Commentary-Poor Nuclear Startegy

Obama’s Nuclear Strategy

By William Beecher

President Obama’s newly formulated nuclear strategy is entirely consistent with his call for a “world free of nuclear weapons.”  But is it sensible? Is it prudent?

Putting aside for the moment the achievability of every country beating its nuclear weapons into radioactive medical isotopes, there’s the question of whether Obama is justified in assuming that could happen one day in the distant future and thus he should forswear the development by the US of any new nuclear weapon?  Reportedly Defense Secretary Robert Gates and much of the military establishment would like to create a new missile warhead as insurance against the failure of our aging arsenal.

If the Administration’s objective is to rid the world of nuclear weapons, it’s presumably illogical to build any new models  Why waste the money?  Besides, it would send the wrong signal to those we hope would join in the crusade to eliminate the nuclear menace.

The “fundamental role” of our nuclear weapons, Obama contends in the Nuclear Posture Review, is to deter nuclear attack on the United States and its allies. .

But what if the attack is by unconventional weapons—such as biological or chemical weapons?  The response, he contends, should not be with nuclear weapons, but overwhelming use of conventional ones.  Does he not recall that during the first Gulf War, the US quietly passed the word to Baghdad that if it employed gas weapons against our troops, we were prepared to respond with nuclear retaliation?

US policy makers were mindful of the fact that Saddam Hussein had used such weapons against some of his own restive population during the war with Iran.  Our troops went into battle in the searingly hot desert sands of Kuwait and Iraq wearing gas masks and other weighty protective gear.  But Hussein apparently was convinced the nuclear retaliation threat was genuine and he did not unleash his formidable store of tactical gas weapons, even though he was losing the war.

In that instance, deterrence worked. Deterrence must, at all costs, always be credible.

If challenged about not needing a new nuclear weapon, Obama could point to the findings of the so-called Jason panel, an independent group of scientists which advises the government on issues of science and technology, that programs designed to extend the life of the nation’s nuclear arsenal were sufficiently effective to guarantee their potency for decades to come.

But the Jason panel’s judgment has been challenged by the directors of the three nuclear weapons labs—Los Alamos, Sandia and Lawrence Livermore. Asked for their comments by Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio), the ranking minority member of the Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces, they disputed the Jason conclusions.

George H. Miller, director of Lawrence Livermore, wrote the main findings of the panel “understated in my view, the challenges and risks encountered in ensuring a safe and reliable nuclear force.”

Michael R. Anastasio, the Los Alamos lab director, said he “did not agree” with the panel’s conclusion about maintaining the country’s nuclear force with existing methods.  “Some materials and components in the current stockpile cannot be replicated in a refurbishment,” he declared, adding that available methods to mitigate the effects of aging were “reaching their limits.”

Were they only feathering their own nuclear nests?  The Administration has allocated another $624 million in next year’s budget for the weapons labs and promises another $5 billion  over the next five years to improve their aging infrastructure. But no new warhead, if you please, even if you use technology tested in the past.

But what about the realism of Obama’s quest for a world without nukes? Ever?

Would Israel agree to demolish its nuclear weapons, facing what it sees as an existential threat from Iran?  It long ago attacked the Iraqi nuclear facility and more recently Syria’s.

Would Pakistan and India, which have fought three wars, trust one another enough to believe, whatever treaty they might one day sign, that they would in fact destroy all their nuclear weapons?

.What about Russia, with whom the US is about to sign another nuclear arms reduction treaty? How good is its word in such awesome matters?

In 1975 Moscow ratified the Biological Weapons Convention, a treaty that required all signatories to demolish their biological and toxin weapons.  Yet it has been well established that thereafter the Soviets constructed huge plants to manufacture tons of anthrax and other biological weapons.

In briefing reporters on the new nuclear strategy, Obama declared: “I am going to preserve all the tools that are necessary in order to make sure that the American people are safe and secure.”

It depends on his definition of what “necessary” means.

This commentary first appeared on the web site of the World Policy Institute.

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