Obama's Showdown Over Nukes

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A Trident II missile, usually armed with a nuclear warhead, is launched from an Ohio class submarine

The latest U.S. nuclear showdown doesn't involve a foreign enemy. Instead it pits President Barack Obama against his Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, and concerns the question of whether America needs a new generation of nuclear warheads. While serving under former President George W. Bush, Gates had repeatedly called for the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program to be put into operation, because the nation's current nukes — mostly produced in the 1970s and '80s — are growing so old that their destructive power may be in question.

"The Reliable Replacement Warhead is not about new capabilities but about safety, reliability and security," Gates said in a speech in the week before last November's election. In an article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, released in early December after Gates was tapped by Obama to stay on at the Pentagon, Gates repeated that refrain. "Even though the days of hair-trigger superpower confrontation are over, as long as other nations possess the bomb and the means to deliver it, the United States must maintain a credible strategic deterrent," he wrote. "Congress needs to do its part by funding the Reliable Replacement Warhead program — for safety, for security and for a more reliable deterrent." RRW basically trades explosive force for greater assurance that new warheads would work predictably in the absence of tests, which the U.S. has refrained from conducting for nearly two decades to help advance nonproliferation goals. (See a graphic of the global nuclear arms balance.)

But Obama doesn't buy that logic. Shortly after taking the oath of office on Tuesday, he turned what had been a campaign promise into an official presidential commitment: the new Administration "will stop the development of new nuclear weapons," the White House declared flatly on its website, with no equivocation, asterisks or caveats.

Obama and Gates are "at loggerheads on this," says Michael O'Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution who has specialized in nuclear issues. A senior Pentagon official says talk of a resolution is "premature" because he doesn't believe Gates and Obama have discussed the matter.

The plutonium "pit" of a nuclear weapon — the heart of its extraordinary power — suffers radioactive decay, losing power and building up impurities, over time. There is concern that aging pits may fail to detonate properly, or perhaps at all.

O'Hanlon and other nuclear thinkers have suggested retooling existing weapons to improve reliability as an option. But the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration, which develops America's nuclear weapons, has said it cannot meet the goals set for RRW by modifying existing weapons. Obama's position has backing in Congress, which has repeatedly refused to fund the program. (See who's who in Obama's White House.)

Obama would have a difficult time reversing course on what is now a stated policy of his Administration instead of simply a campaign promise. And any move to produce new nuclear weapons will be read by other nations as a U.S. push for nuclear supremacy, even as Washington urges the rest of the world — Tehran, are you listening? — to do without the weapons. Russia would very likely respond by upgrading its own arsenal.

But Gates argues that building a new generation of more reliable nuclear warheads would give the U.S. the confidence to shrink its overall nuclear arsenal. After all, if you have only a 50% level of confidence that a nuclear weapon is going to perform as advertised, you'll need twice as many. The U.S., under a self-imposed moratorium, has not conducted nuclear tests to assure the reliability and potency of its weapons since 1992. But it does spend more than $5 billion a year conducting analyses and computerized tests to monitor the health of the weapons. (RRW is estimated to cost at least $100 billion.)

Military officers have also expressed concern over relying on the aging atomic arsenal. (Skeptics note that U.S. policy tends to embrace the notion that all nuclear weapons possessed by adversaries will work, while those possessed by the U.S. won't.) "The path of inaction is a path leading toward nuclear disarmament," Air Force General Kevin Chilton, head of the U.S. Strategic Command, warned last month. "The time to act is now."

Nuclear weapons have tended to prevent or contain conflicts between those nations that possess them. Today's nuclear nightmare tends to focus less on a doomsday exchange with similarly armed rival states than on the nightmare of "loose nukes" falling into the hands of terrorists unaligned with any state and therefore beyond the reach of deterrence. A new batch of nuclear weapons, unfortunately, isn't going to change that.

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