Dec 14, 2008
A new report warns Obama about our aging nuclear weapons.
Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo get more press, but among the most urgent national security challenges facing President-elect Obama is what to do about America's stockpile of aging nuclear weapons. No less an authority than Secretary of Defense Robert Gates calls the situation "bleak" and is urging immediate modernization.
On the campaign trail, Mr. Gates's new boss appeared to take a different view. Candidate Obama said he "seeks a world without nuclear weapons" and vowed to make "the goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons a central element in our nuclear policy." His woolly words have given a boost to the world disarmament movement, including last week's launch of Global Zero, the effort by Richard Branson and Queen Noor to eliminate nuclear weapons in 25 years. Naturally, they want to start with cuts in the U.S. arsenal.
But the reality of power has a way of focusing those charged with defending the U.S., and Mr. Obama will soon have to decide to modernize America's nuclear deterrent or let it continue to deteriorate. Every U.S. warhead is more than 20 years old, with some dating to the 1960s. The last test was 1992, when the U.S. adopted a unilateral test moratorium and since relied on computer modeling. Meanwhile, engineers and scientists with experience designing and building nuclear weapons are retiring or dying, and young Ph.D.s have little incentive to enter a field where innovation is taboo. The U.S. has zero production capability, beyond a few weapons in a lab.
We're told Mr. Gates's alarm will be echoed soon in a report by the Congressionally mandated commission charged with reviewing the role of nuclear weapons and the overall U.S. strategic posture. The commission's chairman is William Perry, a former Clinton Defense Secretary and a close Obama adviser. Mr. Perry is also one of the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," the nickname given to him, George Shultz, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn for an op-ed published in these pages last year offering a blueprint for ridding the world of nuclear weapons.
The commission's interim report is due out any day now, and the advance word is that Mr. Perry has come back to Earth. We're told the report's central finding is that the U.S. will need a nuclear deterrent for the indefinite future. A deterrent is credible, the report further notes, only if enemies believe it will work. That means modernization.
That logic ought to be obvious, but it escapes many in Congress who have stymied the Bush Administration's efforts to modernize. Britain, France, Russia and China are all updating their nuclear forces, but Mr. Bush couldn't even get Congress this year to fund so much as R&D for the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program. Senator Dianne Feinstein dismissed the RRW, saying "the Bush Administration's goal was to reopen the nuclear door."
In the House, similar damage has been done by Ellen Tauscher, chairman of the subcommittee on strategic weapons. Ms. Tauscher, whose California district includes the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, likes to talk about a strong nuclear deterrent while bragging about killing the RRW. She also wants to revive the unenforceable Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which the Senate rejected in 1999. Let's hope the Perry report helps with her nuclear re-education.
If Congress isn't paying attention, U.S. allies are. The U.S. provides a nuclear umbrella for 30-plus countries, including several -- Japan, Germany and South Korea, for example -- capable of developing their own nuclear weapons. If they lose confidence in Washington's ability to protect them, the Perry report notes, they'll kick off a new nuclear arms race that will spread world-wide.
In a speech this fall, Mr. Gates said "there is no way we can maintain a credible deterrent" without "resorting to testing" or "pursuing a modernization program." General Kevin Chilton, the four-star in charge of U.S. strategic forces, has also spent the past year making the case for modernization. "The time to act is now," he told a Washington audience this month.
The aging U.S. nuclear arsenal is an urgent worry. A world free of nuclear weapons is a worthy goal, shared by many Presidents, including Ronald Reagan. Until that day arrives, no U.S. President can afford to let our nuclear deterrent erode.