Gates stumps for new nuclear weapons, threatens return to testing in speech

 In Nuclear Weapons

Fear of the terrible power of nuclear weapons has defined US foreign policy for too long, from the Cold War, to the war in Iraq, and the threat of war with Iran. Both Sen. McCain and Sen. Obama, and former Cold Warriors like Henry Kissinger recognize that what America needs now is a new nuclear strategy grounded in US leadership towards eventual global disarmament. Yet Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ speech last Tuesday fell back on fear and an outdated Cold War mentality as he made a desperate pitch for new nuclear weapons and the continuation of a short-sighted, aggressive nuclear weapons policy.

Gates painted a picture of a very scary, unpredictable world in which a long-term US nuclear weapons arsenal will be the only thing to keep us safe from the bad guys (and he lists a lot of them). He states, “We have to acknowledge that the fundamental nature of man hasn’t changed – and that our adversaries and other nations will always seek whatever advantages they can find. Knowing that, we have to be prepared for contingencies we haven’t even considered.” While people from both political parties are suggesting that Gates stay on in the new administration as Secretary of Defense for his handling of the war in Iraq, one has to question his potential appointment based on his embrace of a dangerous nuclear weapons policy.

Against the backdrop of a dangerous world, Gates pushed hard for pursuing the so-called Reliable Replacement Warhead, a new nuclear weapon, despite the fact that Congress once again cut funding for the RRW this year. Congress has wisely recognized that a “do as we say, not as we do” policy is ineffective and has opposed funding for new nuclear weapons like the RRW and nuclear “bunker buster” for the last several years. But Gates recycled the same old claims that the “safety, security, and reliability of our weapons” will decrease as the stockpile ages to justify the need for the RRW. Not only does his push ignore Congress, it also sweeps aside the opinions of expert scientists. A study by the JASON Defense Advisory Group, an independent scientific body, has determined that the current plutonium pits (or triggers of nuclear weapons) have a lifetime of 85 to 100 years. This finding undermines Gates’ argument that our current warheads are growing unreliable and need to be replaced starting now.

Equally disturbing was Gates’ threat that “there is absolutely no way we can maintain a credible deterrent and reduce the number of weapons in our stockpile without either resorting to testing our stockpile or pursuing a modernization program.” According to Gates, adopting the RRW is the only way to avoid nuclear weapons testing and allow stockpile reductions to take place. But his assurance during a question and answer session that the Pentagon could accept the RRW or other new nuclear weapons without nuclear testing rings hollow. Even if it was technologically feasible, the deployment of the new, untested RRW would likely lead to political pressures to resume testing to ensure the credibility of our arsenal in the future. Physicist and government adviser Sidney Drell said, “I can’t believe that an admiral or a general or a future president, who are putting the U.S. survival at stake, would accept an untested weapon if it didn’t have a test base.”

A Cold War approach to nuclear weapons, based on huge stockpiles and enemies like the USSR that no longer pose an imminent threat to the US, is outdated and fails to adequately address the security threats facing the US and the world today. In stark contrast to Gates, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s recent address to the East-West Institute recognizes how pursuing global disarmament is critical to achieving real security:

Nuclear weapons produce horrific, indiscriminate effects.  Even when not used, they pose great risks.  Accidents could happen any time.  The manufacture of nuclear weapons can harm public health and the environment.  And of course, terrorists could acquire nuclear weapons or nuclear material.

Most States have chosen to forego the nuclear option, and have complied with their commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  Yet some States view possession of such weapons as a status symbol.  And some States view nuclear weapons as offering the ultimate deterrent of nuclear attack, which largely accounts for the estimated 26,000 that still exist.

Unfortunately, the doctrine of nuclear deterrence has proven to be contagious.  This has made non-proliferation more difficult, which in turn raises new risks that nuclear weapons will be used.

US leadership can help steer the global community towards the global disarmament that will make all of us safer from the threat of nuclear weapons. Peace Action West calls on the new Congress and administration to ensure that the US will work with Russia to achieve deep, verifiable cuts to both our nuclear weapons arsenals, join the 145 other nations that have ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and secure loose nuclear weapons and material to prevent terrorist attacks.

Photo of Sec. of Defense Gates courtesy of AP.

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  • Sarosh Syed

    Thanks so much for mentioning the EastWest Institute conference in your piece. We hope the event will breathe new life into the nonproliferation discussion, and help to finally eliminate nuclear weapons.
    Thank you for helping to spread the word and build on this momentum. Please let me know if there’s anything I can help you with.
    I can be reached at ssyed at ewi dot info
    Sarosh Syed
    EastWest Institute

  • Gabor
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