June 1, 2010  

Flashpoint: Atomic affairs

Nervousness over nuclear moves

At a near-breathless pace over a month’s time, the Obama administration released a nuclear strategy, inked a new strategic treaty, hosted an all-world atomic affair and attended a major nonproliferation conference.

The efforts to reduce nuclear arsenals, secure materials and prevent proliferation seemed to be warmly welcomed as a step in the direction of controlling and ridding the world of the most horrific weapons mankind has ever known.

But a closer look at the whirlwind of policy, treaty, summitry and conferencing that swept across the American national security landscape this spring is not leaving everyone as sanguine about the direction of our new nuclear policy as the administration had hoped.

As usual, the devil is in the details.

In early April, President Obama released the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) to Congress, a report required by law of every new administration, looking at our nuclear capabilities and policies over the next five to 10 years.

“To stop the spread of nuclear weapons, prevent nuclear terrorism and pursue the day when these weapons do not exist, we will work aggressively to advance every element of our comprehensive agenda — to reduce arsenals, to secure nuclear materials and the strengthen the NPT [Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty],” Obama said in unveiling the NPR.

It is hard to argue with that well-intentioned strategic sentiment, but getting beyond the speech’s rhetorical flourishes, there are real concerns about the commander in chief’s plans for our strategic policy and forces.

First, the NPR creates a new, lawyerly — and confusing — matrix of “assurances” outlining when the U.S. might (or might not) use nuclear weapons, creating possible immunities for some who might deserve our strategic wrath, according to analysts.

One example: The U.S. would not use nuclear weapons in response to a chemical or biological attack. Instead the attacker would face a “devastating conventional military response.” But, the U.S. “reserves the right” to change that assurance since biotechnology is evolving so rapidly, according to the NPR.

While seemingly apologizing for America’s nuclear might, the introduction of this sort of complex, categorical policy could mistakenly lead to misperception and miscalculation by potential adversaries — and insecurity on the part of our allies and friends worried about our commitment to their defense. Do not forget that there are some countries that are friendly to the U.S. (e.g., South Korea) that have forgone their own nuclear programs, believing they would be secure under the extended U.S. nuclear “umbrella.”

In addition, the new nuclear strategy aims to create a smaller nuclear force, while not developing any new strategic weapons. We will instead focus on extending the service life of existing warheads rather than modernizing our already-aging nuclear force.

The new policy also calls for us to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which would effectively prevent us from modernizing our strategic forces to meet ever-changing threats, saddling us with an increasingly obsolete, Cold War-vintage nuclear arsenal. This is troubling, considering the Chinese, Russians, North Koreans and Iranians are at the moment modernizing, or developing, their nuclear arsenals and delivery systems.

Unfortunately, the concerns about our nuclear policy only deepened the following week with the signing of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).


The week after unveiling the NPR, Obama flew to Prague, where he had given a major proliferation speech the year before, to sign the “Son of START,” with his Russian counterpart, President Dmitry Medvedev.

The worry about new START is not just the reduction in the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which the administration characterized as a 30 percent reduction below the 2002 Moscow Treaty, but the glaring disparity in the drawdown between the American and Russian sides.

START looks like a good deal for the Kremlin, which the Obama administration has been courting since arriving at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., repeatedly speaking of a “reset” in U.S.-Russian relations. For instance, to meet the START-mandated maximum number of warheads, the U.S. has to eliminate 76 more warheads than Russia does, reducing its arsenal from 1,815 to 1,550. In contrast, Russia will cut its arsenal from 1,739 to 1,550.

Moreover, regarding delivery and launch vehicles (e.g., missile silos, bombers and submarines), America needs to eliminate 151 platforms to reach the START requirement of 700, while Russia can oddly plus-up 134 vehicles to the 700 level. Correct: Moscow can actually increase the number of its launch/delivery platforms under the new START agreement.

Besides pure numbers, this raises another potential problem with the treaty: START will limit U.S. “dual-use” strategic platforms such as bombers and submarines that have both nuclear and conventional military roles. Losing these platforms diminishes our conventional military punch, especially our ability to fight in places such as the Korean Peninsula or to counter China’s growing might in the Asia-Pacific region — no small matter these days.

Another concern: Under new START, U.S. conventional warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) or sea-launched ballistic missiles are counted toward the treaty’s nuclear warhead limits.

This could affect the development of weapons systems such as Prompt Global Strike, essentially an ICBM armed with a non-nuclear payload that could be used against critical targets across the globe on short notice. For example, Prompt Global Strike is an ideal platform for striking a high-value terrorist, a ballistic missile with a weapon-of-mass-destruction warhead on the launch pad, or even a counter-space asset aimed at our satellites, when other conventional assets are not in the vicinity or are restricted or unable to do so within a specific time window.

While the administration insists the treaty does not affect the American development or deployment of conventionally armed ballistic missiles, START language certainly makes it appear that it does.

A chorus of voices has also expressed distress at major reductions in the American nuclear force structure, especially the perception it might create in a world with an increasing number of countries in the once-exclusive nuclear weapons club: a world that is arming, rather than disarming.

Some worry whether an American drawdown will undermine U.S. deterrence, a bedrock of our defense policy, encouraging others, such as China, North Korea or near-nuclear Iran, to bolster their current or planned arsenals.

Nuclear proliferation trends are not positive. In 1998, there were just six nuclear states; today, there are nine with a 10th — Iran — moving in that direction. An undeclared nuclear program in Syria, which was being built by North Korea, only adds to the jitters.

Obama sees it differently, believing disarmament steps taken by the U.S. would give us greater moral standing and credibility in the nonproliferation effort, creating more leverage and international cooperation in wrestling with the nettlesome nuclear problems such as North Korea and Iran.

