Foreign Affairs

Open mic and less nuclear security

An open-mic comment by President Barack Obama gives the Russians an early Christmas and the American people reason to reject the president’s radical nuclear security strategy.

Obama’s comment came last week after a meeting with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. Obama said, “On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this can be solved, but it’s important for him [Vladimir Putin] to give me space.”

“Yeah, I understand.  I will transmit this information to Vladimir,” Mr. Medvedev said. 

Obama continued, “After my election I have more flexibility.”

“But flexibility to do what?” Republican presidential candidate Governor Mitt Romney asked in Foreign Affairs Magazine.

Romney opined, “The Russians clearly prefer to do business with the current incumbent of the White House” because Obama has “been pliant on missile defense and other areas of nuclear security.” 

Congressional Republicans are also alarmed by Mr. Obama’s nuclear security performance.  In February, 34 members wrote the president a letter, “to share our deep concern … that you specifically instructed the National Security Council to undertake a study that could result in U.S. nuclear weapons reductions of up to 80%.”  

The members of Congress labeled it “inconceivable” that the president would consider shrinking our nuclear arsenal when, according to their letter, every other nuclear weapons state has an active nuclear weapons modernization program.  Obama has not responded to the letter.

Last week, Mr. Obama restated his nuclear vision: “Stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and seeking a world without them.”  This vision was the basis for Obama’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, which outlines the administration’s strategy for reducing “nuclear dangers.”

Last summer, Mr. Obama explained, he launched a study to implement his NPR.

 “Even as we have more work to do, we can already say with confidence that we have more nuclear weapons than we need,” he said. 

The president’s nuclear security performance, based on his own five NPR strategic objectives, raises a number of challenges.

First, preventing nuclear proliferation and terrorism.  While Obama has taken steps to address this objective, the scope of the problem is daunting.  It takes 55 pounds of highly enriched uranium or 17 pounds of plutonium to build a crude Hiroshima-style bomb.  The world is awash in both materials – enough material spread throughout 38 countries for more than 100,000 nuclear weapons, not including the material already making up 20,000 current weapons and inside 440 reactors.

Only a binding, universal regime has any chance of halting proliferation and controlling the global threat of atomic terrorism.  But too few nations are willing to invest the effort and expense to make a universal regime work, which prompts the question: how does our president intend to prevent nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism without universal support? 

Second, reducing the role of nuclear weapons.  Obama unilaterally changed the role of our  nuclear weapons from “critical” to “fundamental,”  meaning the U.S. will not threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states.  Our nuclear  weapons’ “fundamental” role is now solely to deter nuclear attack. American actions are now more predictable, our defenses are accordingly weakened. 

Third, maintaining strategic deterrence and stability with a reduced nuclear force.  Obama worked with Russia to secure the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which reduces our strategic warheads, deployable delivery vehicles and launchers.  It also permits only a single warhead on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). 

But New START also gives Russia the advantage, forcing us to downsize our arsenal while leaving Russia’s deployed force untouched.  New START limits each side to 1,550 deployed warheads;  currently, the U.S. has 1,800 and Russia has 1,537. 

It also imposes a limit of 700 deployed ICBMs, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and heavy bombers.  The U.S. has 883 compared to Russia’s 521, according to the U.S. State Department.

Further, the congressional letter to Obama states that China and Russia are engaged in aggressive nuclear force buildups in both quantity and quality.  How does the president’s New START and anticipated downsizing plan maintain strategic deterrence while our enemies are aggressively growing their own forces?

Fourth, strengthening regional deterrence and reassurance of U.S. allies.  Obama seeks to strengthen regional deterrence by enhancing conventional capabilities, but there are seldom enough conventional anti-missile systems to satisfy fearful allies.

Then there are nations like Saudi Arabia which promise to build a nuclear force should Iran go nuclear, and similar discussions are ongoing in Japan and South Korea as the North Korean nuclear threat grows. 

How does the president plan to strengthen regional deterrence with insufficient conventional assets and a growing nuclear threat?

Finally, sustaining a secure and effective nuclear arsenal.  Obama promises to do this by adhering to four principles: no nuclear testing, no new nuclear warheads, studying warhead sustainment options, and a strong refurbishment or re-use program. 

Under President Obama, the U.S. would keep a status quo arsenal even though our weapons and infrastructure are aged and our platforms require major modernization.

In 2010, President Obama pledged to support the U.S. nuclear weapons modernization program to win votes for New START.  But according to Congressional Republicans, his 2013 budget reneges on his pledge to support nuclear modernization.

President Obama’s stewardship of our nuclear arsenal endangers America. Downsizing our capability and feeding insecurity among our partners, he invests too much energy chasing his nuclear-free dream.

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