Saturday, April 10, 2010

Slouching Toward Disarmament

Every American president talks rhetorically about nuclear disarmament. It' a polite way to cloak the iron fist in a velvet glove. But none until Barack Obama has been reckless and naive enough to pursue this in practice, in the vain (and I mean it both ways) hope that the rest of the world will disarm right along with us.

While all eyes were riveted on an audacious domestic agenda, Obama has promulgated a policy change, and negotiated a treaty with Russia, that makes nuclear disarmament through intentional neglect official U.S. policy. It's a decision our grandchildren will rue as one of the worst of his presidency.

From last week's New York Times:

"Discussing his approach to nuclear security the day before formally releasing his new strategy, Mr. Obama described his policy as part of a broader effort to edge the world toward making nuclear weapons obsolete, and to create incentives for countries to give up any nuclear ambitions. To set an example, the new strategy renounces the development of any new nuclear weapons, overruling the initial position of his own defense secretary."

Previous presidents have signed treaties reducing the number of U.S. warheads (and a further reduction in numbers might even make sense). But none ever before renounced the development of new weapons to replace old ones, which amounts to incremental disarmament by default. It's a dangerous decision, with huge implications. The only hope we have is that cooler heads in Congress will reject the new "nuclear posture review" and refuse to fund implementation. It can also leave the arms reduction treaty with Russia unratified, saving Obama from his fecklessness.

The treaty makes a virtue of necessity, since large reductions in U.S. nuclear forces will soon become unavoidable, because our "science-based stockpile stewardship" program has failed. We no longer can verify the safety and reliability of an aging arsenal, which hasn't seen a major modernization or innovation since the late 1980s. Computer simulations were supposed to give us the same level of assurances we formerly received from real-world testing. But that was just another techie pipe dream. Much of the arsenal is now beyond its design life expectancy. It's degrading (perhaps dangerously) in place. Computer simulations can't provide real world assurances. A situation I anticipated years ago, in pieces like this and this, is coming to pass.

Unfortunately, most commentary on the policy shift has focused on the issue of first use and targeting and the number of warheads. But that all becomes irrelevant if, in 10 or 20 or 30 years, we don't have reliable warheads and delivery systems to make the deterrent credible (or to deliver the goods, if a major conflict breaks out). Designing and deploying nuclear weapons isn't an off-the-cuff (or off the shelf) endeavor. Reversing the present decline will be immensely costly, politically controversial and could prove impossible, given the brain drain and experience deficit our national labs have suffered during this extended period of inactivity. Much of the specialized infrastructure and expertise required to modernize might be impossible to recover.

Arms reductions are probably desirable. But even a smaller arsenal will at some point need to be modernized, in order to maintain safety and reliability (not to mention a credible deterrent) -- unless Obama intends to cobble together our future force with salvage parts and scotch tape.

A weapons expert I interviewed years ago, in my reporting days, used this analogy to describe the approach we're taking. Go out today and buy a Ferrari, he said. Then, park it in your garage for 35 years. Don't drive it. Don't service it. Look under the hood occasionally, if you like, but replace no parts. Now, bet your life and the safety of your family on that Ferrari roaring back to life, and functioning perfectly, when an emergency strikes, 35 years hence. That's the gamble we're taking with our nuclear forces, according to the expert.

The policy of disarmament by neglect can't all be laid at Obama's throne. Two blundering Bushes and one Bill Clinton also refused to upgrade the arsenal, with the full complicity of no-nuke retreads in Congress, choosing to abide by an unratified test ban treaty that makes it nearly impossible to verify the toll that time is taking on our mothballed weapons. The test ban also makes it nearly impossible to field next generation weapons -- at least if we want to be sure that they go "boom" when we want them to.

I suppose fumbling away the nuclear football, through disarmament by disintegration, will be hailed by unreconstructed no-nukers, who now have one of their own in the White House. But if they imagine that our present and future geopolitical rivals will follow our lead, they're due for a shock. The test ban will be broken before long -- probably by Russia -- providing another Sputnik moment. But it's doubtful we'll have the will to respond, given the controversy and costs a modernization effort will generate.

We're settling for second or third or fourth as an economic power; we'll settle for second or third or fourth as a military power too. According to the Obama Doctrine, our moral standing in the world will rise as our economic and military power declines. The true demonstration of our virtue and our strength is to gracefully surrender first place.

The nuclear arms race won't end simply because the former frontrunner decides he's too old and winded and lazy to carry on. If Obama gets two terms, we'll be lucky to be also-rans.

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