Monday, February 1, 2010

The Obama administration is involved in negotiating a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) to replace the 1991 START Treaty, which expired on Dec. 5. Fortunately, a number of unresolved issues remain between the United States and Russia that must be solved before the conclusion of a new treaty. Not the least of these is Russia’s demand that missile defenses be included in the treaty as well as the sharing of telemetry data and Russia’s demand to monitor U.S. missile-defense interceptors.

The talks are on a fast track with the hope of resolving outstanding issues by May. Such a treaty would be viewed by the administration as a major step toward achieving one of President Obama’s campaign goals - of “a world free of nuclear weapons.” Sounds appealing, but it has no substance. With thousands of nuclear weapons around the world, neither the knowledge nor the capability to make them will disappear because of the enactment of a treaty or with unilateral U.S. nuclear disarmament.

Despite all the rhetoric, there is no symmetry in the ongoing START negotiations. Here are the facts:

c Russia has embarked on an aggressive modernization program to field new nuclear weapons. Its strategy has placed increased reliance on its ICBM and sea-based-missile nuclear forces. Most important, it has a fully functional infrastructure that will enable it to “break out” at any time and produce a significant number of warheads each year.

c The United States is the only declared nuclear power that is not modernizing its nuclear forces and does not have the capability to produce a new nuclear warhead. We have reduced our ready nuclear weapons from more than 12,000 to about 2,000. Mr. Obama wants to reduce this to 1,500 warheads now and reportedly seeks reductions to between 500 and 1,000 warheads in the next round of negotiations. We have not designed a new warhead since the 1980s or built one in almost two decades. Our remaining weapons are well past the end of their design life and are deteriorating.

Los Alamos National Laboratory Director Michael R. Anastasio stated, “The weapons in the stockpile are not static. The chemical and radiation processing inside the nuclear physics package induce material changes that limit weapon lifetime.” According to Thomas P. D’Agostino, energy undersecretary for nuclear security and administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, “our aging warheads continue to be a technical challenge for our best scientists and the risk of a catastrophic technical failure … cannot be ruled out.” Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates has stated that “there is absolutely no way we can maintain a credible deterrent … without either resorting to testing our stockpile or pursuing a modernization program.” Even the United Kingdom and France have modernization programs under way to maintain the viability of their deterrent capability.

The main problem is that we have allowed our nuclear weapons infrastructure to atrophy. Compounding the problem is that our experienced scientists, nuclear weapons design and technical engineers, and testing and production personnel are virtually gone, and their replacements fall short of the mark. If we start now, it will take us several years to reconstitute our capability to produce a modern nuclear weapon. A new START Treaty will not change this dangerous situation.

Apparently, not considered in the START discussions is China’s rapid modernization of its nuclear-force structure, to include the development and deployment of four new nuclear missiles, some of which may have multiple warheads. China for years has strongly opposed U.S. missile-defense initiatives as well as weapons in space. In China’s cynical quest for power, it recently demonstrated its own missile-defense capability along with an anti-satellite-intercept capability. The genesis of those programs goes back to 1963, when Chairman Mao Zedong ordered Chinese scientists to start their first missile-defense initiative, called the 640 Program. It also included long-range interceptors and anti-satellite weapons.

China also joined with Russia to protest the U.S. missile-defense cooperation program with Poland and the Czech Republic. President Obama caved and canceled the program with nothing in return. It is clear we cannot proceed with START negotiations without consideration of Russian and Chinese nuclear modernization programs. Continued U.S. reductions in the face of China’s nuclear force expansion threatens the viability of the U.S. extended nuclear deterrent for Japan. Should Japan and our other Asian allies come to the conclusion that they can no longer depend on the U.S. deterrent, our nonproliferation strategy will be in serious jeopardy. North Korean and Iranian nuclear weapons programs further increase the danger.

In view of the current asymmetrical situation, we should halt our participation in the START negotiations until we bring balance back into the equation. This can be accomplished only by modernizing our nuclear weapons infrastructure, which should include the development of a new, reliable warhead and a test program to ensure the reliability of our current stockpile. Such a change in direction would do more to enhance deterrence and stability than the symbolic signing and ratification of another treaty.

Retired Navy Adm. James A. Lyons was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.

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