Sep 24, 2008
Global Security Newswire
WASHINGTON — Despite congressional action that has indefinitely shelved Bush administration plans to develop a new nuclear weapon, the defense and energy secretaries yesterday released a white paper underscoring the need for the Reliable Replacement Warhead (see GSN, Aug. 5).
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman circulated the nuclear weapons policy paper on Capitol Hill on Monday and it was posted to the Defense Department Web site late the next day without fanfare. The document expands on a five-page statement about nuclear arms issues that Gates, Bodman and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice released more than one year ago (see GSN, July 25, 2007).
A defense spokesman said he could not explain why the Pentagon opted to forgo a long-anticipated press conference to “roll out” the document in favor of an unannounced release late in the day.
A classified version of the report on “National Security and Nuclear Weapons in the 21st century” was submitted to Congress in March, according to Thomas D’Agostino, head of the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration.
As first reported last month by Global Security Newswire, Rice opted out of signing the 28-page white paper, despite having joined the other two Cabinet principals on last year’s statement. Rice’s aides said this document’s discussion of “technical issues” fell outside her diplomatic purview. Nonetheless, they acknowledged that the State Department helped to prepare its wording.
Like the earlier statement, the new white paper insists that the Reliable Replacement Warhead would be necessary to retain confidence in the nuclear arsenal without explosive testing. Buying the new weapon would also allow the United States to reduce a sizable stockpile of warheads kept in reserve as a “hedge” against the rise of a belligerent power or the discovery of flaws in one or more types of warheads, the document states.
“Ultimately, a reliable replacement warhead will be needed to sustain nuclear force capabilities, revitalize the nuclear infrastructure, and reduce the nuclear stockpile in a manner that is consistent with U.S. security objectives, including alliance commitments,” Bodman and Gates state in foreword to the report.
Since the July 2007 statement was released, Congress has moved to eliminate RRW funding for both fiscal 2008 and 2009 (see GSN, July 10). Lawmakers said they would consider supporting proposals for a replacement warhead only after the administration explained how the weapon would fit into an overall nuclear arms strategy.
Many Washington officials have concluded that the RRW program would go no further in the fewer than four months left in President George W. Bush’s term in office.
Both presidential candidates have left themselves ample room to decide at some future date about the new warhead. Senator Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has said he does not support “a premature decision to produce” the weapon. His Republican counterpart, Senator John McCain (Ariz.), has said he would support only a warhead “that is absolutely essential for the viability of our deterrent, that results in making possible further decreases in the size of our nuclear arsenal, and furthers our global nuclear security goals.”
The white paper offers scant acknowledgement of the political hurdles the proposed new warhead has faced. In a somewhat oblique reference, though, the document states: “Maintaining a credible nuclear force for the nation will require partnership between the Executive Branch and the Congress.”
Hans Kristensen, a nuclear weapons specialist at the Federation of American Scientists, found it noteworthy that the white paper “continues to advocate [Reliable Replacement Warhead] by name despite congressional opposition.”
However, a former Bush administration policy official at the Pentagon offered the two secretaries kudos for continuing to lay out their vision for a modernized nuclear force for a new century, despite critics on Capitol Hill.
“Although the paper highlights the need for a robust and responsive nuclear infrastructure, movement toward that goal has been stymied by a combination of misplaced concerns and congressional actions,” David Trachtenberg said today in e-mailed comments.
The secretaries’ paper discusses at length why the United States continues to need nuclear weapons at a time when several former national security leaders from both parties have called for international disarmament (see GSN, Feb. 26).
“The United States continues to maintain nuclear forces for two fundamental reasons,” the white paper states. “First, the international security environment remains dangerous and unpredictable, and has grown more complicated since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Political intentions can change overnight and technical surprises can be expected. Second, nuclear weapons continue to play unique roles in supporting U.S. national security strategy.”
The paper does not address in much detail critics’ concerns that the development of new nuclear weapons might make it more difficult for the United States to lead nonproliferation efforts around the globe.
The document, though, does respond to the notion that advanced conventional weapons — with their precision targeting and limited destructive capabilities — might substitute for nuclear arms under many circumstances. The two secretaries suggest that there are limits to the utility of conventional weapons that will continue to make nuclear arms indispensable into the “foreseeable future.”
“Against many targets, U.S. nuclear weapons have a lethality that cannot be matched by non-nuclear munitions,” the paper reads. “Both advanced conventional weapons and missile defenses can enhance deterrence, but the ability to deter certain threats rests ultimately and fundamentally on the availability and continued effectiveness of U.S. nuclear forces.”
