The Magazine

False Start?

Don’t believe the hype about the new arms treaty with Russia.

Apr 5, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 28 • By MICHAEL ANTON
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President Obama will play the deal up as big and welcome news for his disarmament agenda as he prepares to host a nuclear materials conference in Washington this month and to attend the Nonproliferation Treaty Conference in New York this May. But there was arguably bigger news last Friday: news which won’t get much coverage and undercuts his nuclear agenda.

Last November, JASON—an advisory group of independent scientists first convened in 1960—finished a study of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Their report is classified but the executive summary is not. The summary seemed to indicate that the Life Extension Program (LEP), the government’s efforts to ensure the long-term reliability of our nuclear arsenal, was working just fine. The Obama administration and its allies on the left used this as evidence of there being no need to do anything that might be interpreted as building new warheads.

But leaks undermining this narrative quickly appeared. People familiar with the full report indicated that it didn’t quite support the executive summary’s interpretation of the LEP. Now we know those leaks were correct.

Ohio Republican representative Michael Turner asked the heads of the three national nuclear laboratories to give a frank assessment of the report. Their letters were released on Friday and in their view, Life Extension probably won’t cut it over the long haul, and the classified report actually spells out many of the reasons.

This is bad news for the president’s disarmament agenda. He loses a valuable piece of high-level cover for his insistence that the United States not undertake any real modernization of our nuclear arsenal. It’s very bad news for Vice President Biden, who is reported to be the biggest opponent in the administration of the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) concept—a new long-lived warhead design that was defunded in 2008. It’s good news for Secretary Gates, who supports RRW.

But even this may have a silver lining for the president. The New START Treaty faces an uphill ratification battle. Its chances get dimmer the less seriously the administration treats Republican concerns about stockpile longevity. To have a shot at getting the treaty ratified this year, the president is going to have to bend on warhead modernization. This will anger the left. But the scientific cover for ditching RRW that was yanked away by the lab directors can be spun as political cover for moving ahead with modernization. To get the nine extra Senate votes he needs for his treaty, the president can now say, without dissembling, that a reliable arsenal requires doing more than LEP currently encompasses.

Such an argument would help the president get his treaty, help America maintain a credible deterrent—and have the additional advantage of being true.

 

Michael Anton served in national security positions in the recent Bush administration.


 

 

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