Friday, October 31, 2008

SecDef Gates on Nuclear Weapons

H/T to our great research assistant for writing and to Nick Roth for great notes

On October 28, Secretary Robert Gates began his speech on nuclear weapons at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace citing Andrew Carnegie’s dedication to achieving peace in the world. He then said:

I mention all of this because one of the hard lessons of history is that it has a way of defying even the best of intentions - especially on matters of war and peace... And so even as we strive to live up to our noblest goals, as Carnegie did, we must deal with the messy realities of the world in which we live. One of those realities is the existence of nuclear weapons.

Perhaps a good additional quote arguing the need for peace in a time of conflict would have been from someone who grew up knowing the devastating power of nuclear weapons. A quote from Ronald Reagan is one example:

I call upon the scientific community in our country, those who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace, to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.

Gates Speech

Overall, Gates's speech made a direct case for the development of the so-called Reliable Replacement Warhead. Some highlights:

  • Gates said today’s US nuclear weapons are currently, “safe, reliable, and secure,” but warns that the shelf life on these weapons is soon approaching. “The program we propose is not about new capabilities…It is about the future credibility of our strategic deterrent.” (The 2006 study JASONS report, of course, concluded that the plutonium cores, which are the most sensitive component of the nuclear stockpile, have lifetimes of at least 85 years. The average age of nuclear weapons in our stockpile is 21 years old. The oldest warheads are 28.)
  • He argued that the stockpile is increasingly outdated, and moves further away from test design with every adjustment.
  • The United States is the only nuclear power that is not modernizing or cannot build new nuclear weapons.
  • "To be blunt," he argued, "there is absolutely no way we can maintain a credible deterrent and reduce the number of weapons in our stockpile without resorting to testing or pursuing a modernization program," (h/t to William Hartung's commentary on this false choice on TPM Café)

Based on Q&A

  • The US could "probably should" ratify the CTBT if there were adequate verification measures.
  • The Pentagon could accept RRW without nuclear explosive testing. (Does it seem slightly hard to believe that the US would accept a new nuclear weapon without testing if we also argue that we can't accept our current, scientifically-verified stockpile?)
  • On START, Gates said there is a willingness and ability to make deeper reductions in the US and Russian nuclear stockpiles, and there will be another agreement. But, it took years to negotiate START and SALT, and he is not sure that such long and comprehensive agreements are in either country’s best interest.

Looking Ahead

With a few positive notes intertwined, Gates' speech gave cause for concern to those of us working to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons. But the good news is that the increasingly-likely-to-be-elected presidential candidate, Barack Obama, has endorsed this vision:

I believe the United States should lead the international effort to deemphasize the role of nuclear weapons around the world. I also believe that our policy towards the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) affects this leadership position. We can maintain a strong nuclear deterrent to protect our security without rushing to produce a new generation of warheads. I do not support a premature decision to produce the RRW.

Now that would be a tribute to a legacy of peace.

No comments: