America's nuclear poker game doesn't win friends

July 02, 1998|By William Arkin

AT 1: 01 A.M. on the day President Clinton traveled to China, the United States launched a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile from the coast of California.

The test was not meant to provoke China -- indeed the president was probably unaware that the Air Force was coming to the end of a decade-long program to develop new guidance units for the missile. And no one in the national news media reported the test.

Three days later, the president was signing a "detargeting" accord with China, one that even administration workers label largely symbolic. It is an agreement based solely on a handshake. And Minuteman missiles can be reprogrammed to hit Chinese targets in a matter of minutes.

Key questions

Want to know why the United States does not have the clout needed to stop India and Pakistan from nuclear testing? Why it cannot persuade the Russian parliament to ratify the START II Treaty? Why it spends time negotiating a wholly symbolic "detargeting" agreement with China?

The answer is this test -- the answer is the never-ending refinement of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Even as the number of nuclear weapons declines and the administration professes its dedication to eliminating the threat of nuclear war, there are more than a dozen efforts underway designed to make up for lower numbers of weapons by upgrading accuracy and performance, streamlining procedures to have an equivalent or even superior force.

Under a $2 billion "guidance replacement program," 500 Minuteman missiles will receive new NS-50 "brains" starting next year. This will extend the life of the 30-year-old missiles to the year 2020 -- it will also make them more flexible and accurate.

And when the MX missile is retired under the START II Treaty, between 2003 and 2007, the remaining Minuteman missiles will be pumped up to MX capability.

The guidance replacement program is a Cold War holdover that has been in the works for a long time. But in the past five years, the Clinton administration has supported a broad set of related nuclear force initiatives.

At the heart of the administration's program is an exorbitant "stockpile stewardship" program. Originally conceived as a way to increase nuclear research, stockpile stewardship has turned into a more costly weapons program than existed in the days of robust production.

As part of this effort, the Los Alamos National Laboratory is designing a new nuclear warhead for the Navy's Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile. The warhead will significantly increase the explosive power and deadliness of existing Trident missiles.

Navy's plans

Meanwhile, the Navy is starting to look at a new attack submarine design with nuclear-armed ballistic missiles to replace its Trident boats and, is investigating a "follow-on" submarine missile.

Sandia National Laboratories is busy designing a "glide bomb" upgrade which will give greater range and accuracy to a new nuclear "earth penetrator" just deployed with B-2 bombers.

In addition to these overt programs, the nuclear labs are designing other upgrades to existing warheads -- and working on entirely new weapons.

Our would-be nuclear peers in Asia complain that the United States has a double yardstick, deploring the nuclear capabilities of others while building up an ever-improving nuclear armory. The administration points to fewer nuclear weapons and arms control accomplishments, never acknowledging the improvements it has shepherded through that change the complexion of the enduring force. And somehow it would have India, Pakistan and China -- and its own citizens -- believe that its pursuit of the Comprehensive Test Ban pardons any new weapons developments.

In fact, these disparate programs undercut our disarmament and non-proliferation objectives. It is possible that the guidance replacement program is merely a technological necessity of a slowed arms race and a smaller arsenal, as the Air Force asserts. But the overall message -- when we are extending the life and improving the effectiveness of each component of the nuclear force -- is that indeed we have no intent to disarm.

William M. Arkin is a consultant to the Natural Resources Defense Council. He wrote this for Pacific News Service.

Pub Date: 7/02/98

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