A safer U.S. nuke plan

November 07, 2006|By Alexandros Petersen

LONDON -- I can see the headlines now: "U.S. Increases Nuclear Arsenal by 2,200"; "U.S. Proliferates While Scolding Iran for Doing the Same"; "U.S. to be Next North Korea." Do not be shocked if you notice these titles in foreign press outlets, keen to grab any tidbit that might paint the Bush administration or America in a negative light. Do not be too surprised if they appear in the opinion pages of major U.S. newspapers either.

Last month, the administration announced its intention to pursue a multi-year plan to upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which includes the development of 2,200 new nuclear weapons. The plan, dubbed "Complex 2030" by the National Nuclear Security Administration, calls for the consolidation of nuclear design and production facilities, from the current eight to probably four. All plutonium and its related materials are to be moved to one secure site, and old facilities are to be revamped and repaired. The current 5,500-strong Cold War-era arsenal would be dismantled and replaced by fewer than half as many new "reliable replacement warheads." Complex 2030 can be seen as an inelegant but necessary measure to maintain the effectiveness of the force.

Already, anti-nuclear activists have characterized the idea as "a bizarrely inappropriate Dr. Strangelove-esque plan." The prospect of the U.S. administration that thrust neoconservatism onto the world stage re-engineering the American nuclear arsenal and building thousands of new hydrogen bombs will be an irresistible conversation point for critics, domestic and foreign. But activists, defense-spending watchdogs in the U.S. and foreign detractors will have misunderstood the objective and repercussions of the plan, if they claim, as some have, that Complex 2030 is an act of nuclear proliferation.

The U.S. can continue to pressure North Korea and Iran for blatantly betraying their commitments to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, safe in the knowledge that Complex 2030 not only does not contravene the treaty, but in fact sees the U.S. honoring its commitment to drastically reduce its nuclear stockpile. Under the plan, the U.S. will decommission more than 5,500 nuclear weapons and replace them with only 2,200 safer, long-lasting and more robust versions. Once completed, the new arsenal will be the smallest since the Eisenhower administration. Nor will the replacement plan violate the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, as the new warheads are specifically based on tried-and-true designs that will not require any new nuclear tests.

Complex 2030 is to be put to public scrutiny, both as it is reviewed in Congress and in a number of public hearings at the sites to be reorganized. Participants will be able to comment on two alternative proposals: the "No Action Alternative" and the "Reduced Operations and Capability-Based Complex Alternative." The first would retain the status quo. The second would provide for no upgrades or repairs and would restrict new nuclear development to 40 percent of the requirement under Complex 2030.

The administration's plan is by far the best, both from a safety and a national security standpoint. Neglecting our nuclear infrastructure would be a serious mistake. A more manageable nuclear arsenal is essential in today's perilous and fluid international arena. The concentration of nuclear materials in fewer sites increases safety and provides fewer targets for terrorists bent on nuclear catastrophe.

Also, to develop the new warheads, the administration called for a design competition between the country's two main nuclear laboratories: Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos. Such a competition has not been held in more than two decades and will provide essential training for the next generation of nuclear weapons engineers. The alternative plans merely pass the problem on to future administrations. Complex 2030 puts America on the right path to a viable, effective and responsible nuclear posture.

In the end, the greatest threat to the future of Complex 2030 may not stem from its being misunderstood abroad, but rather from its being misconstrued on Capitol Hill. The next, possibly Democratic, Congress may well jerk its knee and strike down the plan merely because the president supports it. That would be a grave error, which would not only condemn the U.S. to maintaining a costly, unsafe nuclear arsenal, but would jeopardize the effectiveness of America's most important defense capability.

Alexandros Petersen is a military and international affairs analyst based in London and Washington. His e-mail is alexandrospetersen@gmail.com.

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