Obama Underscores Need for Further Progress to Reduce Nuclear Dangers

President Barack Obama speaks Dec. 3, 2012 along with Secretary of Defense Panetta, fmr. Sen. Sam Nunn, and Sen. Dick Lugar.

President Barack Obama speaks Dec. 3, 2012 at the National Defense University along with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, fmr. Sen. Sam Nunn, and Sen. Dick Lugar.

By Daryl G. Kimball

In his first foreign policy-related address since his reelection, on Monday Dec. 3 President Obama praised the architects of the highly-successful Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, he reaffirmed his commitment to the action plan toward a world without nuclear weapons, and he underscored his commitment to achieve further progress to reduce the threats posed by nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

While Obama did not break new ground, his remarks are an important signal to his national security team, the Congress, the American public, and the world that he intends to complete unfinished nuclear risk reduction tasks that he set out in his historic Prague address in April 2009.

In the speech which capped a day-long conference titled “Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction: Partnering for a More Secure World” at the National Defense University, Obama praised former Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) for their visionary and bipartisan leadership to conceive of and support the program.

Begun in 1991, the program has deactivated over 7,600 warheads and destroyed over 900 intercontinental ballistic missiles. It has dismantled 33 submarines that carried nuclear weapons and 155 bombers. It also has funded security measures to safeguard facilities housing weapons of mass destruction and destroy chemical and biological weapons.

However, the President said, “…even with all your success — the thousands of missiles destroyed, bombers and submarines eliminated, the warheads that have been deactivated — we’re nowhere near done.  Not by a long shot.  And you all know this.  There’s still much too much material -— nuclear, chemical, biological -— being stored without enough protection.  There are still terrorists and criminal gangs doing everything they can to get their hands on it.”

“And make no mistake,” Obama said, “if they get it, they will use it; potentially killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people,  perhaps triggering a global crisis.  That’s why I continue to believe that nuclear terrorism remains one of the greatest threats to global security.  That’s why working to prevent nuclear terrorism is going to remain one of my top national security priorities as long as I have the privilege of being President of the United States.”

Significant progress has been achieved to lock-down vulnerable nuclear material worldwide, but the to-do list is long, its underfunded, and its unfinished, as the March 2012 ACA-PGS status report on the 2010 and 2012 Nuclear Security Summits explains.

One key step that Congress could take in the bipartisan tradition of Nunn-Lugar would be to finally approve the implementing legislation for two nuclear terrorism prevention conventions: the International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism, and the 2005 amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Materials, are common sense measures that enhance the world’s ability to prevent incidents of nuclear terrorism and punish those responsible.

As ACA Senior Fellow Greg Thielmann wrote in a recent ACA Issue Brief, “Time Is Now to Act on Treaties to Guard Against Nuclear Terrorism,” the legislation for these treaties has been delayed as a result of an impasse on the Senate Judiciary Committee between chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa).

Second Term Nuclear Risk Reduction Opportunities

Obama said “Nunn-Lugar is the foundation for the vision that I laid out, once I was elected President, in travel to Prague — where nations come together to secure nuclear materials, as we’re doing with our Nuclear Security Summits, where we build on New START and continue to work to reduce our arsenals; where we strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and prevent the spread of the world’s most deadly weapons; where, over time, we come closer to our ultimate vision — a world without nuclear weapons.”

Continuing to reduce the nuclear threat, strengthen the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and move closer toward a world without nuclear weapons will require stronger presidential leadership on the objectives that Obama and his team laid out in his first term.

In addition to renewing the framework agreement for cooperation with Russia and other states to secure vulnerable WMD stockpiles from terrorists, President Obama must seize his second term opportunity to reduce the nuclear dangers in other areas:

Ending Cold War Thinking. In Prague in 2009, President Barack Obama pledged to “end Cold War thinking” and further reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons. Following the modest but important New START treaty, the White House must follow through by implementing a saner, “nuclear deterrence only” strategy outlined in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review. As the President said in a March 2012 speech:

“My Administration’s nuclear posture recognizes that the massive nuclear arsenal we inherited from the Cold War is poorly suited for today’s threats, including nuclear terrorism.  Last summer, I therefore directed my national security team to conduct a comprehensive study of our nuclear forces.  That study is still underway.”

