Politics & Policy

Needed: A Proliferation of Straight Talk

Less nuclear straddling.

John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, laid out a vision of what his administration’s policy toward nuclear weapons and deterrence would be on Tuesday. Unfortunately, it amounted to more of a straddle than the “straight talk” we have been encouraged to expect from Sen. McCain.

Much of the Arizona Republican’s address at the University of Denver was devoted to what has become the standard fare of such speeches: alarm about the spread of nuclear weapons and related technology; concern about the dangers posed by such proliferation by rogue states like North Korea and Iran in particular; and exhortations to greater American leadership to counter these threats — to lead by example in bringing about a world in which there is less to reason to fear Armageddon.

The straddle arises from the GOP candidate’s desire on the one hand to embrace a litany of de-nuclearization initiatives advanced in recent months by several eminent figures, notably former Republican Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Clinton Secretary of Defense and former Democratic Senator Sam Nunn. These range from commitments to reduce dramatically and unilaterally the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, enter into new arms control negotiations with the Russians, adopt a cut-off of fissile material production, reconsider ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, abandon development of a new nuclear penetrator warhead, and resuscitate the collapsing Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

On the other hand, McCain, to his credit, stopped short of joining the elder statesmen in calling for a nuclear-free world. To be sure, like them, he associated himself with President Reagan’s dream of a day “when nuclear weapons will be banished from the face of the Earth.” The Senator quickly observed, however, that such a dream “is a distant and difficult goal,” one “we must proceed toward . . . prudently and pragmatically, and with a focused concern for our security and the security of allies who depend on us.” The implication, at least, is that de-nuclearization is not in the cards under a McCain administration.

In fact, the senator tucked in the speech several statements suggesting he appreciates the abiding need for a credible and effective U.S. nuclear deterrent. He declared that, “We must continue to deploy a safe and reliable nuclear deterrent, robust missile defenses and superior conventional forces that are capable of defending the United States and our allies.” He noted that American nuclear arms are “still important to deter an attack with weapons of mass destruction against us and our allies” (although in the next breath he denounced them as “the most abhorrent and indiscriminate form of warfare known to man.”)

At one point in his speech, Sen. McCain promised, if elected, to charge “the Joint Chiefs of Staff to engage in a comprehensive review of all aspects of our nuclear strategy and policy.” As it happens, at congressional direction such a review is just getting underway, albeit by a blue-ribbon Commission on the U.S. Strategic Posture, rather than the JCS.

The Commission is chaired by one of the aforementioned de-nuclearizers, Bill Perry, who doubtless intends to use his position to advance that agenda. The vice chairman, however, is the single most knowledgeable man in America on nuclear matters — former Secretary of Defense and Energy, former CIA director, and former head of the Atomic Energy Commission James Schlesinger. Schlesinger’s participation and that of a number of other knowledgeable, experienced, and robust commissioners offer hope that a real review of our deterrent requirements and capabilities will be undertaken.

At the very least, the Strategic Posture Commission — and assuredly the next president — is going to have to wrestle with a problem that cannot be effectively addressed by straddling, let alone by wholly wrong-headed thinking to the effect that the world will become nuclear free if only the United States would de-nuclearize. As a “New Deterrent Working Group” convened by the Center for Security Policy put it in a paper prepared for the Commission:

To an extent largely unknown to the American people and even to many U.S. policy-makers, the nuclear deterrent that has been the backbone of our defense posture for fifty years is becoming obsolete, unreliable and potentially ineffective. This is the direct and predictable result of the practice of essentially “freezing” our nuclear weapons strategy and stockpile over the past seventeen years since the end of the Cold War.

This reality means that, unless something is done to reverse present trends, the U.S. will inexorably be de-nuclearized, effectively going out of the nuclear weapons “business” at the very moment that — as Senator McCain and others have pointed out — many other nations, including virtually all the most dangerous ones, are getting into it.

The New Deterrent Working Group has offered its own eight-point plan for ensuring the continued viability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Its principal features are as follows:

America must re-establish the posture of nuclear strength which saved the West — and the world — during the half-century-long Cold War.  During those decades, our nuclear posture was also the key factor in preventing renewed outbreaks of global conventional wars and the terrible costs they entail.  To provide a similar insurance policy for the future, we must undertake at a minimum the following critical steps:

Immediate Actions:  As a matter of great urgency, two initiatives are in order:  First, a clear, firm Presidential statement must be issued to the effect that a credible, safe, secure, and reliable nuclear deterrent is essential to America’s security, and will be maintained with highest priority. 

Second, the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) must be reestablished as a vital program in order to prevent the loss of core nuclear weapon capabilities in National Nuclear Security Administration’s labs and plants, and to provide the optimum replacement approach for those over-age weapons in our stockpile which will be needed for decades to come.  The RRW provides our only opportunity at the moment to recapture the experienced, integrated management expertise necessary to guide new nuclear weapons from concept definition to service introduction. Without RRW, this invaluable capability will, for all intents and purposes, be lost.

