Sentenced to de-nuclearize?

Posted: Jan 08, 2002 12:00 AM
During her travels in Wonderland, Alice found herself embroiled in a kangaroo-style trial in which the judge famously announced, "Sentence first, verdict afterwards," followed by the pronouncement "Off with her head!" Regrettably, a similar approach appears to have guided the Bush Administration in preparing the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) it is releasing this week. This review is intended to guide the future size and composition of the U.S. nuclear arsenal for the early years of the 21st Century. Yet its most prominent feature -- a reduction by roughly two-thirds in the number of deployed nuclear weapons -- was effectively pre-determined by a pledge Candidate Bush made on May 23, 2000: "As President, I will ask the Secretary of Defense to conduct an assessment of our nuclear force posture and determine how best to meet our security needs. While the exact number of weapons can come only from such an assessment, I will pursue the lowest possible number consistent with our national security. It should be possible to reduce the number of American nuclear weapons significantly further than what has been already agreed to under START II without compromising our security in any way." During his summit meeting last November in Crawford, Texas with Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Bush announced the sentence: By ten years from now, the United States will have cut its nuclear arsenal from the present roughly 6500 weapons, past the 3500 allowed under START II, to no more than 1700-2200 deployed nuclear arms. Now comes the verdict -- a Nuclear Posture Review that tries to explain how such unprecedented and draconian reductions in the U.S. deterrent force can be made "without compromising our security in any way." With the NPR not yet released, one can only guess at how this feat of prestidigitation is accomplished. Whether it turns out, in fact, to be a blueprint for a strategic deterrent force with which we can safely live -- or a prescription for the wholesale denuclearization of the United States -- will depend on several questions that cannot be answered at this writing: o Will the levels of forces envisioned by the NPR be compatible with the maintenance of our strategic "Triad" -- weapons deployed on land-based ballistic missiles, on submarines and aboard airborne platforms (bombs and cruise missiles)? Historically, the complementary strengths of these various systems have been seen as essential to maintaining a credible deterrent by offsetting their respective shortcomings. Unless costly new programs are undertaken to replace aging missiles and bombers, the small numbers of weapons allowed will greatly exacerbate the temptation simply to dispense with one or another "leg" of the Triad. o Will the residual force be deployed in a manner that renders it unduly susceptible to preemptive attack? This could, for example, be the effect of concentrating a large percentage of the deployed stockpile at a small number of vulnerable bomber bases. Bad idea. o Perhaps most importantly, will the President authorize the steps needed to ensure that whatever nuclear deterrent is retained remains safe, reliable and credible? If so, he must swiftly authorize the resumption of periodic underground nuclear testing. To date, Mr. Bush has tried to straddle this issue. On the one hand, he courageously and correctly rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), with its permanent ban on all nuclear testing. On the other hand, he has perpetuated a moratorium on this activity -- an initiative first imposed upon his father in 1992 by congressional Democrats who favored U.S. denuclearization, something subsequently and explicitly embraced by Bill Clinton and his first Energy Secretary, Hazel O'Leary. The CTBT's proponents understood that without actual nuclear testing, it would ineluctably become impossible to maintain, let alone to modernize, our arsenal. As it happens, the moment of truth has arrived, just as the NPR is being released. The Washington Post reported on January 3rd that the Department of Energy's Inspector General recently unveiled a dirty little secret: There are "growing problems associated with the safety and reliability of the Nation's nuclear weapons, [which] without nuclear testing, have become a 'most serious challenge area.'" Of particular concern are mounting backlogs in the non-nuclear testing program upon which the U.S. has relied exclusively to monitor the safety and reliability of the stockpile since 1992. Energy's I.G., Gregory Friedman, concluded: "If these delays continue, the department may not be in a position to unconditionally certify the aging nuclear weapons stockpile." In fact, even if they don't, the absence of realistic underground tests will likely make such certification little more than educated guesswork. To his credit, President Bush has created conditions that may provide a safety net for the sorts of nuclear disarmament he wants to undertake. By withdrawing from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, he has cleared the way for the deployment of effective, global missile defenses that can reduce somewhat the requirement for nuclear weapons-based deterrence. To realize his goals for a secure and properly defended 21st Century America, however, Mr. Bush must take several concrete actions: 1) Ensure that missile defenses are actually deployed as soon as possible (within days of his ABM Treaty decision the Pentagon and/or Congress had killed or dramatically slowed no fewer than three important anti-missile programs); 2) resist State Department efforts to mutate his unilateral (and, thereby, revisable) decision on nuclear cuts into an ill-advised, binding treaty with Russia; and 3) direct the resumption of nuclear testing needed to ensure the continued viability of the nuclear forces the United States must retain for the uncertain, and probably quite dangerous, decades ahead.