By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday that he would advise the next president to seek a new nuclear arms agreement with Russia that provides for further reductions in nuclear warheads, keeps the existing verification procedures and is easy to amend in the event threats develop.
No matter who is elected president, Gates said, "there is a willingness and an ability to make deeper reductions" below the limit of 1,700 to 2,200 deployed warheads called for in a June 2003 treaty signed by President Bush and then-President Vladimir Putin. "I am confident that . . . whoever is elected president, we will go to the bargaining table," Gates said in response to a question at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he delivered a wide-ranging speech on nuclear weapons.
A new agreement, Gates said, ought to be "shorter, simpler and easier to adjust to real-world conditions than most of the strategic arms agreements that we've seen over the last 40 years."
He also said that, should negotiators not reach agreement before the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty expires in December, he was confident that the pact's provisions would be extended.
In his speech, Gates took a hard line on the need for the next Congress to move forward on the Bush administration's plan to develop and produce a new warhead. He warned of the "bleak" prospect that the roughly 4,000 older warheads in the current stockpile would no longer be safe, secure and reliable. "At a certain point, it will become impossible to keep extending the life of our arsenal, especially in light of our testing moratorium," he said.
The Bush plan calls for a Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW), based on a design that was tested before a 1992 moratorium on underground tests, that could be built and deployed without testing, Gates added.
"To be blunt, there is absolutely no way we can maintain a credible deterrent and reduce the number of weapons in our stockpile without resorting to testing or pursuing a modernization program," he said. Congress this year funded only limited design and cost studies for RRW, saying that further development would depend on the number of warheads needed in coming decades, based on the new president's nuclear strategy plan.
In response to a question, Gates said the United States "probably should" ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty "if there are adequate verification measures." But he implied that ratification should not occur without the RRW program moving ahead.
Gates also described a "rudimentary start" on a dialogue with the Chinese about strategic arms, which "has to underpin a negotiation on limiting arms." He said he had proposed such a discussion a year ago.
And the defense secretary said the Russian military "has shown some interest" in posting personnel at proposed U.S. missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, as well as in creating a common data-sharing center in Moscow.
Gates said he was worried that the Russians do not know the number or locations of "tens of thousands of old nuclear mines, nuclear artillery shells and so on" that might be accessed by rogue states or terrorists, but he added that he has "fairly high confidence" that Russia's strategic and tactical nuclear weapons are under control.
Iran is "determined to develop nuclear weapons at this point," Gates said, although economic pressures imposed by the international community, along with "some kind of assurances with respect to security," may change Tehran's mind. "But so far, they've not shown much interest."