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Gates Sees Stark Choice on Nuke Tests, Modernization
WASHINGTON -- In a major policy address yesterday, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates laid out a stark choice for the nation between testing the existing nuclear arsenal or modernizing it with new weapons (see GSN, Sept. 24).
Speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Gates said one of the two controversial options must be implemented if the United States is to retain a safe, secure and reliable nuclear deterrent.
He also stated in the clearest terms yet his view that U.S. leaders would not have enough confidence to further shrink the atomic stockpile unless they could either field new weapons or submit aging nuclear arms to underground tests.
"To be blunt, there is absolutely no way we can maintain a credible deterrent and reduce the number of weapons in our stockpile without resorting to testing our stockpile or pursuing a modernization program," the defense secretary said.
At the same time, Gates voiced little enthusiasm for underground explosive testing, asserting for the first time that he would support ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty if "adequate verification measures" could be devised.
Gates' preferred option for maintaining a robust nuclear deterrent force is developing and fielding a modern nuclear weapon. Yet that option has appeared increasingly remote on political grounds. For two years in a row, Congress has eliminated funding for the Bush administration's proposed effort, the Reliable Replacement Warhead (see GSN, July 10).
Advocates have portrayed the RRW effort as capable of ultimately replacing all the aging warheads in the arsenal with one that is more safe and affordable to maintain, secure from theft and misuse, and reliable over time.
In rejecting RRW plans, though, lawmakers have argued that building new weapons could undercut U.S. efforts to curb the proliferation of nuclear arms around the globe.
Critics in Congress also have called on the executive branch to lay out a broad nuclear weapons strategy before they would consider approving the development of any new warheads.
The reason why Congress has "so far refused to fund" the RRW program beyond a conceptual phase "lies in a deep-seated and quite justifiable aversion to nuclear weapons, in doing anything that might be perceived as lowering the threshold for using them, or as creating new nuclear capabilities," Gates said. "Let me be clear: The program we propose is not about new capabilities."
Rather, "it is about safety, security and reliability," he said. "And it deserves our urgent attention."
In place of an RRW effort, Capitol Hill has supported continuing a "Stockpile Stewardship Program" to monitor the aging stockpile for potential problems, such as malfunctions or corrosion. Lawmakers have also backed efforts to update selected technologies built into nuclear arms as they undergo periodic refurbishment.
To date these approaches have maintained U.S. confidence in the atomic stockpile, Gates acknowledged yesterday, but he warned, "The problem is the long-term prognosis -- which I would characterize as bleak."
"At a certain point, it will become impossible to keep extending the life of our arsenal -- especially in light of our testing moratorium," he said. "It also makes it harder to reduce existing stockpiles, because eventually we won't have as much confidence in the efficacy of the weapons we do have."
The head of the Arms Control Association in Washington questioned Gates' assertion that a return to testing would be needed if a new weapon is not fielded.
Daryl Kimball cited a 2002 National Academy of Sciences panel finding that test explosions "are not needed to discover" age-related defects -- which primarily affect the weapons' non-nuclear components -- and thus testing "is not likely to be needed to address them."
Other critics similarly questioned Gates' view that the stockpile stewardship effort is insufficient and that modernization efforts would not result in new capabilities.
Even more limited changes to the current stockpile that fall short of a full RRW effort "have already added capabilities, and an enhanced life-extension program would be able to do that any time," said Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists (see GSN, Sept. 12).
Alone In Not Modernizing
The defense secretary sounded many of the same themes contained in a September white paper on nuclear weapons in the 21st century, issued jointly with Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman.
Among the arguments the paper advanced was the notion that the United States stands alone among major nuclear-armed nations in failing to update its stockpile.
"Currently, the United States is the only declared nuclear power that is neither modernizing its nuclear arsenal nor has the capability to produce a new nuclear warhead," Gates told the audience yesterday.
He identified Russia and China, in particular, as improving and expanding their stockpiles. While neither nation is a U.S. adversary, "we cannot ignore these developments," he said.
Those two nations, though, are addressing challenges with their respective nuclear arsenals that the United States does not share, according to Kristensen, who directs his organization's Nuclear Information Project.
"Unlike Russia and China, U.S. nuclear weapons are reliable and modern, and the multibillion dollar Stockpile Stewardship Program has been capable of extending significantly the life of existing warheads," he said. "Is the secretary's point that we need to produce nuclear weapons just because the others do?"
