The ‘Nuclear Posture Landmine’ : An Interview With Joe Cirincione

Originally published here.

Joe Cirincione President Barack Obama has had to face many complex problems during the first year of his presidency, not the least of which are nuclear weapons-related issues. Last week, I interviewed Joe Cirincione, whose current position as president of the Ploughshares Fund is just the latest milestone in his long career as a nuclear non-proliferation expert.

We discussed the Nuclear Posture Review; I’d highly recommend you read his fabulous post at the Huffington Post, “The Pentagon’s Nuclear Posture Landmine“.

My questions are in boldface; his answers follow.

Tell me a little bit about yourself, and how you got interested in nuclear non-proliferation issues. What’s your background?

I was assigned the topic when I joined the staff of the House Armed Services Committee in 1985. I was assigned to cover the Strategic Defense Initiative and NATO nuclear policy and various weapons programs like the MX missile, the B1 and B2 bombers, so I became immersed in the subjects in a very hands-on way. You know, traveling to the military facilities, to the production facilities, and dealt with a lot of these issues for the Democratic members of the committee. I was on the Democratic staff.

I was directly working for a guy named Charles Bennett who was a conservative Southern Democrat from Florida, who was very pro-defense and very anti-nuclear. He thought nuclear weapons were useless. We were never going to use these things and they were sucking the money away from the conventional forces we actually needed… working for him shaped a lot of my thinking on these issues.

And then I went to work for the [House] Committee on Government Operations [the predecessor to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform], to head up their defense work, under John Conyers. I remember him asking me to write a memo on what the pressing security issues were after the fall of the – with the end of the Cold War, and at the top of my list was proliferation. I switched at that point from largely nuclear policy to focusing on the proliferation part of it. That was in 1992, and that’s pretty much dominated my thinking – my career – ever since.

Going from there, tell me a little bit about what the Ploughshares Fund does, and what role you see yourselves playing in the context of the current presidential administration, which of course advocates Global Zero.

Well, we’re not far off from that. We’re dedicated to building a secure and peaceful world through the reduction and elimination of nuclear weapons. We honestly think that there are two great threats to human life on this planet: global warming, and nuclear weapons. These are the only two threats that can destroy life on a planetary scale. They’re both caused by machines we created. There’s nothing inevitable about either, but they both require a transformation in our thinking and politics and leadership.

There’s a broad consensus that the greatest threat to America’s national security is the threat of nuclear terrorism. There’s a lot of problems out there but the only one that can threaten us as a nation is nuclear terrorism, and this problem is getting worse. It’s not easy to do, it’s not even likely that a terrorist could do it, but the consequences of a successful attack are so enormous, that it should rise to the very top of our security priorities.

Unfortunately, it’s still not being treated that way. President Obama has promised to change that, but he hasn’t acted on it yet in any substantial way. Obama has put forth the most comprehensive, progressive, and effective nuclear policy of any president. What’s missing – but he hasn’t yet enacted it. This policy could be world-transformational. It could be a true, historic progression. But, it hasn’t happened yet, and I think it’s going to require – as the President himself points out, it requires more than him making a speech, more than him signing a treaty. It really does require the involvement of a good part of the public to make this happen, because there are substantial forces existing in the nuclear bureaucracy that are perfectly happy with the status quo, are perfectly happy to keep the contracts and the weapons programs just the way they are.

Obviously, you’re very active on Twitter, in a very constructive way… last week, you tweeted that you left a Pentagon meeting more concerned about the NPR [Nuclear Posture Review] than before, and you said it could be a disaster. Let’s talk about that. First of all, for our readers, can you briefly summarize what the Nuclear Posture Review is, and then of course why you’re so concerned, and finally what you’d like Obama to do.

The Nuclear Posture Review is a comprehensive review of US nuclear policies and weapons systems. It’s usually done once in a presidential [administration]. It will determine our policies and weapons systems certainly at least for the next five to ten years, and that’s the scope of it. If it’s done right, it can allow Obama to transform US nuclear policy to less reliance on nuclear weapons, greater focus on preventing nuclear terrorism, and new [nuclear weapons] states. If it’s done wrong, it sandbags the President. It makes it much more difficult for him to cut weapons and nuclear budgets, much more difficult for him to negotiate and ratify the kinds of treaties that he’s talking about.

