Wednesday, July 15, 2009

President Obama in a speech in Prague on April 5 stated “I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons”. He went on to split the goals into short, medium and long range, adding that “a world without nuclear weapons” won’t be reached soon, “perhaps not in my lifetime”.

In Moscow this month Obama signed a joint understanding with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with a “new START” by the end of this year, setting targets for sweeping reductions in the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals.

The understanding gives negotiators the mandate to reduce the number of strategic warheads from the current maximum of 2200 each down to between 1500 and 1675. More important are the strategic delivery vehicles which will fall to a range of 500-1100, down from the 1600 allowed today. As of January the U.S. reported in had about 1200 delivery systems, and Russia claimed about 800. The U.S. total of 1200 includes the long range bombers, submarines and missiles that are an important part of a far superior American conventional arsenal.

This “new START” between two presidents sets the stage for another controversy, and the proposed new treaty may not pass the Senate in coming months. The administration took this step before completing the review of nuclear strategy mandated by Congress. The White House Czar for Weapons of Mass Destruction, Security and Arms Control, Gary Samore, said last week that the Administration may have to enact certain provisions of the treaty by executive order and on a “provisional basis” to meet the December deadline.

Provisions of the 1991 START treaty allow it to be extended for five years from the arbitrary deadline of December, 2009, and that’s the recommendation of former Defense Secretary and CIA chief James Schlesinger. Further discussions with the Russians on arms control are highly desirable, according to Schlesinger, but need more time for public and Senate scrutiny than it is currently receiving.

In a July 11 op/ed in the Wall Street Journal, Dr. Schlesinger outlines issues leading to his opposition to the proposed new treaty and why he believes it would make the U.S. less safe than it is today.

North Korea, Iran and non-state terror groups are not going to be deterred by the possibility of a nuclear response to actions they might take.

More than thirty countries world-wide rely on the U.S. nuclear umbrella in the event of an enemy attack, including Poland. If they lose confidence in the U.S. deterrent or in Washington’s ability to protect them, it could set off a new nuclear arms race. Ichiro Ozawa, Japan’s opposition leader and likely its next Prime Minister said in 2002 that it would be “easy” for Japan to make nuclear warheads and that it had “enough plutonium to make several thousand weapons”.

Dr. Schlesinger worries about Iran, “We’ve long talked about Iran as a ‘tipping point’ – if it is successful in developing nuclear arms, it might induce Turkey, which has long been protected under NATO, and Egypt and Saudi Arabia to respond in kind”. An alternative would be to extend the U.S. and NATO nuclear umbrella to the Middle East.

Schlesinger worries too about the safety and reliability of U.S. nuclear weapons, all of which are over twenty years old. The U.S. is the only major nuclear power that is not modernizing its weapons. The Russian nukes have a shelf life of ten years, so they are constantly replacing them. The British and the French stay up-to-date. China and India continue to add to their stockpiles.

The U.S. Congress has consistently refused to fund warhead replacements. Schlesinger warns “we need to be much more vigorous about life-extension programs” for our weapons.

The probability of a nuclear exchange between major powers has largely gone away in the past twenty years. However the likelihood of a nuclear terrorist attack on the United States is greater. In the 1960’s, Dr. Schlesinger recalls, we were working on mitigating the possible effects of a nuclear attack using civil defense strategies and training.

In the next few years one or more American cities may get hit with a nuclear attack from an unknown source. We should be working now to minimize the effect of a nuclear terrorist attack on the United States. Our rapid response capability is not as well organized as it should be.

Schlesinger sees a fundamental difference between now and when he started in the business. “Public interest in our strategic posture has faded over the decades”. In the Cold War it was a most prominent subject. Now, much of the public is barely interested in it. And that has been true of Congress as well, and has led to reduced funding in the annual budgets for missile defense and nuclear modernization. This is unfortunate in a very unstable world, and cries out for effective national leadership.

George Porter is a retired insurance company executive and a fellow Duncan Banner columnist. He can be contacted at

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