The Obama Administration’s promise of early action to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is shaping up to become a direct challenge to the prominently declared views of his Defense Secretary.

President-elect Barack Obama’s campaign position on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was unambiguous:[i] “I will work with the U.S. Senate to secure ratification of the CTBT at the earliest practical date.”[ii]

Obama’s promised approach to nuclear weapons generally is to pursue their elimination while insisting that “as long as [other] states retain nuclear weapons, the United States will maintain a nuclear deterrent that is strong, safe, secure, and reliable” (emphasis added). The reference to reliability speaks to opponents of CTBT ratification who insist that warhead reliability deteriorates over time and that the current US stockpile needs ongoing testing.

A proposed alternative to testing selected warheads in the existing and aging stockpile is the controversial and still unfunded Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program. Currently the viability of existing warheads is monitored without testing under the Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP). The SSP does not replace warheads (that is, it does not build new warheads), but does maintenance on them, including the replacement of parts. But there are those, including Mr. Obama’s Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, who argue that either the US must retain the prerogative to test warheads in the existing stockpile or build new warheads that will be regarded as reliable well into the future. They call it “modernization” and it is what the RRW program was supposed to do.

Last Fall Gates told a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace audience that “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.”[iii] Gates has indicated support for CTBT ratification, but only on condition of modernization of the US arsenal – that is, on condition of building new warheads.

President-elect Obama, on the other hand, has insisted, in response to an Arms Control Association question[iv] on whether existing US warheads can fulfill the deterrent role that Obama says is still needed, that “I will not authorize the development of new nuclear weapons and related capabilities.”

That seems to be an unambiguous rejection of the Reliable Replacement Warhead program and it promises to put the new President on a collision course with his Defense Secretary on the CTBT ratification issue. Gates says, either test old warheads or build new ones; Obama says, no testing and no new warheads.

For Obama to hold firm on CTBT ratification without allowing new warheads to be built will probably require some compromise by both the President and the Defense Secretary. For the President to ratify the CTBT he will require the support of two-thirds of the Senate, leaving the Democrats on their own well short. To win over the Republicans needed, Obama and Gates may well take up a compromise suggested by Michael O’Hanlan of the Brookings Institute. Obama would prohibit the building of any new warheads at this time, but would not insist on “never”; Gates would accept a significant delay in any warhead replacement program on grounds that his doubts about the reliability of existing warheads are based on their condition 25 to 50 years from now.[v]

A new Interim Report of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States[vi] could give support to the same compromise formula. The Commission also links ratification of the CTBT to an active program for maintaining the reliability of existing warheads, but it focuses on the Stockpile Stewardship Program which does not include the modification of existing warheads or any mandate to build new warheads.

The Commission lauds the ongoing success of the current warhead “Life Extension Program” (leaving one to contemplate the perverse irony that the preservation of warheads capable of killing many millions is designated a “life extension” program). That aside, the Commission’s Interim Report indirectly also makes the case for punting on the warhead replacement issue by pointing out that the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has confirmed that the plutonium pits in warheads do not decay nearly as quickly as earlier anticipated – which should bolster US “confidence” in the reliability of existing warheads, thus permitting both CTBT ratification and stockpile reductions.

Success for Barak Obama, not to mention fidelity to his campaign promises, requires that he work for the ratification of the CTBT while also refusing in the timeframe of his presidency to permit the building of new warheads, and that his Defense Secretary becomes a champion of the same compromise.

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[i] President-elect Obama’s views on nuclear arms control are perhaps most clearly and succinctly presented in his response to a series of questions posed by the Washington-based Arms Control Association. Arms Control Today 2008 Presidential Q & A: President-Elect Barack Obama, Special Section, Arms Control Association, http://www.armscontrol.org/system/files/Obama_Q-A_FINAL_Dec10_2008.pdf.

[ii] He also promised to “launch a diplomatic effort to bring onboard other states whose ratifications are required for the treaty to enter into force.” Those “other states” are the 44 states listed in Annex II of the CTBT, namely, states that pursue some elements of nuclear programming or have some nuclear technology or materials and which must all ratify the CTBT before it can enter into force. Three of the Annex II states have yet to sign (North Korea, India, and Pakistan) and nine[ii] (including the US) have yet to ratify the Treaty.

[iii] Elaine M. Grossman, “Gates Sees Stark Choice on Nuke Tests, Modernization,” Global Security Newswire, The Nuclear Threat Initiative, 29 October 2008, http://www.globalsecuritynewswire.org/gsn/nw_20081029_2822.php.

[iv] See Note i.

[v] Michael O’Hanlon, “A New Old Nuclear Arsenal,” 25 December 2008, Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/12/24/AR2008122402032.html.

[vi] The Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, Interim Report, 15 December 2008, facilitated by the United States Institute of Peace, Washington, http://www.usip.org/strategic_posture/sprc_interim_report.pdf.


 

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