Revised Nuclear Strategy Weakens U.S. Deterrent, GOP Lawmakers Say

(Apr. 15) -A U.S. B-83 nuclear gravity bomb trainer. Republican lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday criticized the Obama administration's updated nuclear weapons policy for ruling out the use of nuclear force against non-nuclear nations in good standing with global nonproliferation systems (U.S. Defense Department photo).
(Apr. 15) -A U.S. B-83 nuclear gravity bomb trainer. Republican lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday criticized the Obama administration's updated nuclear weapons policy for ruling out the use of nuclear force against non-nuclear nations in good standing with global nonproliferation systems (U.S. Defense Department photo).

WASHINGTON -- Several GOP members of an influential House panel yesterday expressed deep displeasure with what they see as the weakening of the U.S. deterrent by the Obama administration's recently released update to the country's nuclear weapons strategy (see GSN, April 12).

Republican lawmakers on the House Armed Services Committee were particularly critical of the newly minted Nuclear Posture Review's pledge that the United States would not conduct nuclear strikes on non-nuclear states that are in compliance with global nonproliferation regimes.

The move eliminates the country's long-standing policy of "calculated ambiguity," in which U.S. leaders left open the possibility of executing a nuclear strike in response to virtually any hostile action against the United States or its allies, the critics argued.

Administration officials claim the new policy would not apply to "outliers" like Iran and North Korea that are assessed to be in noncompliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty or have withdrawn from the pact.

That difference "will put undue importance on legal hairsplitting," said Representative Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), who labeled U.S. President Barack Obama's views on nuclear deterrence "dangerous and naive."

He predicted the administration's new declaratory policy would prompt ally countries to develop their own nuclear deterrents.

Members also took issue with a caveat in the document that would allow for Washington to set aside the policy, dubbed "negative security assurance," if it appeared that biological weapons had been made dangerous enough to cause major harm to the United States.

"Why embrace such muddled wording that sends mixed signals to both our allies and adversaries?" asked ranking Republican Howard McKeon (Calif.).

He said the document lays the groundwork for eventual adoption of a "sole purpose" policy, in which the U.S. nuclear arsenal would exist only to deter nuclear attacks on the United States and its allies.

McKeon maintained that the country would undermine its deterrent capability by taking nuclear weapons "off the table." He also questioned the administration's belief that other nations would follow the U.S. move to reduce the role and number of its nuclear arms.

While Republicans attacked the administration's new plan, Democratic lawmakers fully endorsed its conclusions regarding U.S. nuclear strategy, forces and readiness.

The posture review "properly balances the role of our nuclear forces with the goals of preventing nuclear terrorism and weapons proliferation," Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) said in his opening statement.

Representative Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) said the report would increase the administration's leverage for arms control measures at next month's Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference in New York and beyond.

The posture review report, released last week, culminated a year of work led by the Defense Department. It maintains Washington's long-standing adherence to the "nuclear triad" of bomber aircraft, nuclear-capable submarines and ICBMs.

The review does not allow for the development of any new nuclear weapons but provides for life-extension programs for existing warheads.

The congressionally mandated examination, the third of its kind, was published days before the president signed a new nuclear arms control agreement with Russia and convened a two-day nuclear security summit in Washington.

The burst of nuclear policy moves promise to become political flash points in the months ahead.

Principal Deputy Defense Undersecretary James Miller yesterday defended the administration's review, saying the change in declaratory policy clarifies the U.S. position in the post-Cold War environment.

Negative security assurance has a U.S. policy since 1978, when Washington said it would not use nuclear weapons against other members of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, unless a country was allied with another nuclear power, namely the Soviet Union, he said.

That grouping, commonly referred to as the Warsaw Pact, no longer applies since the breakup of the communist state, Miller told lawmakers. The previous position would also not have kept the door open for nuclear action against Iran, he added.

Representative Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) said the new policy might make countries hostile to the United States "a little more aggressive than usual." That could lead to escalation of conflicts, he suggested.

"We're missing the major rogue elephant in the room," Franks said, referring to Iran.

Tehran has long insisted that its atomic aspirations are strictly peaceful but the United States and other world powers have viewed that assertion with increasing skepticism. Negotiations have begun on a possible fourth U.N. Security Council sanctions resolution aimed at curbing Iran's nuclear activities.

Speaking at a Capitol Hill breakfast this morning, Miller said the president would decide for the United States who is compliant with the nuclear nonproliferation regime, not the International Atomic Energy Agency's 35-member Board of Governors, which usually has a say in such matters.

Iran and North Korea are "without a doubt" in violation of their obligation under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and Syria would be "well advised" to be more open about its nuclear activities and intent, he said.

Administration officials have said U.S. conventional forces already serve as a major deterrent against hostile action, with the promise of retaliation almost or equally as devastating as a nuclear strike.

Ellen Tauscher, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, noted in testimony yesterday that the United States possesses one of the largest nuclear arsenals in the world, as well as "superior" military and conventional forces, including "prompt global strike" systems that could missiles hit a target halfway around the world within an hour of launch. The first such system could be fielded as early as 2012.

Yesterday, Miller told lawmakers that the position of calculated ambiguity also made it difficult for NPT countries to agree to actions the United States promoted, such as adoption of the IAEA Additional Protocol.

"There's reasonable evidence that for those states that we need support from for strengthening the treaty, for those states that we need support from for ensuring compliance, that the U.S. leadership is important," Miller said. "They've said so many times in the past."

The United States did not adopt a sole purpose policy for its arsenal because the conditions for making such a statement "don't exist today," according to Miller. The document allows for that position to be adopted over time, he added, without giving a time frame.

Committee member Michael Turner (R-Ohio) said that many people would agree with Miller's assessment and that "there is still role for the deterrence nuclear weapons provide."

He added: "An option is clearly being taken off the table."

April 15, 2010
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WASHINGTON -- Several GOP members of an influential House panel yesterday expressed deep displeasure with what they see as the weakening of the U.S. deterrent by the Obama administration's recently released update to the country's nuclear weapons strategy (see GSN, April 12).