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The Administration's Nuclear Games

And Laura Rozen's folly.

8:43 PM, Feb 22, 2010 • By MICHAEL ANTON
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Laura Rozen of Politico has written an assessment of Vice President Biden’s nuclear policy speech from last week that the White House is sure to love.  But that’s because she appears to have bought their line of argument a little too uncritically and has mistaken symbolism for substance.  No doubt this is exactly the response that administration salesmanship has been calibrated to create, but it misses the deeper problems— problems which, the White House knows all too well, still loom.

The Administration's Nuclear Games

Rozen makes much of the fact that the Veep was introduced by Secretary of Defense Gates.  And I agree, the symbolism of that move was pitch-perfect PR.  Gates is A) a veteran Republican and B) on the record as being in favor of certain steps that the administration is on the record opposing.  So the implicit message of that introduction was: The Obama administration is wholly united on nuclear policy; even the nuke hawk Bob Gates is on board with the Prague agenda (i.e., the nuclear free world vision); critics to the right—above all the Senate’s “Gang of 41”—need not worry about this administration’s commitment the reliability of the stockpile; Gates has vouched for Obama.

Rozen seems to buy that in toto.  She shouldn’t.

The two issues at hand are nuclear testing and the design of a new warhead.  The former is a red herring.  The latter is still very much in play.

Let’s take testing first.  Rozen writes that “the Obama White House appears to have achieved important consensus from its most important administration skeptic on key aspects of its ambitious nuclear disarmament agenda -- including a continued moratorium on U.S. nuclear testing.”  (Emphasis added.)

But in truth there is no significant faction anywhere in the nuclear community—inside or outside government, on the left or on the right—that wants to resume nuclear testing.  The voluntary moratorium adopted by President George H. W. Bush in 1992 and continued under presidents of both parties ever since is in no danger and faces no significant opposition, least of all from Gates.  Rozen’s assumption to the contrary hangs on Gates’ 2008 assertion that “there is absolutely no way we can maintain a credible deterrent and reduce the number of weapons in our stockpile without either resorting to testing our stockpile or pursuing a modernization program.”

This was, however, a clever rhetorical ploy on the SecDef’s part.  He knows (and knew then) full well that new testing is unacceptable to virtually everyone on the political spectrum.  He was not advocating testing in that speech.  He was warning Congress that, absent funding for a new warhead design, the U.S. would eventually have to start testing again—something that Congress is loath to see happen.  The line was a not-so-veiled threat: “I know you don’t want to fund a new warhead, but you want testing even less, and if I don’t get that new warhead, testing will be inevitable.”

Note the keyword in Gate’s assertion: “or.”  The Reliable Replacement Warhead program that Gates championed publicly when Bush was president and reportedly has continued to push for privately (but not publicly) under Obama is designed to be certifiable short of testing.  That is indeed a vital part of its appeal, since any new design that required testing would be DOA in Congress.

Not to get too far into the weeds, but the problem—to the extent that one exists—with our current arsenal is that most of the warheads are very sophisticated.  They pack a lot of destructive power into a very small physical space.  But sophisticated designs up the chance of failure.  And the older these warheads get, the more the chance of failure rises.  The Reliable Replacement Warhead, on the other hand, would be in many respects a deliberate throwback, a design that sacrifices yield and miniaturization for long-term reliability—all based on well-established principles and older technology that has been thoroughly tested in the past.  (In addition, advances in computer modeling and other techniques have made testing less necessary.)

Rozen quotes several of the vice president’s anti-testing lines from last week’s speech without, apparently, realizing that those, too, were rhetorical ploys.  The vice president was attacking a position that no one holds because it is easier than addressing the real disagreements that still loom.  To the extent that one of those disagreements concerns testing, it is between those who think should the U.S. make our own voluntary moratorium legally binding by ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (which the administration wants), and those who think we should maintain the moratorium as a matter of U.S. policy but also preserve our flexibility by not ratifying the CTBT.

But the CTBT is likely to go nowhere this year and for the foreseeable future.  The real fight this year will be over the RRW.  And contra Rozen, it is not over—and it’s not clear that Gates has taken Obama’s side.  Indeed, the smart money is betting that the reverse will happen.  The administration is getting close to finishing a big new arms control treaty with the Russians.  The Gang of 41 has made clear that the price of ratification will be the RRW—or something like it.  Since treaties need 67 votes, they would seem to be in a strong position to get what they want.

So here are two predictions, one about as solid as an Obama-era T-bill, and the other you can take to (an FDIC insured) bank.  First, no RRW, no treaty.  Second, it will be called anything other than RRW, but it will accomplish all of the same things.

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