- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 12, 2009


The next few months will be crucial to the success of President Obama’s agenda for nuclear disarmament. By the end of the year the Nuclear Posture Review is scheduled to be completed, providing policy direction for the size, composition and capabilities of the future nuclear stockpile, the complex that supports it and a rationale for why we possess the arms.

Officials have said it will be “transformational.” At the same time a follow-on agreement to START, the treaty that covers strategic nuclear weapons, must be completed by its expiration date, Dec. 5. The new treaty will need Senate ratification and will likely be taken up in the first quarter of 2010. In the summer or fall the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) will go before the Senate for ratification, a goal that Mr. Obama said he would “aggressively pursue.”

Opponents are lining up against ratifying the two treaties and to be successful, strong and persuasive arguments will have to be put forward stating why they are in the interest of the United States. A major salvo was fired in September at a START follow-on agreement by the Senate Republican Policy Committee. Its paper contained a long list of dos, don’ts and demands.

Basically three conditions must be satisfied to gain Republican support: Missile defense options must remain open, the nuclear weapons complex and stockpile must be modernized and tactical nuclear weapons must be part of the treaty. These seem easily answered. Tactical weapons are not part of START and are likely to be addressed in future talks. “Modernization” is a slippery word that for some hides proposals to create new weapons. There is no military requirement or need for new warhead types. Many of the current types are undergoing a life-extension program, as part of the successful Stockpile Stewardship Program, which should satisfy their concerns. As perhaps the most expensive single part of the Pentagon’s budget, billions continue to be spent on missile defense, a clear sign that its future has not been foreclosed.

The overarching reason to support both treaties is to demonstrate leadership to the rest of the world that the United States is at the forefront of nonproliferation and disarmament efforts, something sadly lacking during the former administration. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference begins in May 2010. There is widespread concern that the NPT may be unraveling with new nuclear arms races under way in the Middle East and Asia. U.S. ratification of START and the CTBT would greatly strengthen the regime.

The broad outlines of a follow-on START treaty were announced in July by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Mr. Obama. They agreed to reduce each strategic arsenal to between 1,500 and 1,675 warheads on 500 to 1,100 delivery vehicles. Opponents of a treaty say that Russian forces will atrophy to those levels (or below) anyway, so why give them something for free by reducing our forces? Still stuck in Cold War thinking, they apparently think that more is better, want to perpetuate excessive force levels and fail to see any obvious benefits. In a time of huge deficits a smaller force will be less expensive to maintain. Without a treaty both sides will lose the verification procedures that provide transparency and reduce suspicion and mistrust. Success with this follow-on treaty will lead to negotiations to further reduce the strategic arsenal and deal with the tactical stockpiles. Rejection will doom those efforts.

For more than a half-century the central purpose offered for a comprehensive test ban has been to stop the qualitative improvement of nuclear weaponry. Where testing was once commonplace (even in the atmosphere), it is now taboo and a new global norm is in place. It follows that it’s in the national security interest of the United States to stop China and any other country from improving their arsenals through testing. As for our own weapons, we have had a Stockpile Stewardship Program in effect for more than a decade that guarantees their reliability. The ability to detect low-yield tests and verify compliance is likely to be an issue. Since the Senate first considered CTBT ratification in 1999 (and rejected it), the capabilities have improved considerably.

A case in point is the successful detection of the North Korean tests in October 2006 and May 2009. The first test, though extremely small in yield, was immediately detected by more than 20 seismic stations of the International Monitoring System (IMS) throughout the world, including one as far away as South America. Three years later an improved IMS network easily detected and located the second test explosion. In addition to the seismic network, the complete verification system includes hydroacoustic stations (to detect sound waves in the oceans), infrasound stations (to detect ultra-low frequency waves) and radionuclide stations (to detect radioactive particles and certain gases). On-site inspections are possible if the treaty enters into force. Undetected clandestine tests seem virtually impossible. A state would be taking an enormous gamble to secretly test, with global opprobrium the result when it was caught.

Sixty-seven votes are needed in the Senate to ratify each treaty. The Democrats have a base of 60 senators and need seven moderate Republicans. These may come from a group of 13 likely senators with John McCain and Richard G. Lugar the most important. At this juncture the follow-on START treaty looks easier, with the CTBT more problematic but not impossible. With Republican supporters who were against the CTBT a decade ago, solid technical reports that refute opponents’ complaints and firm leadership from the executive branch, passage seems promising.

Robert S. Norris is senior research associate with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington and co-author of “From Counterforce to Minimal Deterrence: A New Nuclear Policy on the Path Toward Eliminating Nuclear Weapons” (April 2009).

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