Our Nuclear Posture
Under the Obama administration? Supine.
Apr 19, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 29 • By MICHAEL ANTON
There are two possible ways to interpret this: (1) Who cares? It’s just the preamble. (2) It is the first-ever formal linkage between offensive and defensive systems and an implicit promise to limit the latter in the future. Russian president Medvedev’s foreign minister believes interpretation Number 2. “Linkage to missile defense is clearly spelled out in the accord and is legally binding,” Sergei Lavrov said. He would appear to be at least partly right. The linkage is there for all to see, though it’s a stretch to say that the preamble language is legally binding.
Linkage, however, is bad enough. For two decades, the United States has deliberately refrained from designing missile defense systems that could counter the Russian (or Chinese) nuclear arsenals. Moscow’s response has been to unceasingly complain about a system deliberately limited so that their huge arsenal could easily overwhelm it. Now we have the worst of both worlds: a missile defense system designed not to defend against a Russian strike but nonetheless formally linked to Russia’s nuclear posture. Worse, the Russian foreign minister has hinted that his country may invoke the treaty’s otherwise standard withdrawal language if “the U.S. strategic missile defense begins to significantly affect the efficiency of Russian strategic nuclear forces.” Given that the Russians publicly insist (though cannot possibly believe) that virtually anything we do on missile defense affects their strategic forces, this was not encouraging news.
It gets worse. Article V, paragraph 3:
Now, this is a constraint. On its website, the White House asserts that “the Treaty does not contain any constraints on testing, development or deployment of current or planned U.S. missile defense programs.” Possibly the administration could fall back on the “current or planned” qualifier to insist that, since we do not currently plan to reuse retired SLBM or ICBM launchers for missile defense, this limitation is not really limiting. But it might be. The treaty after all calls for steep cuts in delivery vehicles. Absent this provision, we might have reused those retired launchers in the missile defense program. The treaty forbids that. Expect this provision to cause serious problems in the ratification debate, and also to undermine—justifiably—the administration’s credibility. Republican senators Jon Kyl and John McCain have already noticed: “While we were initially advised that the only reference to missile defense was in the preamble to the treaty, we now find that there are other references to missile defense, some of which could limit U.S. actions.” Translation: We were misled.
In the Nuclear Posture Review, there is some good news, though one has to be willing to parse to find it. One of the marquee items on the arms controllers’ wish list was a pledge not to develop any new nuclear weapons. Since the United States has been out of that business for more than 20 years, why make this a priority? The issue is the reliability of the existing stockpile. Nuclear weapons are complicated; the older they get, the less sure you can be that they still work. One way to know is to test them, but there is no appetite in this country to resume testing (which we unilaterally halted in 1992). Another option is to do what we are doing now: conduct an extensive maintenance program to identify problems and replace degraded components. But that doesn’t yield certain knowledge; it only raises confidence.
Yet another way would be to make more warheads. That’s what Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wanted to do when he was serving in the prior administration and reportedly still supports. It’s also what every Republican senator plus Joe Lieberman says will be the price of ratification of the New START treaty.
But the Nuclear Posture Review emphatically says “the United States will not develop new nuclear warheads.” Game over, right? Well, it depends on the meaning of “new.” The approach favored by Gates—called the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW)—would use existing fissile material, parts stripped from decommissioned weapons, and design specifications that were developed decades ago. If a skilled mechanic were to build a car using spare parts, old steel, and blueprints from a 40-year-old file cabinet, would it be a new car? In one sense, yes. In another sense, no.
Arms controllers emphatically answer “Yes!” to that question. While it might appear that they have won the day, a careful reading reveals a few escape hatches. First, the document specifically renounces “new military missions” and “new military capabilities” for the arsenal. But that is like a Catholic ostentatiously pledging not to eat meat on Fridays during Lent. He has to do that anyway. Nobody is talking about building a new warhead for a new mission. The last time such a proposal was floated—the “Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator” advocated in the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review—it was quickly scuttled owing to intense opposition. The mission of the RRW would be the same as the mission of the warheads in our current strategic arsenal. Moreover, the report specifically allows for the “replacement” of nuclear components—language malleable enough that it could be stretched to look a great deal like RRW.
At a press briefing at the Pentagon the day the report was released, National Nuclear Security Administration head Thomas D’Agostino and Joint Chiefs vice chairman General James Cartwright seemed to confirm this interpretation. Here is the general: “Nobody has ever removed from the commander or anyone else in that chain the ability to stand up and say, ‘I’m uncomfortable; I believe that we’re going to have to test, or I believe that we’re going to have to build something new.’ That’s not been removed here.” And D’Agostino: “So what we want to do is . . . create a position or a point in time where we say, if we have to go to that replacement category whereby—because we think it’s the only way or one of the best ways, to achieve the aims that we have—safety, security, reliability, and no underground testing—then we have the flexibility to do that.”
Ellen Tauscher, perhaps the most determined RRW opponent in the administration, stood by mute. So who really won that fight?
The answer would appear to be Gates. He is almost certainly the reason why the arms controllers lost so many key fights, and a living example that sometimes engaging with those with whom you disagree can make a bad policy better or at least less bad. Would that he could have saved us from the dismal policy of strategic obfuscation and the formal linkage of missile defense to Russian strategic forces. But it would be ungrateful to complain. At least about Gates.
Michael Anton served in national security positions in the recent Bush administration.