Strategic Command Chief Urges Quick Nuclear Weapons Modernization

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 5, 2008

The leader of the U.S. Strategic Command said yesterday that "time is not on our side" to modernize the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile, particularly as China and Russia upgrade their nuclear warheads and delivery systems.

"The path of inaction is a path leading toward nuclear disarmament. . . . The time to act is now," Air Force Gen. Kevin P. Chilton told an audience of government, military and civilian arms experts attending the Nuclear Deterrence Summit in Washington.

But Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic weapons, told the same audience that the nation's nuclear modernization program was in a "holding pattern" until the Obama administration could review studies that are to be completed next year.

Chilton said he was concerned that Congress had effectively killed the Bush administration's Reliable Replacement Warhead program, which is designed to provide a modern, safer warhead with no new capabilities before the end of this decade. Expressing concern that the nation's Cold War stockpile is aging, Chilton said that "a reliable [nuclear] inventory supports nonproliferation goals."

Tauscher, whose California district is the site of one of the nation's leading nuclear weapons labs, became a leader in Congress's effort to eliminate the RRW program. She said the Obama administration should "take the high ground" internationally by developing a comprehensive nuclear weapons policy that includes ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, extending the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia and modernizing a sharply reduced warhead stockpile.

She called on the United States to boost funding for the International Atomic Energy Agency and prepare a multilateral program to be presented at the 2010 U.N. review of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

She proposed one potentially controversial step, saying, "India, Pakistan and Israel must be brought into the nuclear club and asked to make serious nonproliferation commitments." U.S. officials have regularly refrained from talking about Israel's nuclear weapons since that government has never acknowledged them, although Iran regularly cites them in defending its own nuclear program.

The RRW program, Tauscher said, was "sound" because it was designed "to extend the life of the stockpile while adding security and safety features." It failed before Congress, she said, because it was "poorly presented." In its place, Tauscher proposed upgrading a tested warhead design while making clear it would have a lower yield than older weapons and would use less-toxic components and contain safety elements to prevent its use by terrorists.

Tauscher said the Obama Pentagon's Nuclear Posture Review should answer key questions regarding the number of warheads needed to deter Russia or any other state from attacking the United States, while at the same time assuring U.S. allies that they will be protected. "Limited purposes require limited numbers of weapons," she said.

In a Foreign Affairs article released yesterday, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates stressed the need for a strong nuclear deterrent and expressed support for the RRW. "As long as other nations possess the bomb and the means to deliver it," Gates wrote, "the United States must maintain a credible strategic deterrent. . . . Congress needs to do its part by funding the Reliable Replacement Warhead Program -- for safety, for security, and for a more reliable deterrent."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company