Nuclear Weapons

Next Obama Speech: The Pentagon

09.24.09 | 5 min read | Text by Ivan Oelrich

President Obama has once again pushed nuclear weapons, and his vision for a world free of nuclear weapons, to the center of the world’s stage with his speech yesterday before the United Nations’ General Assembly and his chairing of the United Nations’ Security Council meeting this morning. He reiterated his goal of ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), of negotiating a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (FMCT) that would end production of bomb-grade nuclear material (something the Bush administration supported in theory but without any verification procedures), of negotiating a treaty with Russia that will “substantially reduce” strategic nuclear warheads, and of strengthening the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The President also said “We will complete a Nuclear Posture Review that opens the door to deeper cuts, and reduces the role of nuclear weapons.” This morning, as chair of the UN Security Council, the President got unanimous consent to Council resolution that endorsed all the points made before the General Assembly.

The President’s remarks are powerful and plain and were overwhelming well received by all of us who have long hoped that the world might someday be free of nuclear weapons. Still, I am worried that the message has been clearer at the UN, and in Prague, than it is here in Washington. If we look at the direction the bureaucracy and politics are taking here, there is reason to worry that the President’s vision will be dangerously diluted.

While the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) is not paramount, it will be an important document. It will set out in broad terms what the U.S. nuclear doctrine is. I do not have any secret source deep within the Pentagon giving me access to special insider information but the Obama administration has made an admirable effort to keep interested parties posted on developments. And the news is not reassuring. Based on public briefings, the NPR document that seems to be shaping up is not a dramatic change from the status quo. Far from being revolutionary, it is a cautious, even modest, move in the right direction. That is not what we need.

To achieve a fundamental change, to put the world on a new course, the nuclear powers, led by the United States, have to change the fundamental role that nuclear weapons play. We have to change their mission and justification. Everything else is just working around the edges. And change in the fundamentals is what I don’t see coming out of the administration’s current effort.

The “requirements” for nuclear weapons, not just their numbers but how they are deployed, their power, accuracy, and reliability, all follow from the military missions that nuclear weapons are assigned. Nuclear weapons, and their missions, have been with us for so long people forget that these “requirements” don’t come from the laws of physics but from choices we make. If we got rid of all the first strike, preemptive missions and restricted nuclear weapons to the sole mission of retaliating for nuclear attack, with the aim of deterring that attack in the first place, then much of the danger of nuclear weapons could be removed. This would be essentially a no-nuclear-first-use doctrine. With such a doctrine, there would no need for weapons on alert, there would be no need for new weapons, not even a need to maintain extremely high reliability.

All the information coming out of the administration indicates that it is not considering giving up the first strike, preemptive missions and moving to a no-first-use doctrine. In a speech at the Carnegie Endowment early in the administration, Gary Samore, the staffer on the National Security Council who is keeping the White House on top of the NPR, said, in response to a question from my colleague Hans Kristensen, that a US no-first use doctrine is not plausible. Recently, Defense Secretary Gates said that we will need increased investments in the nuclear weapon enterprise and that he seems to think we will have nuclear weapons as far into the future as we can see; the “requirement” for billions of dollars in nuclear infrastructure rests on the unspoken assumption that nuclear weapons have to characteristics making them usable for a first strike. In a series of briefings on the NPR for a small group of interested parties, the Pentagon has suggested that the steady-as-she goes Congressional Strategic Posture Commission would be the foundation to build on.

No one expects a great deal from the current negotiations for the treaty that will take the place of START, the “START-follow-on.” Because START expires in December, it is important to get some lose ends tied up before then and to provide an interim treaty until the treaty after that is negotiated. It is that treaty, the follow-on to the follow-on, that is important. Nevertheless, the current negotiations seem modest even by those standards. The numbers being considered, 1675 deployed strategic weapons, is not meaningfully different from the 1700 limit in the wholly uninspiring Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT). Moreover, the seven year time horizon discussed for the limits hints at a possible lack of urgency in taking a dramatic next step anytime soon.

All of this is important on the near and far term. The political stars are now aligned for a fundamental reassessment of the role of nuclear weapons. No one I know thinks we will ever have a better chance. And major decisions are coming up over the next decade in both the U.S., concerning new nuclear warheads, new missiles, and new submarines, that will affect our nuclear posture for the next fifty years.

The danger is that the President’s vision will not survive the wheels of the bureaucracy. All of the people who are working on the NPR are all extremely talented, knowledgeable, and thoughtful. But the evidence so far is that they are not inspired by a vision of a fundamental, revolutionary change. Nuclear weapons are serious business, a business we need to approach with sober caution, but the President needs to give his UN and Prague speeches at the Pentagon to inspire among the nuclear foot soldiers his passion and vision and not to settle for gradualism.