been talk over the past few months about the interoperable warhead that is planned to replace both the W-78 and W-88 warheads. Congress has asked for more cost studies on that and some are expecting the administration to at least push that plan back a few years. Does your group have a position on that?

McCorkle: …That decision is not yet ripe. There needs to be additional information provided around that feasibility.

GSN: So you’re not necessarily opposed to it being delayed a bit in the interest of getting more information about the cost?

McCorkle: Right.

GSN: How about the B-61 gravity bomb stationed in Europe? There’s been talk about whether what is being done there in terms of refurbishment has more bells and whistles than is really needed -- or whether there is a cheaper way to do it. Does the coalition have a position on that?

McCorkle: Sometimes when you drill down on these, it’s a little bit like saying which is a better economy vehicle -- a Honda Civic or a Toyota … Corolla … Some of it is in the eye of the beholder and we certainly understand that.

GSN: So given that, do you think it should proceed as it is currently planned, or are you open to a relook at that, as well?

McCorkle: To some extent we would defer to those that are closest to the redesign, who have the greatest responsibility for ensuring that it is as safe and cost-effective as possible.

GSN: When you look across the complex, are there any particular areas where there are concerns that there could be substantial cuts where there really shouldn’t be?

McCorkle: I think that as with any coalition, each community group is particularly concerned about what particular piece happens to be in their general vicinity and so that creates very active conversation.

GSN: So it could be different depending on which of your members you talk to?

McCorkle: Yes. But part of our effort is to have that very proactive conversation and, at some point in time, being able to speak with one voice. It is true that we are not yet there.

GSN: So at some point down the road, you could see a scenario where the different subgroups get together and are able to make decisions on which aspects are really important and which ones can be sacrificed?

McCorkle: Yes, have a very proactive conversation about where the efforts are sorely needed.

GSN: Do you have any idea of a timetable?

McCorkle: I don’t. This is essentially an all-volunteer effort and is being done on something less than a shoestring. The first ever meeting was Dec. 18, 2012. … The number of communities is slowly growing and at some point we think, or at least I think, we will reach a tipping point where we will be able to grow faster than we have over these last 15 months. …

GSN: Are you planning on having any public events?

McCorkle: The answer is yes, but I don’t have any idea when or where. But it’s in the thought process, it’s in the conversation. When we have a conference call there are usually 30 to 35 people on the conference call and … you can vary the level of interest in those 30 to 35 people.

We filed for 501(c)(3) status last year. We got a tax I.D. in November. … We’ve done the very basic things that any grassroots organization needs to do.

GSN: What is the role of the seven groups listed in the "founders’ circle" on your website?

McCorkle: Those are the community-based groups who have written a check. There’s other community-based groups that have not yet written a check, but that are part of the conversation.

GSN: Does the coalition plan to look into the impact on jobs and the economy that the various nuclear sites have?

McCorkle: That is more the responsibility of the community-based organizations. But certainly we’re very cognizant that jobs are created by the strategic deterrent.

GSN: How much of this is about ensuring that those economic factors remain intact, as opposed to concerns about actual threats to the country?

McCorkle: That’s really two separate questions that are linked by coincidence. Our focus is the deterrent; a byproduct is the jobs. The community-based organizations, they do what they wish to do, but I think at the national level it really is about a safe, secure and reliable nuclear deterrent. I realize that in some ways, perhaps it’s hard for people to separate, but I think they are two separate issues.

GSN: What is the group’s philosophy on how you justify maintaining the deterrent structure that we have at a time when the types of threats appear to be a lot different than they were during the Cold War?

McCorkle: There are many hypotheses about what threats may be. The only proven fact is that the deterrent has been effective. After that any of us can hypothesize what we choose to hypothesize.

GSN: Would you say it’s been effective despite the fact that it didn’t deter things like the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks from happening?

McCorkle: Certainly. The nuclear deterrent is an umbrella and there are of course situations that will occur underneath the umbrella, but it is the umbrella that creates the opportunity to engage in international diplomacy with near-superpowers [such as Russia and China]. …

It didn’t prevent 9/11, it didn’t prevent Syria -- there are [non-nuclear] actions that will occur, but I don’t think that the nuclear deterrent was conceived to prevent those sorts of [non-nuclear] conflicts.

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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