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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson August 10, 2011

Administration keeps rehab policy for old weapons, but conflict not over yet

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to "stop the development of new nuclear weapons; work with Russia to take U.S. and Russian ballistic missiles off hair-trigger alert; seek dramatic reductions in U.S. and Russian stockpiles of nuclear weapons and material; and set a goal to expand the U.S.-Russian ban on intermediate-range missiles so that the agreement is global."

We"ve addressed several aspects of this promise in other items, but the part of the promise we haven"t taken up elsewhere is the part about stopping the development of new nuclear weapons.

After taking a fresh look at this promise recently, we concluded that we had used the wrong criteria to make our last rating. We had focused on what the United States was doing to stop the development of new nuclear weapons around the world. Instead, we should have focused on what the U.S. was doing to avoid designing and producing a new generation of nuclear weapons at home. So we"ll use the new criteria in this rating.

In April 2010, the administration released the Nuclear Posture Review, a periodic, wide-ranging assessment by the administration of U.S. nuclear-weapons policy. The review concluded that the United States should continue the principles underlying the existing Stockpile Stewardship Program, which refurbishes older weapons to a state close to their original specifications.

"The United States will not develop new nuclear warheads," the review stated. "Life Extension Programs (LEPs) will use only nuclear components based on previously tested designs, and will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities. … The full range of LEP approaches will be considered: refurbishment of existing warheads, reuse of nuclear components from different warheads, and replacement of nuclear components."

This would seem to support the president"s promise, but there"s a caveat. In December 2010, when the Senate was considering ratification of the New Start accord -- an agreement with Russia to cut nuclear weapons -- the White House and its Senate allies agreed to a proposal by Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., one of New Start"s strongest skeptics. In the quest to win votes, the White House promised to spend $85 billion over 10 years to "modernize" the nation"s nuclear weapons complex.

According to Global Security Newswire, the projects include "extending the service lives of Air Force and Navy nuclear weapons, including those carried by the B-61 gravity bomb and the Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile, as well as building new facilities to research and process warhead uranium and plutonium."

There are many ways that this $85 billion can be spent without conflicting with the no-new-weapons pledge in the Nuclear Posture Review. But observers say the line is fuzzy.

There"s "a complex discussion" under way about "how many changes can be made before a weapon is considered a 'new" nuclear weapon," said Matthew Bunn, a nuclear-weapons policy specialist at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

And advocates of new nuclear weapons systems can be expected to keep up the pressure. "It is essential that the United States develop and test new nuclear weapons for the 21st century, rather than rely on systems designed to respond to a massive Soviet nuclear weapons attack," wrote the conservative Heritage Foundation in a June 2011 issue brief.

Given an opportunity in the Nuclear Posture Review to change U.S. policy on developing new-generation nuclear weapons, the Obama Administration decided to stay with the status quo -- favoring replacement parts over new designs. There will almost certainly be continuing skirmishes over this issue, and the modernization funds provide a pot of money that could be used to create new-generation weapons. But that hasn"t happened yet. If it does, we may change our ruling, but for now, we"ll call this a Promise Kept.

Our Sources

By Kevin Robillard January 14, 2010

Work to stop spread of nuclear weapons inches forward

During the campaign, Barack Obama promised to "stop the development of new nuclear weapons; work with Russia to take U.S. and Russian ballistic missiles off hair-trigger alert; seek dramatic reductions in U.S. and Russian stockpiles of nuclear weapons and material; and set a goal to expand the U.S.-Russian ban on intermediate-range missiles so that the agreement is global."

We've already graded two segments of this promise. Obama got an In The Works on both removing Russian and U.S. ballistic missiles from hair-trigger alert and seeking reductions in U.S. and Russian stockpiles of nuclear weapons.

Significantly less progress seems to have been made on making the U.S.-Russian pact banning intermediate-range missiles a global one. Obama didn't mention it in his speech calling for the worldwide elimination of nuclear weapons in Prague in April 2009, and it wasn't touched on in a unanimous U.N. Security Council resolution covering nuclear issues. We looked around and couldn't find any other evidence of progress.

But the major part of this promise is the first section, in which Obama promises to stop the development of new nuclear weapons. Let's break this down into two parts: dealing with the nations that don't have disclosed nuclear programs, and dealing with the new nuclear rogues of North Korea and Iran.

The grand nuclear bargain embodied in the U.N. Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was that countries without nuclear weapons would agree not to pursue them and the nuclear-armed states (at the time, the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom and China) would agree to slowly disarm themselves. But the weaker nations have long complained that the powers -- which also happen to be the five states on the United Nations Security Council -- weren't living up to their end of the bargain.

That seems to be changing. The United States and Russia -- which control the vast majority of weapons -- are negotiating deep cuts to their arsenals as they look to extend the landmark Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START. Great Britain is also considering cuts, and France has already announced some.

This co-operation could make it less likely that new nations will start nuclear weapons programs and make them more likely to support stricter inspections, but the true test of how pleased the rest of the world is with these developments will be at the 2010 conference reviewing the nonproliferation pact.

Dealing with North Korea and Iran has proven to be a bigger challenge. Obama's outreach to Iran has yet to produce real progress on its nuclear program, and China and Russia don't appear eager to adopt the strict sanctions Obama wants to impose on the regime. North Korea restarted its nuclear program not long after Obama entered office. And while the country offered to restart talks recently, the offer was based on some ridiculous conditions: the United States would have to formally sign a treaty ending the Korean War (there is still technically only a cease-fire) and the United Nations would have to lift sanctions imposed after North Korea tested a nuclear bomb and launched a ballistic missile last year.

This is a complicated issue, and Iran and North Korea have both been working on nuclear programs for decades. Obama can't be expected to stop them in a year. So far, despite various efforts, he hasn't made much progress. But he'll have more chances this spring to press his case, when the nonproliferation review conference and a White House-hosted Global Nuclear Security Summit occur. That's enough for us to rate this promise as In the Works.

Our Sources

The White House, Remarks By President Barack Obama In Prague As Delivered, April 5, 2009

United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1887, Sept. 24, 2009

New York Times, Brown to Offer to Cut British Nuclear Subs, By John F. Burns, Sept. 23, 2009

Global Security Newswire, Sarkozy Announces French Nuclear Cuts, Warns Iran, March 21, 2008

Reuters, China rules out new U.N. sanctions on Iran for now, By Louis Charbonneau, Jan. 5, 2010

New York Times, North Korea Claims to Conduct 2nd Nuclear Test, By Choe Sang-Hun, May 24, 2009

Slate, Why Obama is right to ignore North Korea's latest overture for nuclear talks, By Fred Kaplan, Jan. 13, 2010

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