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Making a Pitch for Nuclear Warhead Program

By Walter Pincus
Monday, October 6, 2008

Continued study and development of a new generation of nuclear weapons and modernization of the aging manufacturing infrastructure needed to build them are necessary to maintain "the ultimate deterrent capability that supports U.S. national security."

That is the conclusion of a nuclear policy paper released quietly last month by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman.

The secretaries warn that without the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program, which Congress has delayed, the United States will have to keep an inventory of older, non-deployed nuclear warheads. That would be in addition to the 1,700 to 2,200 Cold War-era warheads -- many whose useful life has been extended 20 years under the stockpile stewardship program -- that are to be ready for use on strategic bombers and intercontinental land- and sea-based missiles from 2012 onward.

The Gates-Bodman paper is the last attempt by the Bush administration to have an impact on future U.S. nuclear weapons policy. A congressionally mandated study, co-chaired by former defense secretaries William J. Perry and James R. Schlesinger, is to be completed by December. The Pentagon is to do a Nuclear Posture Review next year.

The Gates-Bodman paper warns, in the strongest terms yet, that the stockpile stewardship program will soon have to modernize so many components and materials that the weapons may no longer be reliable.

"Without nuclear testing, at some time in the future the United States may be unable to confirm the effect of the accumulation of changes to tested warhead configurations," they say.

They note that the United States "is now the only nuclear weapons state party to the [Non-Proliferation Treaty] that does not have the capability to produce a new nuclear warhead" and has not done so since the early 1990s. RRWs will be based on old, tested nuclear designs but put together with modern parts and technology.

What's missing from the nuclear strategy, as outlined by Gates and Bodman, is the basic rationale that requires 1,700 to 2,200 deployed strategic nuclear warheads into the future. The authors concede that such numbers are important in determining how large the new nuclear production complex should be, but they never come to grips with how many warheads the United States should be prepared to build.

The paper notes that, in the past, the U.S. nuclear force was determined by the size of Soviet forces and the targeting requirements for nuclear strikes against them. With the end of the Cold War, President Bill Clinton and President Bush entered agreements with Russian leaders on reductions.

The United States decided to reduce the number of its deployed warheads from more than 6,000 to 1,700 to 2,200 by 2012. But rather than dismantling all warheads removed from delivery systems, the Bush administration plan placed many in storage, where they remain as a strategic stockpile -- a hedge against any future threat.

Gates and Bodman say the U.S. deterrent force, no longer fixed by Russian targets, meets "a spectrum of political and military goals . . . broader goals [that] are not reflected fully by military targeting alone." One political requirement is that the United States maintain a nuclear posture that reassures NATO and Asian allies, such as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, of Washington's commitment to their defense and gives them no compelling need to acquire nuclear weapons.

Another goal of the U.S. nuclear force is to dissuade potential adversaries and even "near-peer competitors," such as China and Russia, from adding sufficient numbers of nuclear warheads to wipe out U.S. systems. It also is based on "retaining a sufficient margin over countries with expanding nuclear arsenals to discourage their leaders from initiating a nuclear arms competition."

Gates and Bodman also see the U.S. nuclear force as a deterrent against other types of weapons of mass destruction -- such as chemical or biological -- and attacks against American "deployed forces, allies and friends." They also say the nuclear stockpile helps prevent "major conventional attacks."

They say the number of strategic warheads on 24-hour alert will be "smaller" than the 1,700 to 2,200 that will be deployed. But the larger number could be reached within "a few weeks to months" by putting bombers back on alert or sending more submarines to sea.

Pursuing development and deployment of RRW is "key to sustaining confidence in the U.S. nuclear stockpile," Gates and Bodman conclude. Once RRW is deployed in significant numbers, the paper says, "some or all of the reserve warheads . . . can be retired and dismantled without incurring significant risk."

National security and intelligence reporter Walter Pincus pores over the speeches, reports, transcripts and other documents that flood Washington and every week uncovers the fine print that rarely makes headlines -- but should. If you have any items that fit the bill, please send them to fineprint@washpost.com.

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