So the nuclear bureaucracy – that is, the nuclear laboratories, the defense contractors, the ideologues, and the small section of the military still involved with nuclear weapons understand this, and they are waging a battle to basically tweak the current Cold War structure to make it – to pay lip service to Obama’s agenda without actually changing much of anything.

So we could very easily end up with… “Bush light”: the Bush nuclear policies and posture tweaked just a bit, and given an Obama gloss. If the Pentagon has its way, that’s what’s going to happen.

I was going to ask, how would this differ from the 2002 NPR. Does Obama need to step in?

Absolutely. If the President doesn’t exert his leadership here, the agenda he so eloquently described in Prague on April 5 [of this year] will go down the tubes. He’s got to get his White House staff, his senior people, focused, engaged in this review, and prevent it from just drifting along.

Now, I’ve got to tell you: this is a known problem. Many of us have analyzed the previous posture reviews and saw what happened in the Clinton administration when you just let the bureaucrats do the review. It’s like asking bankers to… design their own bank reform. If you do that, you get TARP. [If] you’re asking the bureaucrats to design their own reform – of course you’re not going to get much reform.  You’ve got to get people who don’t have a vested interest in the contracts or the weapons to be doing the review. You have to have people who want to transform the policy, or else you’re just going to get incremental change. So that’s what’s at stake.

The problem with this – you’re dealing with a system that is inherently corrupt. Here’s what I mean. When I walked into the Pentagon last week to go to the briefing, the very first person I met [after getting through security] was a defense contractor… [she was] from SAIC and escorted me to the room. The second person I met was a defense contractor, a woman from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. These people were in on the briefing, which is okay if there is some sort of balance there, but they were staffing the review. SAIC has got contracts with most of the nuclear weapons contractors such as Boeing. Lawrence Livermore makes its living off of building nuclear weapons. They’re staffing the review.

That’s a small indication of how the process itself is inherently corrupt, and I mean that – it’s lobbyists, contractors are built into the process.  You cannot expect change to come from that kind of process.

So ideally it would come straight from lawmakers, and the president, and -

Well, the way that you could do it successfully is the way Bush did it. President Bush – and I did a study – we did a study about this, and Janne Nolan, other people have done this – in this case, Janne Nolan did a great analysis of the failure of the Clinton administration [nuclear] posture review in a book she wrote called An Elusive Consensus. My friend Andy Grotto and I summarized some of that work [in their study], as did others, but also looked at the Bush process, which was successful because it was White House-driven. The way to make changes in the nuclear posture is to have it driven by the vision of the President, and that’s what Bush did. As a result, he changed US nuclear policy – or tried to. He had a review that changed it by articulating new missions for nuclear weapons, declaring that there would be new warheads built, and new delivery vehicles built. Now, the recommendations of that review were blocked by Congress, but the review itself came out the way the President wanted it to.

So, the lesson is clear. If you want to have the President’s vision, you’ve got to have the president running the posture review. You can’t leave it to the bureaucracy, even though you’ve appointed the people – let me get this straight, I want you to be clear about this. I think the people that the president has appointed to the Department of Defense are first-rate. They’re all brilliant, they’re all knowledgeable, they’re all capable, but they do not run that bureaucracy. The bureaucracy runs them. It’s just too big to think that a dozen people are going to take control of it. They’re not. They can’t.

A very specific question I have regarding the NPR – you were talking about treaties – is, how do you think it will ultimately affect the START [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] negotiations with Russia? Do you think it will?

Sure! It’s already affected START negotiations. The Pentagon made sure that the START negotiations wouldn’t actually mandate any cut in weapons beyond what they’ve already planned. So it’s certainly affected that first round. It will definitely affect the second round. See, there’s an argument that the extension of the START agreement had to be quick and easy, so it couldn’t do many major changes in force structure. You just didn’t have time to do that. So you had to do something that both countries were already planning to do anyway and just codify it, so you get – it lets you go down to lower numbers, as you see, the notional numbers are that we will go down to something like 1,500 weapons instead of 2,200. Both sides were already going there anyway. It doesn’t require them to take out of service any missile or subs, or bombers for that matter. These were decreases they were already planning – they were already going to go below what the SORT [Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty] agreement was, the agreement that Bush negotiated in 2002.