Sharon Squassoni of the Carnegie Endowment agreed that Gates' focus seemed misplaced.
"Presumably our modernization should be based on the threats we need to deter, not whether other nuclear-weapon states are modernizing their forces," she said.
David Trachtenberg, a former Defense Department policy official during the Bush administration, saw it differently.
"Becoming the only nuclear-weapon state not modernizing its nuclear force may actually encourage other countries to go nuclear, as our adversaries seek to capitalize on our distaste for nuclear weapons and see an opportunity to offset U.S. conventional superiority, and our allies question the credibility of our extended nuclear deterrent," he said. "Creating incentives for others to go nuclear is bad policy."
Gates argued that an additional benefit of boosting confidence in the nuclear force through a modernization program is that it could lay the groundwork for additional stockpile cuts.
With an influx of fresh technology, the United States would no longer need to keep large numbers of warheads in reserve, the thinking goes. Currently, the nation maintains extra nuclear weapons as a hedge against the possible discovery of a defect that renders useless one or more types of U.S. warheads.
Noting that the United States and Russia agreed in the 2002 Moscow Treaty to reduce to a level of 1,700 to 2,200 deployed warheads on each side, Gates said "we can probably do better than that" during the next administration.
He predicted that the next president -- whether it is Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) or Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- would sit down with Moscow to extend the terms of current agreements or negotiate a new pact.
Many national security experts have pushed Washington to at least agree with Moscow on extending the verification provisions of the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which is set to expire in late 2009. That accord required the United States and Russia to each reduce their long-range nuclear arsenals to no more than 1,600 delivery vehicles and 6,000 warheads, levels that were reached in late 2001.
"I believe we should go for another agreement with the Russians. I believe it could involve further cuts in the number of deployed warheads. I believe we do need the verification provisions," Gates said. "But I think it ought to be an agreement that is shorter, simpler and easier to adjust to real-world conditions than most of the strategic arms agreements that we've seen over the last 40 years."
Future arms talks might include other nuclear powers, he said.
The United States has already begun a "rudimentary" dialogue with China that might sometime later evolve into nuclear arms negotiations, he said.
Gates cited the Cold War experience with Moscow as providing a model of sorts for such Sino-American exchanges, noting the value of what equated to "a quarter-century seminar between the United States and the Soviet Union on how each thought about nuclear weapons, nuclear war, strategic planning, [and] how they intended to use these weapons."
"We learned a great deal," he said. "One of the things that I believe very strongly is that the arms control process itself contributed to a safer world."
Kimball, the Arms Control Association executive director, welcomed what he saw as Gates' small step away from White House policy regarding the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. President Bill Clinton signed the pact in 1996, but the Senate subsequently rejected the treaty.
"Gates' qualified support for ratification of the CTBT -- if it can be adequately verified -- is something of a departure from the Bush administration's standard opposition to the CTBT, and that is refreshing," he said, referring to the treaty by its acronym. "In the decade since the Senate considered the treaty, verification capabilities have only improved. ... Combined global and national technical monitoring capabilities make the CTBT effectively verifiable."
However, in conditionally backing ratification of the test ban treaty, the defense secretary was not breaking any new ground, his spokesman told Global Security Newswire yesterday.
"I think he was really restating administration policy," said Geoff Morrell. "The problem the administration has with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is, among other things, verification. I think what he was saying is if there were adequate verification controls, that is something that we could embrace."
In fact, Morrell suggested, it is unclear whether detection technologies and techniques exist that could afford the United States sufficient confidence that no nations were cheating on the pact by conducting secret underground nuclear blasts.
"The real hang-up is whether it can be verified," he said.
An informal U.S. nuclear test moratorium has been in place since the early 1990s, but the United States remains one of nine nations preventing the treaty from entering into force. A top U.S. general recently said he would like to keep the testing option open (see GSN, July 22).
Trachtenberg, the former Bush administration defense official, said verification is "not the issue."
"A bad treaty doesn't become a good one simply by being verifiable. There are a host of reasons why we might need to test in the future, but a CTBT would prevent us from doing so," he said. "Although we have maintained a unilateral moratorium on nuclear testing since 1992, our testing restraint has not dissuaded others from seeking to acquire nuclear weapons. It is difficult to see how a CTBT would do so."
Kristensen agreed that a desire to retain an option to test -- particularly if the United States develops a new weapon -- is what has prevented the administration from embracing the pact.
