Jul 23, 2008
WASHINGTON — The top U.S. nuclear weapons commander, Gen. Kevin Chilton, warned today that the nation should not rule out the possibility of resuming explosive nuclear testing to ensure the reliability of the U.S. strategic arsenal (see GSN, June 26, 2007).
President Bill Clinton signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996, but the U.S. Senate later rejected the pact, and the United States is now one of just nine nations preventing the treaty from entering into force (see GSN, Sept. 18, 2007). The others include China, Iran and North Korea. The United States last conducted a nuclear test in 1992, after which President George H.W. Bush called for a moratorium.
“I support not wanting to test,” said Chilton, who heads U.S. Strategic Command in Omaha, Neb. However, “I also support the right of the United States to change their mind on this issue, should it become decided that [it] is absolutely essential to secure our safety and security. And the protocol of the convention allows that.”
Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama (Ill.) has said he would make ratification of the test ban treaty a priority. His opponent, Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), has pledged to continue the moratorium and take a fresh look at ratification, which he initially opposed in 1999 (see GSN, May 28).
Thanks to a Stockpile Stewardship Program overseen by the National Nuclear Security Agency that monitors the stockpile without explosive tests, Chilton said he can certify today that the U.S. nuclear arsenal is reliable (see GSN, May 19).
However, the Air Force general expressed concern that a time would come when confidence in one or more “families” of weapons in the arsenal would diminish, perhaps due to the discovery of a serious problem. It could be that the prospects for fixing such a problem without explosive testing would be dim, he said.
Nuclear weapons currently fielded are “all well past” their 15-year design lives, Chilton said at a breakfast speech sponsored by the National Defense University Foundation and the National Defense Industrial Association. “They’re not static. When they’re sitting on the shelf, they’re actually little chemistry experiments that are cooking away.”
Gradual degradation of the chemicals inside an atomic weapon can “affect the non-nuclear components that are associated [with] — and are absolutely critical to — the function of the weapon system,” he said.
Thus, Chilton said, “I sense there’s a cliff out there someplace, and I don’t know how close I am to the edge of that cliff.”
“It sounds like he has a little commitment phobia,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. “The treaty does provide for withdrawal if a state determines it’s in its supreme national interest to do so.” He also argued that the United States is bound by the treaty because Clinton signed it, even without full ratification.
The Bush administration has proposed undertaking a program to develop a new nuclear weapon — the Reliable Replacement Warhead — that might offer higher confidence in the absence of underground tests.
However, in the wake of congressional action to deny the Bush administration requests for RRW funds in fiscal year 2009, Chilton stopped short of wedding himself to that program (see GSN, July 10). He did reiterate more broadly his past support for renovating the U.S. arsenal with a new warhead that, like the RRW concept, would offer increased reliability, safety, security and maintainability compared to today’s weapons.
The development of a new warhead with such features, which the administration has said it could field without explosive testing, could ease reliability concerns down the road, Chilton suggested.
Asked if he would support the test ban agreement if Congress offered an “iron-clad” commitment to field the Reliable Replacement Warhead, Chilton stood his ground on the testing issue.
“I’m not a political person in that regard,” the general said. “However, I would never want to trade away our ability to make a decision to have to test, should we decide we need that. I wouldn’t do that as a negotiating [point] for funding support for something that’s as critical for the defense of the United States of America.”
Kimball took issue, though, with the Strategic Command leader’s dire warnings about degradation in the nuclear arsenal.
“I find it highly irresponsible for Gen. Chilton to be making the assertion that one or more types of nuclear weapons in the arsenal are headed for a catastrophic reliability failure,” he told Global Security Newswire. “There is no evidence that has been presented to the Congress in classified or unclassified form that backs up that assertion.”
Instead, Chilton has cited a vague “feeling” of uneasiness to justify a “huge investment” in modernizing the U.S. stockpile, according to the critic.
“That is not a sound basis upon which to make far-reaching policy decisions,” Kimball said.
Today, Chilton also countered critics who contend that the development of a new U.S. nuclear warhead could make it harder for Washington to limit the proliferation of atomic weapons around the world.
“We have reduced our deployed weapons from … 10,000 to [Moscow Treaty levels of] 1,700 to 2,200. Did that discourage Iran? Did that discourage North Korea? Did that discourage Pakistan?” Chilton asked. “Countries who want to develop nuclear weapons will do so for their own interests, independent of our activities to sustain our nuclear deterrent.”
Conversely, he said, were the reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal called into question, allies that come under Washington’s “umbrella” deterrent might decide to develop nuclear weapons of their own.
“Do you think if there became any doubt of the reliability or the maintainability or sustainability of the U.S. nuclear deterrent, do you think Japan and South Korea might take a different tack as to whether or not they want to field a nuclear weapon?” Chilton asked. “I think the answer is yes. I think failing to sustain our deterrent and failing to sustain our umbrella will encourage proliferation around the planet.”
Kimball debated Chilton’s assertion on this point, as well, noting that these Washington allies have actually pressed the United States to ratify the test ban treaty.
[View General Kevin P. Chilton's bio here.]