- - Monday, March 4, 2013

America is moving down a slippery slope, about to pass the point of no return. Our nuclear weapons capability is disintegrating. Here’s a quick assessment.

President Obama’s national goal — a world without nuclear weapons — is impossible and undesirable. Yet his administration is trying to lead the way into this fantasyland by making unilateral prohibitions, reductions, delays and cutbacks of all kinds. Today’s nuclear weapons policies — established by the Obama team in the Nuclear Posture Review — lead to nuclear weakness, rather than the nuclear strength that has kept us safe for over half a century.

We have no coherent nuclear weapons strategy, and strategic deterrence no longer exists in our foreign policy. Our nonproliferation policies are so ill-conceived that we are about to trigger a global cascade of proliferation, leading to a world of nuclear horror and chaos. Our U.S. stockpile is composed of weapons well past the end of their design life and irrelevant to most of today’s principal threats. Their condition ranges somewhere between deteriorated and unknown. Our two-decade nuclear freeze, our deplorable no-testing policy and our prohibition on design and production of new nuclear weapons have brought the technical expertise of our scientists, engineers and designers (and of our production and testing teams) into extreme circumstances. Key facilities in our nuclear research and production infrastructure are either seriously antiquated or non-existent, and their agreed-to modernization funding is being slashed.

While all this is happening here, nuclear weapons threats are increasing apace throughout the world. Every other nuclear weapons state is modernizing (and in many cases expanding) its nuclear arsenal. Russia has a robust development and production program for advanced nuclear weapons, and Kremlin strategy now calls for their early use in all conflicts. China, newly belligerent, is in the midst of an immense strategic modernization program, and the growing size of their improved, longer-range nuclear arsenal is cloaked in secrecy. Pakistan is rapidly increasing its nuclear stockpile, and India is responding with theirs. North Korea’s tests of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles are in the news daily, as is Iran’s absolute determination to achieve full nuclear weapons status. Mr. Obama, after four years’ nuclear disarmament effort, hasn’t a single nation-state follower.

Isn’t there a disconnect here? Doesn’t it seem reasonable to bring common sense and prudence to bear on America’s security before we lose everything? Our misguided policies are actively inviting multiple types of nuclear catastrophes. We should have learned that a nation which turns a deaf ear to the urgent needs of such an important and complex enterprise will pay a serious price.

The nuclear era began 70 years ago. The 12 presidents (six Democrats, six Republicans) who led us for the first 66 of those years proclaimed nuclear weapons to be the cornerstone of our national security, our country’s highest priority. Four years ago Mr. Obama reversed this proven policy. He devalued nuclear weapons, declaring them an evil to be eliminated. In a world of awesome dangers, he launched us on the slippery slope. Ronald Reagan’s statement should be remembered: “Of the four wars in my lifetime, none came about because the U.S. was too strong.” Common sense would have us return to a policy of nuclear strength, not weakness.

Focus now on the future. What new nuclear threats will America face in five years, 10 or 20? The answers are unknown — and unknowable. If we start today, it will take us about five years to research and design a single advanced weapon appropriate for deterring today’s nuclear threats. About five more years will be needed to test and produce the first prototype weapon. America has no pit production facility (for nuclear weapon triggers), and about 15 years will be required to design and build one. So it will be about 20 years before we’ll be able to start production of our first modern nuclear weapon. It will be about 30 years before we’re well into stockpile replacement. This is not a prudent risk, and common sense counsels immediate action to stop the downward slide.

Consider the human capital situation. For two generations, our nuclear weapons enterprise attracted the foremost scientists and engineers in the nation, and they worked miracles in making us No. 1 in the world. Today we have virtually no weapons designers who have ever seen a weapon tested, and testing is the only path to true mastery of this art and science. Moreover, where will tomorrow’s nuclear weapons scientists and engineers come from? World-class college graduates are not attracted to a career as curators in a nuclear museum. Common sense, again, demands recovery.

America is at a turning point in history. It’s time we had a national debate on nuclear strength versus nuclear weakness. This is the way democracies resolve issues of national survival.

Retired Vice Adm. Robert R. Monroe is former director of the Defense Nuclear Agency.