Most would agree that the continued downsizing of Cold War-era nuclear arsenals is a good thing, if undertaken with care. But it's embarrassing to see the U.S. pushing -- or is it groveling? -- for a new round of arms control reductions with Russia, by necessity rather than choice, because we've permitted our capabilities to decline to the point that their safety and reliability can't be assured.
Secretary of Defense Bill Gates "says the next American president should pursue a new agreement with Russia to further reduce the size of both nations' nuclear weapons arsenals," the Associated Press reported a few days ago. ". . . Gates spoke Tuesday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he said the long-term outlook for keeping U.S. nuclear weapons safe and reliable is 'bleak,' in part because the United States is experiencing a brain drain in the laboratories that design and develop the world's most powerful weapons. Gates said America's more than 5,000 nuclear weapons are now safe and secure, but he sketched out a series of concerns about the future, while stressing that nuclear weapons must remain a viable part of the U.S. strategy for deterring attack as long as other countries have them."
As if this isn't alarming enough, Gates also said "he is concerned about the possibility that some Russian nuclear weapons from the old Soviet arsenal may not be fully accounted for," indicating that the United States isn't the only nuclear power that might have become a little sloppy following the momentary easing of Cold War tensions. "I have fairly high confidence that no strategic or modern tactical nuclear weapons have leaked" beyond Russian borders, Gates said -- that's a relief! "What worries me are the tens of thousands of old nuclear mines, nuclear artillery shells and so on, because the reality is the Russians themselves probably don't have any idea how many of those they have or, potentially, where they are."
That American weapons aren't in the most capable hands is also evident, as my earlier posts on this subject indicate. Just yesterday, in fact, another alarming story of "nuclear decline" and nuclear neglect ran in our local paper, The Colorado Springs Gazette.
It's a situation I've been following -- and warning about -- for years: link, link, link, link.
Gates emphasized that the current U.S. arsenal is "safe, secure and reliable," but worried aloud about "the long-term prognosis," which he characterizes as "bleak." "He noted that the United States has not designed a new nuclear weapon since the 1980s and has not built a new one since 1992," reports the AP, and he "called for urgent action to reverse a decline in focus on nuclear issues."
"Currently the United States is the only declared nuclear power that is neither modernizing its nuclear arsenal nor has the capability to produce a new nuclear warhead," Gates said. "To be blunt, there is absolutely no way we can maintain a credible deterrent and reduce the number of weapons in our stockpile without resorting to testing our stockpile or pursuing a modernization program."
It's troubling that this hasn't become a major issue in the presidential race -- is it too late in the game to make it one? -- because it's shaping up as one of the major challenges the winner will confront. It might even help precipitate the "crisis" that Joe Biden and others are predicting, if our adversaries decide to "test" the young and inexperienced Barack Obama.
I'm predicting -- clip this post and tape it to the refrigerator -- that the Russians will resume nuclear testing within a few years. That will be the "Sputnik Moment" that reawakens America to the fact that the nuclear arms race isn't over, and that Cold War II is a reality. How the next president and next Congress respond will determine whether the U.S. continues as a military superpower, or chooses the easier course of decline and disarmanent by default.
This would seem to be an issue that plays to McCain's advantage, since he is perceived as the more capable candidate on national security issues. Of the two men, he's the most politically courageous -- a quality the next president will need if it becomes necessary to resume nuclear testing. But even that isn't certain in this topsy-turvy political climate.
Many Americans seem convinced, based on scanty evidence, that Barack Obama is the better choice for managing the economy. Maybe they also think he has the right stuff to manage the next arms race, and can handle a showdown with a snarling Russian bear, emerging from hibernation.