Obama to take middle course in new nuclear policy

By Mary Beth Sheridan and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 6, 2010; A01

A year after his groundbreaking pledge to move toward a "world without nuclear weapons," President Obama on Tuesday will unveil a policy that constrains the weapons' role but appears more cautious than what many supporters had hoped, with the president opting for a middle course in many key areas.

Under the new policy, the administration will foreswear the use of the deadly weapons against nonnuclear countries, officials said, in contrast to previous administrations, which indicated they might use nuclear arms against nonnuclear states in retaliation for a biological or chemical attack.

But Obama included a major caveat: The countries must be in compliance with their nonproliferation obligations under international treaties. That loophole would mean Iran would remain on the potential target list.

The new policy will also describe the purpose of U.S. weapons as being fundamentally for deterrence. Some Democratic legislators had urged Obama to go further and declare that the United States would not use nuclear weapons first in a conflict. But officials in the Defense and State departments worried that such a change could unnerve allies protected by the U.S. nuclear "umbrella."

The administration's nuclear policy, contained in a document known as the Nuclear Posture Review, will be released at the start of a jam-packed week of events focused on one of the president's signature issues. Obama is to sign a new arms-control treaty with Russia on Thursday, then host at least 40 world leaders next Tuesday at a summit on locking down nuclear material.

The Nuclear Posture Review is important because it sets the framework for decisions on U.S. nuclear policy for the next five to 10 years, including the size of the stockpile and investments in submarines, missiles and nuclear laboratories. This one had raised particularly high expectations because of the president's nuclear agenda, which helped win him the Nobel Peace Prize last year.

The document will break with the Bush administration's nuclear doctrine in several ways. But officials and analysts said the policy's cautious tone reflected a desire to not upset the military or Republicans in Congress at a time when Obama hopes to get several nuclear treaties ratified.

The document also reflects the continuity in the nuclear establishment, with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates straddling the two administrations, said nuclear expert George Perkovich.

"There's no Robespierre who comes in and says, 'Off with their heads -- we're going to do things differently,' " he told an audience Monday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Still, Perkovich noted, the document marks a departure in focusing on terrorists and rogue states as the main nuclear threats. It also narrows the stated scenarios in which the U.S. government would use nuclear weapons.

During his presidential campaign, Obama pledged to work with Russia to take the countries' nuclear arms off high alert, saying that "keeping nuclear weapons ready to launch on a moment's notice is a dangerous relic of the Cold War."

Officials familiar with the new policy said it will not remove weapons from alert, but will instead seek to give the president more time to decide whether to fire the weapons. The U.S. military had expressed concern about taking weapons off alert. The head of the U.S. Strategic Command, Air Force Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, compared it last year to taking a gun apart "and mailing pieces of it to various parts of the country. And then when you're in a crisis, deciding to reassemble it."

The new Obama plan will seek to explore with Russia ways to reduce accidental launches, officials said. One possibility is reviving the idea of a joint early-warning system, which the two sides discussed in 2000 but never implemented, officials said. That would be significant because U.S. experts think Russia's early-warning system is more prone to error.

The high level of alert stems from the Cold War, and was aimed at discouraging a Soviet attack. The idea was that the United States would quickly launch its land-based missiles in the event of a Soviet strike, leaving only empty silos behind as targets while dealing a devastating blow to its adversary.

Daryl G. Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association, said the proposed steps aimed at averting a nuclear accident are positive, if modest.

"What's key is that this is done on a fast timetable, and that this is not a way to sideline this issue for the next several years," he said.

One senior official said the new policy would have nearly the same effect as taking weapons off high alert. "Even though we have capability to launch as soon as we see the warning on our radar screens, the president doesn't have to do that," he said.

The nuclear review was delivered four months late, after becoming mired in interagency arguments over how much the policy could change without alienating allies. Earlier this year, the document reached the principals' level but was rejected as being too similar to the Bush administration's policy, according to officials familiar with the process.

The Obama administration hopes to use the review and the new nuclear-arms treaty with Russia as markers of its credibility as it prepares to argue for tighter penalties on nuclear rogue states at a major conference in May on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the bedrock of nuclear control for decades.

The nuclear review calls for major new investments in nuclear weapons laboratories and facilities to maintain the aging arsenal. Administration officials have argued that such investments would allow for more confidence in the the stockpile's effectiveness and would eventually allow cuts in excess weapons.

But the budget increase has raised eyebrows among some arms-control experts. They worry that it sends a signal that the U.S. nuclear complex will be around for decades.

A major topic of debate in the review was whether to develop a new warhead, and how much refurbishing of old warheads would turn them into "new" weapons. Last year, Congress said that future "life extension programs" for warheads should be examined on a case-by-case basis and that any changes should be limited to keeping current capabilities.

Many nuclear analysts think the review will not call for any immediate changes in the package of nuclear warheads now going through the life-extension program. Rather, it will leave that open as a future option.

Stephen Young, a senior analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said: "The administration will make the right choice not to develop a new nuclear warhead now, but they will leave the door open to that option, essentially kicking that can down the road. Our concern is some people will want to walk through that door very soon, when the science says it isn't required."

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