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Are We Serious About Deterrence?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

An interesting - and potentially nationally transformative - debate has started in Utah. The two candidates in the run-off for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate seat now occupied by Robert Bennett, Mike Lee and Tim Bridgewater, have both endorsed the "Peace through Strength Platform" first unveiled on these pages two weeks ago. This platform includes a commitment to maintain "a safe, reliable effective nuclear deterrent, which requires its modernization and testing."

Rush Limbaugh

By so doing, the candidates have precipitated a firestorm of criticism from national and local anti-nuclear activists and Utah Democrats in a state which, while solidly conservative and pro-defense, has residents who claim to have been sickened by radiation from atmospheric nuclear testing upwind in Nevada decades ago. The controversy comes against the backdrop of President Obama's determination to pursue "a world without nuclear weapons" - and to have the United States lead toward that goal by exemplary restraint and disarmament.

As a result, the fracas in Utah creates a momentous opportunity: To provide the people of that State, and Americans more generally, with the first serious opportunity in a generation for a conversation about our deterrent - and what it takes to ensure we continue to have one that is safe, reliable and effective. Such a conversation should start with a couple of key facts:

  • For most of the nuclear era, successive U.S. administrations of both political parties regarded periodic nuclear testing as essential to the maintenance of a safe, reliable and effective nuclear deterrent. After the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, the United States conducted all such tests underground.
  • In particular, President Ronald Reagan appreciated the necessity of continuing underground nuclear testing as long as the United States required a deterrent. He strenuously resisted domestic and international pressure to preclude testing. Mr. Reagan understood that testing is indispensable to: prove that new weapons work; find and fix any problems with existing weapons; and maintain the skilled scientific and industrial base required both to design the former and sustain the latter.
  • It is precisely because of the indispensable role nuclear testing plays in maintaining a viable nuclear deterrent that those opposed to the United States having such a capability have long sought to ban all nuclear testing. Importantly, when such a permanent prohibition on testing - in the form of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) - was submitted to the U.S. Senate for its advice and consent in 1999, the same considerations that underpinned President Reagan's position on testing were among those that caused a majority of Senators to reject the CTBT.
  • The Senate did so even though the George H.W. Bush administration had adopted a unilateral moratorium on underground testing seven years before. The vote reflected an appreciation that while testing may have been deemed unnecessary at the moment, foreclosing it permanently would be unwise and possibly reckless.
  • O In the eighteen years since, the United States has conducted no underground tests, even though others have done so. Thanks in part to the U.S. inability to conduct nuclear testing, no new weapons have been added to the arsenal in nearly 20 years. As a result: The average age of nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal today is over 30 years-old; most are more than 15 years beyond their designed service-life; some are so old they actually rely on vacuum tubes. And, even if they were not obsolescing, weapons designed for the Cold War may be ill-suited and incredible as deterrents to today's threats.
  • Since 1992, in the place of testing, the United States has relied for "stockpile stewardship" on a host of computer-modeling, other simulation techniques and non-nuclear explosive tests that have provided insights into the performance of an aging arsenal. Such alternatives to testing have their value, but lack the fidelity provided by a true, nuclear explosive test that integrates the performance of all the some 6,000 components of a modern weapon.
  • Although the directors of America's nuclear laboratories have continued to certify the viability of the arsenal, they have expressed real and growing concerns about their ability to do so in the future. The inability to test is not only prompting misgivings about the reliability of the stockpile, though. It has precluded adapting existing weapons or introducing new ones so as to ensure all are as safe as possible. Indeed, only one of the warheads currently in the inventory has been equipped with all six of the most modern techniques for preventing unauthorized detonations, avoiding disastrous incidents in the event of fire, etc.

In short, there is an urgent need for an informed national debate about the future of the U.S. nuclear deterrent - which even President Obama claims we will need for the rest of his lifetime - and the prudence of allowing the continued atrophying of the weapons, delivery systems and industrial base that comprise it. Specifically, it is time to revisit whether the viability of the deterrent can be assured over the long-term without periodic safe, underground nuclear testing.

The "Peace through Strength Platform" with its call for "a safe, reliable and effective nuclear deterrent, which requires its modernization and testing" is meant to serve as a vehicle for promoting and contributing to such a debate. Messrs. Lee and Bridgewater and the dozens of other signatories of this Plaftorm are to be commended for their efforts to educate the American people, and to empower and engage them in this long-overdue national conversation.

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