Sunday, March 04, 2007
RRW: Deterrence, Yes, But DISARMAMENT?
Bomb gurus ponder non-nuclear future
New U.S. weapons could make arsenal a relic of Cold War
by James Sterngold, San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer, Sunday, March 4, 2007
Nuclear weapons policy discussions in this country tend to feel obscure, cerebral and, more often than not, gentlemanly.
The subject may involve degrees of annihilation more vast than anything ever experienced, but, a new thrust of the debate is being launched, even as the Bush administration announced on Friday that it had accepted the design of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for a new generation of nuclear weapons, known as "reliable replacement warheads."
During a discussion in San Francisco recently on the future of the United States nuclear arsenal -- which in other times might have involved little more than a dry excursion into this dense topic -- specialists provided an extraordinarily tough critique of the Bush administration's nuclear weapons programs and added fuel to the growing efforts to drastically reduce, or eliminate, the stockpile.
C. Bruce Tarter, the former director of the Lawrence Livermore and now head of a group evaluating proposals for a new generation of warheads, complained during the panel at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science two weeks ago that it was almost impossible to make judgments about future weapons needs because the White House had failed to articulate "a clear, transparent" statement on its nuclear strategy and there was no consensus in Congress.
Further, he said, the Bush administration's proposal to resuscitate the weapons production complex "means nothing" because the White House has not provided either a firm timetable or a budget for the program. "You damn well better have bipartisan support" for the new weapons program before moving ahead, he warned.
Another speaker, Gen. James Cartwright, head of the Pentagon's Strategic Command, which manages nuclear war planning, was also blunt. He said that while Stratcom, as the command is known, has developed an array of new tools and strategies for defending the country, including space and cyber defenses, nuclear policy was largely stuck in a Cold War mode.
He endorsed, at least in principle, steps toward eliminating the stockpile, in part because the United States has so many new weapons to defend itself that it is far less reliant on nuclear warheads than in the past. "We ought to grade our homework by the path we're taking in that direction," meaning the direction of nuclear disarmament, Cartwright said.
The exercise is far from academic. At one time, Congress more or less accepted what the administration said the country needed in weapons systems and provided the funding. But now, many in Congress on both sides of the aisle are skeptical about the Bush administration's efforts to start manufacturing new generations of replacement nuclear bombs.
"There is at present no clear, coherent weapons policy supporting RRW," or Reliable Replacement Warhead, said Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Ind., chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that controls nuclear weapons spending. "Without a comprehensive strategy that includes the mission, the threat, and the specific U.S. nuclear stockpile necessary to achieve the strategic goals, it is impossible for Congress to appropriate funding for RRW in a responsible and efficient manner."
Visclosky also sought to put disarmament on the agenda.
Given the need to halt weapons programs in countries such as Iran and North Korea, he said, "the lack of attention the administration has given to developing a policy that explains the role of RRW in our broader national nuclear weapons strategy may result in Congress eliminating funding for the program."
None of the senior officials involved in the debate proposes quick elimination of the nuclear stockpile. What they are encouraging is the first thorough debate in years on whether the country even needs nuclear weapons, and, if so, what kind. Disarmament is being discussed not just by arms-control zealots but by the people who build and manage the nuclear strike force.
Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Walnut Creek [whose district includes LLNL], now chairwoman of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Forces Committee, says she plans to push for ratification of the long-stalled Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. President Clinton signed the treaty in 1996, but the Republican-controlled Senate rejected it and the Bush administration has said it has no intention of seeking ratification.
Tauscher says she believes the United States still needs a nuclear deterrent for the time being, even if it is far smaller than the current arsenal of some 5,000 warheads, but she says the new political climate means the country can finally have a real debate about the long-term need to replace nuclear warheads with precision conventional weapons, special forces teams and the like.
"We have a chance to not only get the size of our stockpile to a significantly reduced level but to move toward elimination," she said. "We have a chance to regain the high ground on nonproliferation and the elimination of weapons of mass destruction."
E-mail James Sterngold at firstname.lastname@example.org.
See the SF Chronicle article on LANL's Joe Martz posted earlier on this blog, where he articulates forward-thinking ideas about how RRW fits into nuclear-weapons policy, namely, deterrence and disarmament. As usual, LANL is way ahead of LLNL in both nuclear-weapons design and policy, though curiously, in the above article, the only voice we hear is that of former LLNL Director Bruce Tarter. NNSA and the rest of the Bush Administration is, as usual, way behind the curve on all scores.