The Wall Street Journal has begun 2010 a lot like it ended 2009: By attempting to undermine the Obama administration’s pursuit of a new nuclear reductions agreement with Russia.
2010’s first offering focuses on the December 15 letter sent by 40 Republican Senators (and Sen. Joe Lieberman) to President Obama claiming that “the National Defense Authorization Act of 2010 requires that the submission of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) follow-on agreement to the Senate be accompanied by a plan to modernize the U.S. nuclear deterrent.”
As I noted in a pre-holiday interview with DailyKos’ Plutonium Page, the Republican Senate letter grossly distorts the Defense Authorization Act. The bill requires a plan to enhance the safety, security, and reliability of the nuclear weapons stockpile, modernize the nuclear weapons complex, and maintain the delivery vehicles (i.e. bombers, subs, and missiles). However, it says nothing about modernizing the “nuclear deterrent” or building new nuclear warheads. Nothing at all, except to those whose aim is to mislead.
Both the Senate letter and the Journal claim that the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States links nuclear force reductions and modernization. In the words of the Journal: “The bipartisan report noted, among other things, that the U.S. needs new warheads and nuclear research facilities.” This too is misleading. The bipartisan report cited by the Journal said no such thing…
On arms reductions the Commission is clear and unequivocal:
The moment appears ripe for a renewal of arms control with Russia, and this bodes well for a continued reduction in the nuclear arsenal. The United States and Russia should pursue a step-by-step approach and take a modest first step to ensure that there is a successor to START I when it expires at the end of 2009.
Nowhere in the chapter of the report on arms control is there any attempt to make modest reductions along the lines of those called for in New START contingent upon the design and production of new warheads and new warhead production facilities.
A finding in an earlier chapter does state that the U.S. could pursue further reductions “if this were done while also preserving the resilience and survivability of U.S. forces.” The Commission clearly used the words “resilience” and “survivability,” which suggests that reductions could occur without building new warheads and production facilities.
It is highly questionable whether the Commission calls for the production of new warheads in any event. While the Commission did endorse the Bush administration’s plan to build new production facilities at Los Alamos and the Y-12 facility in Tennessee, it took a far more nuanced view of how best to maintain the nuclear weapons stockpile. In doing so it gave the following advice:
• The decision on which approach [to refurbishing and modernizing the nuclear stockpile] is best should be made on a case-by-case basis as the existing stockpile of warheads ages.
• Congress [should] authorize the NNSA to conduct a cost and feasibility study of incorporating enhanced safety, security, and reliability features in the second half of the planned W76 life extension program. This authorization should permit the design of specific components, including both pits and secondaries, as appropriate.
• As a general principle for subsequent life extensions, the Commission recommends that NNSA select the approach that makes the greatest technical and strategic sense.
• As a matter of U.S. policy, the United States does not produce fissile materials and does not conduct nuclear explosive tests. Also the United States does not currently seek new weapons with new military characteristics. Within this framework, it should seek all of the possible benefits of improved safety, security, and reliability available to it.
The Commission, simply does not say that the U.S. needs new warheads, as the Wall Street Journal claims. Instead it notes that existing life extension programs and new warhead designs represent opposite ends of a spectrum of options. What we have learned about our nuclear weapons to date suggests that existing life extension programs, not new warhead designs, make the greatest technical and strategic sense.
For example, The JASON scientific advisory group could not certify that the chosen design for the now defunct Reliable Replacement Warhead program could be officially confirmed as reliable without nuclear explosive testing, a key condition set out by the Commission. In addition, a 2006 JASON report concluded that the explosive cores in U.S. warheads will remain reliable for many, many years. A September 2009 JASON report went even further, noting that “lifetimes of today’s nuclear warheads could be extended for decades, with no anticipated loss in confidence by using approaches similar to those employed in [life-extension programs] to date.”
Furthermore, the U.S. is already modernizing its nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles. Some Republicans seem to think that because the U.S. is not building new missiles and warheads like the Russians and Chinese, we’re falling way behind. In reality, our nuclear arsenal remains and will continue to remain second to none.
But don’t expect the Journal to ever admit this. The nuclear alarmists are looking to oppose a treaty that is clearly in American national security interests, even if it means deliberately misconstruing a bipartisan Congressional Commission report.