As his Administration pursues a path toward nuclear disarmament, President Obama has stated that, in the meantime, he will seek to maintain an effective U.S. nuclear arsenal. A stepping stone in the path toward nuclear disarmament is a new treaty with Russia, currently under negotiation, to reduce strategic nuclear armaments on both sides. This treaty is to replace an expiring Cold War treaty called the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).
President Obama's approach is problematic because it does not make clear what steps are required to sustain an effective nuclear arsenal. While President Obama is pursuing his arms-control objectives, the U.S. nuclear arsenal and the weapons infrastructure have already begun to atrophy and are in dire need of modernization. National security requires that the Senate not consent to the ratification of the START follow-on treaty until after there is sufficient nuclear modernization progress.
Linking Nuclear Modernization to START
Congress is so concerned about the state of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and weapons infrastructure that it included a provision in this year's Defense Authorization Act requiring the Administration to submit a report on its plan to modernize both the nuclear arsenal and the supporting nuclear weapons complex either before or at the time the START follow-on treaty is submitted to the Senate for advice and consent.
This provision, which is now law, was bolstered by a July 23 letter to President Obama from six senior Senators making the same demand for a nuclear modernization plan from the Administration. Thus, the issuses of nuclear modernization and START follow-on treaty ratification are now linked.
That the U.S. nuclear force and its supporting infrastructure are declining is beyond dispute. The following are just several of the many observations regarding the current state of the nuclear posture made by the Strategic Posture Commission in its May 6 report:
Toward an "Effective" Nuclear Arsenal
Given that President Obama has pledged to maintain an effective U.S. nuclear arsenal for as long as nuclear weapons exist, it is critical that the Senate use the START follow-on treaty ratification process to define what the word effective means.
First and foremost, effective should mean that the U.S. nuclear arsenal, along with other elements of the broader strategic posture, serves to protect and defend America and America's allies against strategic attack. A worldwide set of targets representing the means of strategic attack must be held at risk, such that any nation contemplating such an attack understands that the likelihood of achieving the applicable political or military goals is low.
This definition of effective recognizes that the Cold War concept of deterrence based on mutual vulnerability and the threat of retaliation is not appropriate in either today's or tomorrow's world.
Fashioning the U.S. nuclear posture to support this protect-and-defend strategy requires a number of steps. Among them are:
A Problematic Approach
The Obama Administration's approach to arms control carries significant dangers for the already tenuous future of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex and arsenal. Specifically, there are three possible dangers that the Senate must be prepared to address:
What's the Rush?
Given the risks inherent to producing an effective nuclear arsenal, the Senate should not be in a rush to consent to the ratification of a START follow-on treaty. The treaty will carry unacceptable risks to U.S. security if it is not accompanied by the necessary nuclear modernization steps.
Until there is irreversible progress in modernizing the nuclear weapons complex and arsenal, America's national security interests demand that the Senate not grant consent to a START follow-on treaty -- even if it otherwise merits support.
Baker Spring is F. M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation and a contributor to ConUNdrum: The Limits of the United Nations and the Search for Alternatives (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2009).