The vice president published an op-ed today in the Wall Street Journal. At first glance, it appears to be a more or less typical example of SOTU follow-up, in which administration officials blanket every available inch of print space and second of airtime pushing this or that component of the “message.” Communications 101. Moreover, it appears to take a large step toward the various critics of the Obama administration's national security policies. Triangulation 101.
But this op-ed is something more. It addresses, head-on, a touchy topic that the administration prefers either to avoid or to speak about in platitudes: The maintenance of America’s nuclear forces in the face of the president’s nuclear free world agenda.
A commission headed by two former secretaries of defense (William Perry and James Schlesinger) published a report last spring that made a number of recommendations to secure the reliability of America’s nuclear weapons well into the future—recommendations that it can be fairly said the administration has thus far ignored. Instead, it prefers to push an extremely ambitious arms control agenda much of which informed observers believe has little chance of getting through the Senate (to say nothing of its intrinsic merits).
The administration wants, this year, a new treaty with Russia to replace START I (which expired last December), international progress on the nuclear free world agenda at a conference it is hosting this April, deliverables from the May Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Conference, a conclusion to the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty negotiations and—most unrealistically—Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
The latter went down in flames in 1999 and nothing suggests that 67 senators are in a mood to resurrect it, no matter how badly the White House wants it. But it may, strangely, provide the key to understanding today’s op-ed.
Last December, 41 senators sent a letter to the White House warning the president not to expect much Congressional cooperation on any of the above unless the executive branch took concrete steps toward shoring up America’s nuclear infrastructure. Just last week, the so-called Four Horsemen of the Anti-Apocolypse—Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn, William Perry, and George Shultz—published another of their periodic Wall Street Journal op-eds calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons, but this time with a twist. By lending their considerable prestige to the cause of stockpile maintenance, they took some wind out of the sales of die-hard arms controllers who see any effort to shore up American weapons systems as inevitably undermining progress on nonproliferation.
With the Biden op-ed, it appears that the administration has finally bought in. The vice president specifically endorses the Perry-Schlesinger Commission’s call for more funding for the Nuclear Weapons Complex and pledges an additional $5 billion over five years toward that end. The proof will be in the pudding—the actual budget numbers will be available next week—but defense experts and key Republican aides are cautiously optimistic.
However, a careful reader of the Biden piece will notice that it only glancingly refers to “the stockpile” and says nothing at all about warhead modernization. This is a large omission. That 41-Senator letter listed a number of conditions that the administration would have to meet in order to ensure the 67 votes to ratify the START follow-on treaty (to say nothing of the CTBT). Among them was “funding for a modern warhead”, something the administration is loath to agree to. The arms controllers who staff the relevant NSC Directorates and the State Department’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation (up to and including Undersecretary Ellen Tauscher) are dead-set against it, believing that building anything resembling a new warhead is fatal to the goal of rolling back the spread of nuclear weapons.
The Defense Department, unsurprisingly, has other priorities and therefore a different view. The uniformed and civilian nuclear pros at the Pentagon want something called the “Reliable Replacement Warhead.” This would, in short, be a new design but one based on old principles, mostly old technology, and 100 percent existing fissile material. Under that name, the president cancelled the program last March—over Defense Secretary Gates’ objections.
But now there is talk that it may rise again under a different name. Proponents have always insisted that the RRW is not tantamount to designing a wholly new weapon. It would not be an advanced leap forward like our last new warhead, the W-88, was in the 1980s. Rather it would be built according to engineering principles so well established that it would not need to be tested—an essential point, since no party to this debate is advocating lifting the United States’ self-imposed moratorium on nuclear testing. Moreover, it would not require the creation of any new fissile material, thereby allowing us to continue to work toward completion of the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (currently being held up by Pakistan).
Thus, reading between the lines, one begins to suspect that the administration is quietly dangling a carrot. We’re all for stockpile maintenance, the op-ed says, and leaves vague exactly what that means. But the Gang of 41 knows what it wants, and the White House knows too. There is no way that (say) Jon Kyl, the Senate’s leading Republican on nuclear issues, will read this and conclude that the White House has addressed all his concerns.
The White House also knows that it can’t get even half of its arms control agenda this year so long as the Gang sticks together. This piece is therefore properly understood as the opening gambit in a bid to try and strike a deal: Ratify START (a likely prospect in any event) and the CTBT (extremely unlikely, to say the least) and we will find a way to do the RRW under some different name. Something more than Life Extension (the current program for stockpile maintenance) but less than a “replacement.” Can’t call it that!
It’s a bold and ambitious serve. What will be the return?