National Debate:  The issue of deterring nuclear attack is one of potentially existential importance to millions of Americans.  Yet, it has scarcely – if ever – been rigorously discussed in a highly visible way during the seventeen years since the Cold War ended.  For the United States to maintain an effective nuclear deterrent, it will need a strong consensus reflected in solid bipartisan majorities that can be sustained over the decades required to implement that program.  Such majorities can only be assured by informing and enlisting the American people.

Toward that end, we must initiate a thoughtful national debate on: 1) the nature of deterrence in this new age; 2) its role in U.S. foreign policy and national security strategy; 3) the role of nuclear weapons in this strategy; and 4) the characteristics and approximate quantities of nuclear weapons needed to provide effective deterrence today and in the future. 

Advanced Technology:  We must reestablish a continuing, robust research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E) program.  Today, the focus needs to be on cutting-edge technology in research, exploratory development and advanced development across dozens of fields relevant to advanced nuclear weapon designs. 

Military Preparedness:  The Defense Department must recommit to the need to maintain for the foreseeable future both an appropriate nuclear arsenal and the competencies required to field and exercise it.  This will entail preserving America’s existing nuclear weapons platforms and capabilities.  It will also mean planning, budgeting and performing the long-range actions needed to contend with an uncertain nuclear future. 

New Nuclear Weapons:  We must adopt anew a national commitment to design, test and produce, on a continuing basis, new nuclear weapons.  These activities are “performance arts”; expertise can be maintained only by engaging in them.  Simply put, the extreme complexity and hazards of the work are such that there is no substitute for competent, integrated management.  Such management, in turn, requires continuing, hands-on experience. 

Nuclear Infrastructure:  The United States must immediately commence the comprehensive modernization of its nuclear weapons infrastructure.  The measures necessary to accomplish this have been debated for years, and plan after plan proposed.  Little has been done, however.  Meanwhile, our facilities become ever-more-antiquated, dilapidated and unsafe. The most urgent need is for a modern pit fabrication facility with adequate flexibility to produce several designs simultaneously, and a through-put capacity sufficient to permit the replacement of the stockpile’s obsolescent weapons at an acceptable rate.

Nuclear Weapons Effects:  We must revitalize the Pentagon’s national program in nuclear weapons effects.  The survivability of American weapons systems (conventional and nuclear), our communications/command/control/computer systems, and our intelligence/surveillance/re­connaissance systems against a wide range of nuclear weapons effects depends on our successfully hardening and testing these systems.  Good design and simulator testing can help, but actual underground nuclear testing is essential where survivability is mandatory.  This testing practice is also indispensable for assessing and correcting the vulnerabilities of critical parts of the country’s civil infastructure against such threats as electromagnetic pulse (EMP).

Preventing Proliferation:  Finally, America must undertake a sweeping course-correction with respect to countering nuclear proliferation.  To be fully effective, of course, there must be changes in the world’s approach to non-proliferation, not just that of this country. Still, there is unlikely to be any improvement in the utility of global efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons technology and capabilities unless and until the United States adopts a more practical strategy for contending with this threat.

Over the last several decades, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has been distorted by the preoccupation of its stewards with nuclear disarmament, rather than with preventing proliferation. Apart from the steady erosion of the U.S. arsenal, this fixation has neither resulted in the appreciable diminution of existing nuclear weapons inventories around the world nor prevented a mushrooming of proliferation in nuclear wannabe states. 

Given the aforementioned hard strategic realities, the United States should redirect its non-proliferation policy along the following lines: 1) Emphasize that non-proliferation requires enforcement; 2) urge that the five nuclear weapon states (the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China) must accept this implicit responsibility; 3) until all five agree, be willing to act unilaterally, or in coalition, as a default action to prevent proliferation; and 4) regularly modernize our stockpile to keep it effective, safe, secure,  reliable and able to enforce non-proliferation.  Without these actions, the remnants of global non-proliferation will inevitably become ever-more irrelevant and ineffectual.

In the absence of such initiatives, the United States will find itself unable to provide for the foreseeable future the safe and reliable nuclear deterrent John McCain seemed to embrace in his address in Denver. Instead, it will, at best, be condemned to the piecemeal but systematic denuclearization that he seems to sensibly eschew. As Sen. Obama joins the debate, and presumably espouses even more radical disarmament measures than those proposed by Sen. McCain, we can only hope for straighter talk from the Republican candidate.

– Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy. He was responsible for nuclear forces and arms control policy in the Reagan Defense Department.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr.Frank Gaffney began his public-service career in the 1970s, working as an aide in the office of Democratic senator Henry M. Jackson, under Richard Perle. From August 1983 until November ...

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