“But even as we have more work to do, we can already say with confidence that we have more nuclear weapons than we need. I firmly believe that we can ensure the security of the United States and our allies, maintain a strong deterrent against any threat, and still pursue further reductions in our nuclear arsenal.”

To make the necessary changes in the old nuclear war plan, Obama should eliminate outdated targeting assumptions developed decades ago to deplete an opponent’s war-fighting assets after the outbreak of hostilities rather than to ensure there is a sufficient retaliatory capability to deter nuclear attack in the first place.

He should also seek to lower current requirements for how much damage must be accomplished to ensure that a target is destroyed. To deter a nuclear attack, adversaries need only realize the United States is capable of reducing key targets to radioactive rubble rather than a fine dust.

These changes in U.S. nuclear strategy could open the way for further U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear reductions — to no more than 1,000 deployed nuclear warheads each. Even with 500 warheads on survivable delivery systems, the United States would still have more than enough nuclear firepower to deter nuclear attack by the other or by any other current or future nuclear adversary.

Cutting Bloated U.S. and Russian Nuclear Arsenals. As a new report from the Secretary of State’s International Security Advisory Panel suggests, with New START verification tools in place, reciprocal U.S.-Russian cuts, including new transparency measures on tactical nuclear weapons, need not wait for a formal, new, follow-on treaty.

And by signaling he is prepared to accelerate reductions and move U.S. forces below the 1,550 deployed strategic warhead ceiling of New START, the U.S. president could induce the Kremlin to build down rather than build up its forces. This would help reduce the enormous cost of planned strategic force modernization by both countries in the coming years.  Such actions would put pressure on China to abandon its slow increase in nuclear forces and open the door for serious multilateral disarmament discussions.

And as Stephen Pifer and Michael O’Hanlon write in the December issue of Arms Control Today, the two sides can and should also begin talks on a new comprehensive nuclear reductions treaty that leads to further verifiable reductions in all types of warheads — strategic, nonstrategic, deployed and nondeployed.

Moving the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Forward. Twenty years after its last nuclear test, the United States no longer needs or wants a resumption of testing. Yet by failing to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), Washington has denied itself and others the treaty’s full security benefits. U.S. ratification is essential to bring other hold-out states on board and to move closer to full entry into force.

Since the beginning of his first term, President Barack Obama and senior administration officials have consistently expressed support for the pursuit of U.S. reconsideration and ratification of the treaty. In April 2009 he called for U.S. reconsideration and ratification of the CTBT. In March 2012, Obama reaffirmed that commitment and said: “… my administration will continue to pursue ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.”

Today the case for U.S. approval of the CTBT is stronger than it has ever been. Moving forward and gaining the necessary 67 Senate votes in support of ratification of the CTBT remains difficult, but is within reach with strong presidential leadership and a serious, sustained bipartisan review of the issues.

Its time for the President to follow-through on the CTBT.

With his national security team in flux and occupied with tough security challenges–from Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile, to upcoming talks on Iran’s nuclear program, to North Korea’s nuclear and missile ambitions–it is essential that the President appoint a senior, high-level White House coordinator or a high-level task force to push the ratification campaign along. As far back as 2000, thoughtful CTBT advocates, including Gen. John Shalikashvili, have called for “a sustained interagency effort to address senators’ questions and concerns” on the CTBT and other nonproliferation issues.

With the CTBT in force, the established nuclear-weapon states would not be able to proof-test new nuclear warhead designs, newer nuclear nations would find it far more difficult to build more-advanced warhead types, and emerging nuclear states would encounter greater obstacles in fielding a reliable arsenal. U.S. action on the CTBT is urgently needed to help head off future nuclear arms competition, particularly in the Middle East, South Asia, and the Korean peninsula.

A Lasting Legacy

By taking these bold steps, President Obama could significantly reduce global nuclear dangers, reinforce the beleaguered nuclear nonproliferation system, and establish a lasting international nuclear security legacy. Among other benefits, this would build support for tougher enforcement actions regarding states, such as Iran and North Korea, that fail to meet their safeguards obligations, and build pressure on other nuclear-armed states to contribute more to the goal of realizing a world without nuclear weapons.

As President John F. Kennedy suggested five decades ago, we must work faster and harder to abolish nuclear weapons before they abolish us. In the months ahead, President Obama can and should seize the leadership opportunity to further reduce the nuclear threat.

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