The real issue is, could you have gone lower? I think you could have gone lower. The Pentagon made recommendations saying “no, we’re going to stop right here,”. Okay, there’s an argument for that. I’m not necessarily against that. I don’t think there’s anything sort of insidious or evil about that. The real problem comes up in the follow-on agreement, and Presidents Obama and Medvedev are very clear that this START agreement is [to] make sure that we still keep the verification agreements, and we re-start the negotiation process which Bush had ended in 2002, and… plan for another round, for a new treaty, that could go very low, and the kinds of numbers that people have talked about is going down to a force of about 1,000 weapons. Let’s go from a force of – the US currently has about – almost 5,000 weapons in its active stockpile, another 5,000 are awaiting dismantlement. They estimate that Russia has about 12,000 weapons, maybe about half of them is active stockpile. So the idea is to go from (about) 10,000 weapons each to a total of 1,000 weapons: deployed, undeployed, long-range, short-range, that’s what we want to do.

That would require serious force structure cuts. The real danger in the [nuclear posture] review is that it would block those kind of cuts by saying that we have to maintain a larger force, perhaps 1,500 deployed weapons, so not much different from where the START agreement would go to, plus a reserve of perhaps 2,000 weapons. Those are the numbers I hear. That’s the real danger.

The other real danger is that it won’t change the mission. It won’t change the role of nuclear weapons, which is really the very first question. What are nuclear weapons for? What we would like is for the President to declare that they are only for deterring other countries’ use of nuclear weapons. If that’s true, then you can accomplish that mission with very few nuclear weapons. But if you think that nuclear weapons are also useable for deterring chemical and biological attack, for deterring conventional attacks, and that you need to be able to target multiple nations, hold multiple nations at risk at the same time, well, that justifies a very large force. That’s really the core issue, the very first and very most fundamental question the review is going to answer, one way or the other, either by addressing that directly or indirectly by not making any changes to the current missions and by talking about these other missions that it might undertake.

I was looking at the background sheet that the Pentagon released to you at the NPR meeting. It says “a safe, secure, effective, and reliable nuclear deterrent”. So it sounds like the Reliable Replacement Warhead [RRW] will be back. What do you think?

I think the Reliable Replacement Warhead is dead, but there very well could be a Son of RRW.

We shouldn’t kid ourselves, that this is somehow about national security or about the reliability of our nuclear weapons. Every scientific study done has shown that our nuclear weapons are basically immortal, that with careful care they can last forever. This is about money. This is about assuring a flow of contracts and jobs to the nuclear laboratories. It really is not about the military services, it’s not about our ability to destroy cities half a planet away, or to take out discrete military targets, it’s about assuring the laboratories that they have a future.

Right now, the key figure is Secretary Gates. If he believes that the nuclear weapons complex will be taken care of, he will back off his view that he could not support a comprehensive test ban without building a new warhead. After you go through the tenth argument with people, about whether or not we actually need [the RRW], you realize that this is about putting in place a system that will ensure that money, contracts, prestigious jobs will continue to flow to the nuclear laboratories, whose livelihood depends on the continued design and production of nuclear weapons.

We built these beautiful machines [the national laboratories] 60 years ago to give us the building blocks of our nuclear empire, and they worked perfectly, they worked beautifully. And now we’re having trouble turning them off. That is really what this is about. Those are the pressures that are being felt within the Pentagon over this – and Congress – over our nuclear policy. It is basic constituent lobbying, not a genuine debate about the safety and reliability of our nuclear weapons.

The debate about a new warhead is thriving… [A]dministration officials talk about whether they need to “give” the labs a new warhead in order to get their support for the Comprehensive Test Ban [Treaty].

Oh, so that’s what the leverage will be.

That’s what it is. You remember that… in order to get support for the test ban, the [Clinton] administration created the Stockpile Stewardship Program that now has grown to $6 billion a year, to ensure the safety and reliability of the nuclear weapons program. The problem was, the labs took the bribe and did not support the treaty anyway.

Part of what’s going on here, which I didn’t get a chance to put in the post I did, is part of what’s going on with the Pentagon officials who think they’re so smart, is they’re throwing bribes at constituent groups, offering up billions of dollars in money to the labs, offering to keep nuclear force levels high in order to win the votes of “ICBM senators”, offering not to change, not to restrict the missions of nuclear weapons in order to bring over conservatives, they’re giving the concessions before they have any deals. Of course, all these interest groups are going to pocket the concessions, and when it comes time for START ratification and CTBT ratification, they’re only going to demand more.

This entry was posted in Interviews, Nuclear Weapons and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>