During his campaign for the presidency, Barack Obama promised to make the goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons a central element of his administration’s nuclear policy. Now, in his proposed budget for fiscal year 2010, he has taken a significant step in that direction.

The new budget calls for eliminating development of the Reliable Replacement Warhead Program (RRW), a program the previous administration argued would add safer, more reliable nuclear warheads to the nation’s nuclear stockpile. RRW advocates claimed the only way to ensure the reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal was to continue building new nuclear warheads and weapon systems. One advocate, Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base, expressed concern that the nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile is aging, and added that “time is not on our side” to modernize it.

Congress was not persuaded, and in each of the past two years, it refused to fund the program, in part because a group of independent scientists, the JASON Defense Advisory Group, concluded there was “no evidence” the existing stockpile of U.S. nuclear weapons would be unreliable for at least another century. The group also doubted that new warheads could be certified without resuming nuclear testing, something the United States, at the insistence of Congress, has not done since 1992. Obviously, if the existing nuclear-weapon stockpile is “safe, secure, and reliable,” which Defense Secretary Robert Gates concedes is true, there is no compelling reason to build new nuclear weapons.

The United States possesses far more than enough reliable nuclear weapons to deter a nuclear attack by another country. As of April 2008, we had roughly 3,800 operationally deployed strategic nuclear weapons. Most countries would find the threat from U.S. conventional forces enough to deter them from launching an attack on the United States. Any nuclear attack on the United States would probably not come from another country but from a terrorist group, against which nuclear weapons would have little deterrent effect.

But there are even more important reasons for not building new nuclear weapons. The collateral damage from such weapons, even from low-yield weapons employed against purely military targets, would be unacceptable. Using nuclear weapons against enemy cities is simply out of the question ethically, particularly considering the inevitability of enemy nuclear retaliation against our cities. As a study by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, commissioned by Pope John Paul II, stated: “Any nuclear war would inevitably cause death, disease, and suffering of pandemic proportions and without the possibility of effective medical intervention.” Therefore, the study concluded, prevention of nuclear war is a moral obligation.

Accordingly, the 1983 pastoral letter of the U.S. Catholic bishops, The Challenge of Peace, stated that any use of nuclear weapons, or any strategy that called for their use, would be immoral. It quoted Pope John Paul II’s 1982 message to the UN special session on disarmament:

In current conditions “deterrence” based on balance, certainly not as an end in itself but as a step on the way toward a progressive disarmament, may still be judged morally acceptable. Nonetheless, in order to ensure peace, it is indispensable not to be satisfied with this minimum, which is always susceptible to the real danger of explosion.

In sum, the pope and the U.S. bishops gave only conditional acceptance to nuclear weapons: such weapons cannot be used; they can be possessed only for the purpose of deterrence; but deterrence is morally acceptable only if meaningful steps are being made toward eventual and complete nuclear disarmament—a rationale apparently shared by candidate Obama.

There is still another reason for rejecting the manufacture of new nuclear weapons. The United States, along with the other major nuclear-weapon states—Russia, China, France, and Britain—is a party to the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). By ratifying that accord, states promised to eliminate their nuclear arsenals. In exchange, the nonweapon states that are signatories of the treaty pledged to refrain from acquiring nuclear weapons.

The United States cannot expect other nations to refrain from building nuclear weapons if it continues to add nuclear weapons to its own stockpile. On the contrary, the United States must take concrete steps to demonstrate that it is sincere about eliminating its nuclear weapons, as required by the NPT. As a first step in this direction, in an April 1 meeting in London, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and President Obama pledged to move beyond cold-war mentalities and to “chart a fresh start in relations between our two countries.” They also agreed to begin work on a new version of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which will otherwise expire on December 5. That landmark agreement, completed in 1991, required both Moscow and Washington to cut their deployed strategic forces from more than 10,000 nuclear warheads to fewer than 6,000 each.

The warhead ceilings established by START were further reduced in the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), which allows each side 1,700 to 2,200 operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads. SORT relies on the verification procedures established by START. Not surprisingly, the U.S. intelligence community would not be happy to lose the regular on-site inspections, notifications, and information exchanges between Russia and the United States that START requires. The joint Obama-Medvedev London statement called for progress on the START II Treaty by the time the two leaders meet again in Moscow in July. Russia had already proposed that the next round of START should produce an agreement reducing the limit of deployed strategic nuclear weapons to 1,500 for each nation.

One of the most decisive ways Obama could spur action toward a nuclear-weapons-free world would be to win Senate support for ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). By banning nuclear-weapon tests, this accord limits the ability of established nuclear-weapon states to field new and more sophisticated warheads. It would also make it far more difficult for newer members of the nuclear-weapon club to perfect smaller, more easily deliverable warheads. The United States signed the CTBT in 1996, but the Republican-controlled Senate refused to approve it in 1999, and President George W. Bush actively resisted resubmitting it to that house. As a result, the treaty, which has 180 signatories, has not entered into force.

During his presidential campaign, Obama pledged to “reach out to the Senate to secure the ratification of the CTBT at the earliest practical date,” and then to “launch a diplomatic effort to bring onboard other states whose ratifications are required for the treaty to enter into force.” Now that he has removed RRW from the budget, he must press the Senate to ratify the CTBT.


Related: Slow Fade: Obama, the Bishops & the Bomb, by William Werpehowski

Ronald E. Powaski, a retired professor of history at Cleveland State University, is the author of Return to Armageddon: The United States and the Nuclear Arms Race, 1981–1999 (Oxford University Press).
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Published in the 2009-05-08 issue: View Contents
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