The question facing Bush's national security team has been "whether the U.S. should or could sign away a testing option when it is about to embark upon a wholesale replacement of its nuclear arsenal with RRWs that have not been operationally deployed before," Kristensen told GSN. "Gates' verification focus is probably easier to overcome than the other obstacle."
Gates has not actively pursued the development of verification measures for a test ban treaty during his nearly two-year tenure as defense secretary. Asked why the matter has arisen only as President Bush prepares to leave office, Morrell pointed to the well-known priorities Gates established from the start -- conventional military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The bulk of Gates' speech yesterday was devoted to arguing that nuclear weapons will continue to play a crucial role in protecting U.S. national security, well into the future. While he noted recent calls for the elimination of nuclear weapons, the defense secretary spelled out his view that the goal is unrealistic today.
"We must deal with the messy realities of the world in which we live," Gates said. "As long as other states have or seek nuclear weapons -- and can potentially threaten us, our allies and friends -- then we must have a deterrent capacity that makes it clear that challenging the United States in the nuclear arena -- or with other weapons of mass destruction -- could result in an overwhelming, catastrophic response."
Another reason nuclear weapons must endure is uncertainty about tomorrow's security needs, he said.
"We simply cannot predict the future. Who can tell what the world will look like in 10 or 20 years?" Gates said. "We have to be prepared for contingencies we haven't even considered."
For the time being, the nation could decrease its reliance on nuclear weapons by developing and fielding more capable conventional weapons and defenses against enemy missiles, he said.
The Defense Department's embrace of a "New Triad" -- nuclear and conventional offensive weapons, missile defenses and a responsive national security framework -- is "to reduce our emphasis on nuclear weapons for deterrence and provide the president more non-nuclear deterrence options and responses to potential crises," he said.
As with his other remarks, the defense secretary's overarching perspective drew both praise and criticism.
"Despite its seductive appeal, nuclear abolition is not sound policy in a dangerous world," Trachtenberg said. "Secretary Gates deserves credit for pointing out clearly the continuing importance of nuclear deterrence and the choices we must make if we are to preserve its efficacy in the long term. The question is, will anyone pay attention?"
Kristensen thought, though, that Gates' world view had not adjusted to today's realities.
"The speech struck me as surprisingly traditional. No visions for how to move forward," he said. "It was almost the kind of speech one would have expected to hear from a secretary of defense back in 1993."
A Growing Issue
Gates' speech came in advance of two major reviews.
A congressionally mandated bipartisan panel on the U.S. strategic nuclear posture is set to report its recommendations by Dec. 1 (see GSN, March 20). Former defense secretaries James Schlesinger and William Perry lead the commission.
The Bush administration presented the findings of its Nuclear Posture Review -- a congressionally required scrub of atomic weapons policy -- to Capitol Hill in early 2002. Next year, a new administration is expected to conduct a Nuclear Posture Review of its own.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the Bush administration has been largely focused on conventional combat issues. However, Gates has spoken periodically about nuclear weapons over the past year in response to two major lapses in operational oversight.
The Air Force mistakenly shipped mislabeled ICBM fuses to Taiwan in 2006, an error that was discovered only this year (see GSN, March 25). Last year, a bomber aircraft crew transported six cruise missiles across several U.S. states, unaware that the weapons were armed with nuclear warheads (see GSN, Sept. 5, 2007).
Gates' dissatisfaction with how the prior Air Force secretary and chief of staff handled the issue contributed to their dismissals in June (see GSN, June 6).
The service's new leaders, Secretary Michael Donley and Gen. Norton Schwartz, last week unveiled a plan for "reinvigorating" their nuclear weapons sector (see GSN, Oct. 27).
Among the 100 changes envisioned by the so-called nuclear "roadmap" are the creation of: a new command, headed by a three-star general, to oversee all ICBMs and nuclear-capable bomber aircraft; a new general-officer position at the Air Force's Pentagon headquarters to be "accountable" for policy oversight and integration; and a new panel, called the "Nuclear Oversight Board" and chaired jointly by the Air Force secretary and chief of staff, to track roadmap implementation.
The service's problems in handling nuclear weapons properly "are being remedied as I speak," Gates said.
Sept. 27, 2013
A fact sheet on current and projected costs of maintaining the U.S. nuclear deterrent, produced by the Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
July 18, 2013
The submarine proliferation resource collection is designed to highlight global trends in the sale and acquisition of diesel- and nuclear-powered submarines. It is structured on a country-by-country basis, with each country profile consisting of information on capabilities, imports and exports.