- The Washington Times - Friday, February 19, 2010

The Obama administration will move ahead with Senate ratification of a treaty banning nuclear tests that was voted down by Republicans more than a decade ago, Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. said Thursday.

In a speech setting out the administration’s arms-control agenda, Mr. Biden also said the United States will continue to pursue President Obama’s call for the elimination of all U.S. nuclear arms, but defended spending $7 billion in the coming year to repair an aging arsenal.

The administration is close to reaching a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia, and is nearing completion of a review of U.S. nuclear weapons forces, Mr. Biden said at the National Defense University.

“Our agenda is based on a clear-eyed assessment of our national interest,” Mr. Biden said. “We have long relied on nuclear weapons to deter potential adversaries. Now, as our technology improves, we are developing non-nuclear ways to accomplish that same objective.”

Non-nuclear weapons development includes the administration’s plan for an “adaptive” missile-defense shield and conventional warheads “with worldwide reach,” he said.

“With these modern capabilities, even with deep nuclear reductions, we will remain undeniably strong,” Mr. Biden said.

On ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, known as the CTBT, Mr. Biden said that gaining Senate approval for the pact is part of the administration’s efforts to limit the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

Mr. Biden said the CTBT was negotiated in the 1990s in an effort to stem the spread of nuclear weapons.

However, the treaty was voted down - but never completely defeated - by the Republican-led Senate in 1999. Critics argued at the time that the pact would undermine national security by encouraging nuclear proliferation while preventing the United States from ever conducting tests that may be needed to ensure the reliability of the deterrent arms.

“We are confident that all reasonable concerns raised about the treaty back then, concerns about verification and the reliability of our own arsenal, have now been addressed,” Mr. Biden said. “The test ban treaty is as important as ever.”

On Capitol Hill, a spokesman for Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Mr. Lugar is opposed to any test ban treaty ratification before the administration presents its new START deal.

“Sen. Lugar’s view is that in the arms-control arena, the first thing we need to see up is the START treaty and we need to deal with that,” said Andy Fisher, Mr. Lugar’s spokesman.

Mr. Biden said the unilateral moratorium imposed by President George H.W. Bush 18 years ago remains in place and nuclear weapons have been maintained through a program known as Stockpile Stewardship, which checks the weapons without underground tests.

An aide to the vice president said CTBT ratification is not the centerpiece of the administration’s arms-control agenda. “We’re not naive about where things are and how difficult it would be to get it passed,” the aide said, noting that it is not likely that the ratification would be sought before a strategic arms treaty is presented to the Senate.

The vice present said the U.S. nuclear complex, a nationwide network of costly storage facilities, laboratories and other facilities, was “neglected and underfunded” for the past decade.

The latest Pentagon budget includes a request for $7 billion to maintain and modernize the nuclear infrastructure. “Even in these tight fiscal times, we will commit the resources our security requires,” Mr. Biden said of the budget increase.

“This investment is not only consistent with our nonproliferation agenda; it is essential to it,” he said. “Guaranteeing our stockpile, coupled with broader research and development efforts, allows us to pursue deep nuclear reductions without compromising our security.”

The strategy also calls for improving conventional strike capabilities so that the reliance on nuclear weapons will be reduced, he said.

Mr. Biden said a major worry is that terrorists will obtain and use nuclear weapons.

“That is why we are working both to stop their proliferation and eventually to eliminate them,” he said. “Until that day comes, though, we will do everything necessary to maintain our arsenal.”

On the START negotiations, Mr. Biden said U.S. and Russian officials are completing the agreement, which he said would reduce strategic weapons to their lowest levels in decades.

“Its verification measures will provide confidence its terms are being met,” he said. “These reductions will be conducted transparently and predictably. The new START treaty will promote strategic stability and bolster global efforts to prevent proliferation by showing that the world’s leading nuclear powers are committed to reducing their arsenals.”

A U.S. official close to the talks said Russia is demanding linkage in the treaty to U.S. missile defenses, something the U.S. side is opposing. The issue may be resolved in a side agreement.

Moscow is also resisting U.S. calls for strict treaty verification measures, the official said.

The test ban treaty is likely to renew debate in the Senate and among arms specialists.

Former Pentagon official Frank Gaffney said that because of problems with the aging nuclear arsenal, “foreclosing the ability to do nuclear testing is the height of irresponsibility.”

The Senate in 1999 rejected the treaty by more than the needed votes “because there was an appreciation that nuclear testing was part of a robust nuclear deterrent and the Senate wanted to preserve that option,” Mr. Gaffney said. “They were right then and they are right now.”

Paul Kawika Martin, policy director of the anti-nuclear group Peace Action, said the group supports Mr. Biden’s call for a new START agreement and ratification of the test ban pact.

However, the group opposed efforts to modernize the arsenal. “Instead of spending $7 billion on facilities to upgrade nuclear weapons, that money would be more wisely spent on increasing the rate of dismantling the U.S. stockpile,” Mr. Martin said. “Fewer nuclear weapons makes Americans safer and sends the right message to the rest of the world.”

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