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Keep the Nuclear Debate Real

Can the dogma, focus on strategic reality

1:58 PM, Jan 11, 2010 • By JOHN NOONAN
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Last week, the Glover Park Group -- one of Washington's largest PR/communications firms -- launched a strange attack on the Wall Street Journal over its recent op-ed on nuclear warhead modernization. The Journal's editorial, which laid down some fairly basic points on the importance of properly maintaining our nuclear stockpile, was lambasted as deceitful and poorly researched in a GPG press release:

This week, the Wall Street Journal editorial page perpetuated a dangerously outdated approach to our nuclear security. At a time when the country struggles with the sobering possibility that the next underwear bomber may be packing plutonium, it is essential to U.S. security to set the record straight.


On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal opined that the Obama Administration's ongoing negotiations with Russia on a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) will have trouble getting the Senate's OK unless the Administration "also moves ahead with nuclear-warhead modernization," including "new warheads and nuclear research facilities" as mandated by the National Defense Authorization Act.

Glover Park seems to be spun up on one point: that the WSJ interpreted a letter from 41 Senators as a rallying cry for a "new" nuclear warhead, when actual intent seemed to read as warhead modernization, which is slightly different. It's a bit of an overreaction, seeing as the Journal's core contention -- that as long as the US has a nuclear arsenal, it should be properly maintained -- is not terribly controversial. Some, myself included, feel as if the Reliable Replacement Warhead was our best shot at keeping our nukes credible for the next few decades. Now that the Obama administration has cut the project, a strong faction in the Senate wants assurances that our bombs won't be neglected for another two decades as they were after the Cold War. The Journal seemed to be merely voicing agreement to what should be an otherwise universal concern.


This is a real problem with over-politicizing national security debates, in that third-parties tend to misinterpet DoD intent and churn out imprecise talking points. To wit, Glover Park claims that:

the mainstream of the military and national security communities recognize that a new START agreement is critical to our nuclear security and that reducing the number of nuclear weapons worldwide is a critical step to preventing nuclear terrorism.

That's erroneous. Nuclear terrorism is prevented by proper control of existing nuclear weapons (like sound security and well-designed fail safes) and has little to do with actual stockpile figures. The two nations involved in the START follow-on talks, the US and Russia, both boast 60+ years of secure nuclear custody -- making GPG's nuclear terrorism claim somewhat dubious. And I'm suspicious of any statement that claims to speak for the overall attitude of a yawing bureaucracy like the DoD. Most nuclear professionals I've spoken with feel as if we've already cut too many warheads, pointing to the obvious fact that the Cold War never went hot due, at least in part, to our strong nuclear inventory and -- further -- that new actors like China, Iran, and North Korea deeply complicate deterrence. Stabilization on such a grand level doesn't happen by accident.

We're hearing this language more and more out of certain nuclear disarmament circles -- that pragmatic funding of nuclear weapons sustainment is a blow to world peace and thus a waste of money. But they forget the focal axiom of nuclear deterrence, that nuclear weapons must be both credible and perceived as credible in order to sustain stability.  Disarmament advocates, like any special-interest group, are wont to get carried away when making their points. The GPG release, in what's clearly a (mysteriously) well-funded anti-nuclear campaign, smacks of that ideological corruption.

In the furor to usher in a nuclear-free world, we're forgetting many of the basics that kept America safe during the perilous Cold War era. Both the American people and Congress need to treat President Obama's proposed nuclear cuts with a certain level of caution. As Glover Park's statement shows, the nuclear force-structuring and modernization debate is long on catechism and short on pragmatism.

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