The white paper includes a four-page section describing potential threats that help justify the maintenance of a robust U.S. nuclear arsenal. Three groups are outlined:
—“States of Concern: States that either have or seek weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them and whose behavior is outside of international norms;
—“Violent Extremists and Nonstate Actors: Nonstate organizations that are motivated by goals and values at odds with our values, and that resort to violent means to further their goals; some seek [weapons of mass destruction] and the means to deliver them; and
—“Major Existing Nuclear States Outside of NATO: China and Russia are each modernizing their nuclear capabilities; the future political direction of each remains uncertain.”
For the latter category, the white paper lists several advanced delivery systems and training initiatives that these two nuclear powers have under way, pointedly noting that “Russia and China continue to attach great significance to their nuclear forces and their modernization.”
Taken together with the rise states of concern such as North Korea and Iran, as well as the potential for Hezbollah or other nonstate actors to obtain nuclear technology or materials from their backers, the international security picture would seem to discourage nuclear disarmament, the paper argues.
“Nothing in the developments highlighted above suggest that U.S. nuclear weapons are no longer needed,” the document states, noting that proliferation concerns are growing over time. “These trends clearly indicate the continuing relevance of nuclear weapons, both today and in the foreseeable future, and the need to maintain a viable U.S. nuclear capability well into the 21st century.”
Experts are already differing over whether the white paper employs outdated ideas about nuclear deterrence or takes a new tack more appropriate for current and potential threats.
“Whereas the 2007 version did not mention Russia or China by name, the new paper appears to return to a more traditional comparison of Russian and Chinese nuclear capabilities as a justification for U.S. forces,” Kristensen told GSN by e-mail today.
“By using traditional near-Cold War threat based analysis to argue why a U.S. arsenal ‘second to none’ is justified, the paper comes across as a line in the nuclear sand, an attempt to establish a bastion to counter public and congressional ideas to fundamentally change the U.S. nuclear posture,” added Kristensen, who directs his organization’s Nuclear Information Project.
By contrast, Trachtenberg sees the paper as embodying fresh ideas.
The piece “offers a clear articulation of the continued need for nuclear weapons and an effective nuclear deterrent in the 21st century,” he said. “In light of the greater emphasis by Russia and China on improving their own nuclear weapons capabilities, and the desire of rogue states and terrorist groups to obtain nuclear weapons, an effective and credible nuclear deterrent remains essential to U.S. security.”
For his part, Kristensen objected to the use of some emerging threats as helping justify the size and composition of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
“The paper fails to discuss how non-nuclear forces might be sufficient in deterring or responding to ‘states of concern,’ and instead treats these lesser adversaries as logical targets for U.S. nuclear weapons,” he said, noting that he differs with the premise. Kristensen added that despite the document’s discussion of violent extremists, “most analysts agree that terrorists cannot or do not need to be targets for nuclear weapons.”
However, Trachtenberg sees the formulation as appropriate, noting that the white paper “clarifies the shift in thinking away from Cold War models of deterrence based on arithmetic calculations of numbers of weapons and target sets to a more flexible and adaptable posture capable of responding to a dynamic security environment.”
The paper describes French and British programs to modernize their own nuclear deterrents, noting that both U.S. allies have “made sober assessments of the risks and uncertainties in the new security environment, and each has reached similar conclusions” (see GSN, Sept. 18 and July 25).
In fact, the paper goes on to observe, “the United States is now the only nuclear weapons state party to the [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] that does not have the capability to produce a new nuclear warhead.”
The document also includes some details about anticipated U.S. reductions to no more than 2,200 operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons by the end of 2012 (see GSN, Oct. 30, 2007).
The nuclear force “available on a day-to-day basis” offers a “spectrum” of targeting options but is “much smaller” that the 1,700 or more warheads described under the U.S.-Russian Moscow Treaty.
“However, should unexpected developments pose a more imminent threat, the projected day-to-day alert force could be increased relatively quickly (a few weeks to months)” up to the 2,200-warhead cap, the paper states. “Such actions could be needed in response to an unexpected contingency, e.g., the emergence of a new WMD-armed adversary, or severe deterioration in a U.S. near-peer relationship resulting in a return to hostile confrontation and nuclear threats.”
The use of the term “near peer” typically refers to a future Russia or China.
At the same time, the paper acknowledges that an unspecified number of “additional warheads” beyond the 2,200 operationally deployable weapons would be retained after 2012. These would be used as logistics spares and to replace any warheads discovered to be defective. Some warheads would also be retained “for prudent risk management to mitigate geopolitical and technical risks.”
The secretaries also appear to be leaving to the next administration a judgment call about the composition of the future stockpile.
“No decisions have been made about the number or mix of specific warheads to be fielded in 2012,” the document states. “Factors bearing on these decisions will be addressed in periodic reviews of future geopolitical trends, the health of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile, and progress towards fielding the New Triad and restoring a responsive nuclear weapons infrastructure.”
The “new triad,” as defined by the Bush administration, comprises offensive capabilities — to include nuclear and non-nuclear weapons — along with defensive capabilities and a responsive national security framework.