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A nuclear-weapons-free world? Not if those building a 100-year production line can help it

October 9, 2008

John Loretz
Program Director, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War

If a change is coming in US nuclear policy after the 2008 elections, there is no hint of it in a policy paper released quietly by the outgoing Bush administration in September. “National Security and Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century,” a followup to a report issued by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman last year, provides a rationale and a timetable (actually, a choice among timetables) for rebuilding the US nuclear weapons infrastructure, with the goal of ensuring a steady flow of new nuclear warheads for the next 50 to 100 years.

Gates and Bodman conclude that the number of operational nuclear warheads required for the security of the US and its allies for the remainder of this century is 1,700 to 2,200. Reserve warheads would, perhaps, double the size of the stockpile to about 4,500, although 3,500 is another ceiling they consider. Depending on the projected size of the stockpile and the rate at which new plutonium triggers (pits) and replacement warheads are produced, reconstruction of the US arsenal would be completed between 2039 and 2114. Once the infrastructure is rebuilt and running up to speed, it can always be expanded if the Pentagon wants more warheads.

If you are having a hard time connecting the dots between this vision of the future and a world without nuclear weapons, welcome to the club. Gates and Bodman don’t make a single reference to US disarmament commitments under the NPT. They note that the US is meeting its goals under SORT (the 2002 Moscow Treaty), but describe the nuclear force levels established by that treaty as a carefully determined operational threshold, not as a stopover on any path to zero. (It’s no stretch to read this report as confirmation of a long-held suspicion that SORT was not a disarmament treaty at all, rather a “gentlemen’s agreement” to stabilize the US and Russian arsenals at a predetermined, long term threshold.)

The cabinet secretaries, who share responsibility for the size and structure of the US arsenal, chafe under the moratorium on nuclear testing, but believe they have solved the problem of how to keep new warhead designs coming without necessarily having to explode them to make sure they work. And they fret that aging warheads are not the only worrisome part of the system:

Critical personnel, with experience in the design and testing of nuclear weapons, are also aging and retiring, and in the absence of a viable nuclear infrastructure, their expertise cannot be replaced. Moreover, as new design efforts are further delayed, the ability and availability of experienced designers and engineers to mentor the next generation will decrease over time.

The rationale offered by Gates and Bodman for a large, permanent nuclear warmaking capability (which, by the way, is incompatible with Article VI of the NPT despite often repeated US claims to the contrary) is just the latest iteration of the false and unexamined assumptions laid out in the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review. The Cold War is over, but “the international security environment remains dangerous and unpredictable.” Nuclear weapons “play unique roles in supporting US national security” and “remain an essential element in modern strategy.” US nuclear weapons defend not only the US but also its allies. They do this by providing assurances to friends, by dissuading adversaries (and also friends) from acquiring nuclear weapons of their own, and by deterring nuclear-armed adversaries. Gates and Bodman assert that nuclear weapons will be used to defeat our adversaries if deterrence fails, but sidestep the question of how the US expects to avoid mutually assured destruction, even in a post-Cold-War world. The fact that nuclear weapons are meant to enforce US political will globally is openly acknowledged.

What we have here is a faith-based initiative, with the object of faith being a guaranteed capability to destroy humanity. According to Gates and Bodman — and a succession of US administrations from both political parties — “The United States will need to maintain a nuclear force, though smaller and less prominent than in the past, for the foreseeable future.” Contrast this with statements made by both presidential candidates. Earlier this year, Sen. Barack Obama said “A world without nuclear weapons is profoundly in America’s interest and the world’s interest. It is our responsibility to make the commitment, and to do the hard work to make this vision a reality.” Sen. John McCain agreed a short while later, though he expressed himself in the language of wishful thinking: “A quarter of a century ago, President Ronald Reagan declared, ‘our dream is to see the day when nuclear weapons will be banished from the face of the Earth.’ That is my dream, too.”

Despite their encouraging rhetoric, both candidates, to varying degrees and with varying levels of enthusiasm, are committed to maintaining what they call a “strong nuclear deterrent” as long as nuclear weapons exist. Whether either of them has a serious, practical plan to achieve a nuclear-weapons-free world remains to be seen. What seems certain is that, in the absence of a clear and unambiguous presidential directive to start pursuing and planning for a nuclear-weapons-free world, what we will get is the 21st century nuclear force envisioned by Gates and Bodman. A global pandemic of nuclear weapons will then be a foregone conclusion.

Read “National Security and Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century” here

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