But not everyone is convinced that if we do the “right” thing by reducing our nuclear stockpiles, these rogue states will follow our lead. If nothing else, they know having nuclear weapons is one way to end-run our vast conventional force superiority.

It also allows them to punch way above their weight in international politics — and gives them a greater freedom of action in pursuing controversial or provocative policies. North Korea’s recent sinking of the South Korean ship Cheonan is a good example.


Some analysts are also anxious about how missile defense fared in the treaty.

While the White House insists new START does not affect our missile defense programs, the Kremlin has a different take on it, stating: “[START] can only operate and be viable if the United States of America refrains from developing its missile defense capabilities quantitatively or qualitatively.”

The treaty language seems to indicate either side would have the right to withdraw should strategic missile defense capabilities go beyond existing levels. Some argue the language includes theater-level missile defenses, too. While treaty limitations may comport with this administration’s missile defense plans based on current threats, the question is whether future administrations will find the agreement limiting to their missile defense plans — based on new threats.

In the end, the Senate will have to ratify the treaty, passing it with a minimum of 67 votes. Likewise, Russia will also have to send the treaty before its parliament, the Duma, before the treaty can go into effect.

START could have a very tough run in the Senate to ratification since it looks as if the U.S. got so little — and gave so much — in the successor to the 1991 agreement.

The week after signing START, the president hosted an international summit on securing nuclear materials, such as plutonium and highly enriched uranium, with the goal of keeping them out of the hands of terrorists.

It is a commendable goal.

The meeting resulted in the securing of some highly enriched uranium from Canada, Mexico, Ukraine and Vietnam, and a new agreement between Ottawa and Moscow to help protect Russian nuclear materials.

Unfortunately, critics believe the summit did not hit on some key issues such as “the ticking clock represented by Iran’s nuclear weapons program,” as expressed by Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. No small matter, as many experts believe Iran will have a nuclear weapons capability within one to two years. The North Korea nuclear problem also received scant attention at the summit.

And the elephant in the corner of the reactor room that no one is talking about is Russia’s arsenal of tactical, “battlefield” nuclear weapons, which was not addressed in START or the nuclear summit, but which proliferation experts rightfully fret over.

Russia is particularly secretive about its tactical nuclear arsenal, which may have numbered as many as 15,000 at the close of the Cold War, refusing to discuss the current size of its stockpile. Some analysts believe Russia may have a 10:1 advantage over the U.S. in this weapons category.

These weapons are difficult to track and easy to move because of their smaller size, creating nightmarish concerns about them falling into the wrong hands, such as those of a terrorist. Indeed, it has been reported that al-Qaida has been trying to acquire nuclear materials for some years — and would use them if possible.

Admittedly, the Obama administration says it will get to tactical nuclear weapons at a later date, but observers believe Russia will remain as steadfast about not including them in any agreement as it has before in order to maintain its advantage.

In late March, according to Russian newswire RIA Novosti, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the next step in arms control should be addressing tactical nuclear weapons in third countries, likely referring to American weapons in Europe.

At the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty’s five-year review conference of the 40-year-old agreement, the last in the line of major nuclear events this spring, the administration set out to hem in Iran’s nuclear program and strengthen the treaty.

The predictable clash between the nuclear “haves” and “have nots” not withstanding, the U.S. seemed more willing to embrace the notion of complete nuclear disarmament by the original nuclear powers (as called for by the NPT) than in some time.

While expectations are modest for the nearly monthlong conference, the U.S. side did shock some by revealing the previously classified number of nuclear weapons in its arsenal: 5,113 (down from its reported peak of 31,255 weapons in 1967).

While the Obama administration saw the demonstration of transparency as an example of American nonproliferation leadership, calling on others to do the same, few — especially the Chinese and Russians — are likely to follow suit, but they, no doubt, appreciate the intelligence “gift.”


In the end, Obama wants to eliminate nuclear weapons, driving the U.S. down the road to zero. Whether that is achievable, much less ill-advised, in a world where ever-more nations are pursuing and acquiring nuclear weapons is certainly going to be hotly debated, especially on Capitol Hill.

It would be great if the most devastating weapons in the history of warfare could be uninvented, but that is just not the case. The technology is here, and with a great reliance on nuclear power as a cleaner source of energy, the materials and technology may be even more available. Moreover, it can almost be guaranteed that there would be at least one country — or nonstate such as a terrorist group like al-Qaida — that would skirt any broad non-nuclear pledge, such as has happened with the NPT.

The NPT, which allows signatories to pursue peaceful nuclear power, but not weapons, is but a sheet of paper, as evidenced by North Korea’s (repeated) withdrawal and Iran’s blatant violation of it. Nuclear states India, Pakistan and Israel have never signed it.

Those who want to push back on critics of Obama’s emerging nuclear policies often invoke the name of Republican President Reagan, claiming he also wanted to eliminate nuclear weapons.

Sure, Reagan did — but there is a difference. He wanted it only as part of an active plan to defend the U.S. from attack with a ballistic missile shield, an idea that helped bury the Soviet Union and end the Cold War.

In fact, Reagan walked away from potential arms control agreements with the Russians due to their insistence that he surrender what was then called ”Star Wars.” He also ensured our conventional armed forces were as ready and highly capable as our strategic forces.

Reagan knew he could not put the security of the U.S. in others’ hands such as those of the Soviets. The same is true for this administration: It must ensure that its drive to zero does not give advantage to those who would do us harm. AFJ

PETER BROOKES is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense who also served in the Navy, with the CIA and on Capitol Hill.