Spin versus Facts on Nuclear “Modernization” and New START

Also published here.

Official White House photo by Pete Souza.

The photo above was taken in December 2009. It’s a White House Situation Room meeting between President Obama and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Special Assistant to the President (Coordinator for Arms Control and WMD) Gary Samore, Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. They’re discussing nuclear arms control and non-proliferation, which is a subject of constant interest to them, but only rarely makes it into the media spotlight…

… until this month. “Nuclear Spring” is what one analyst called it. We saw tremendous news coverage of the signing of a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), release of the Nuclear Posture Review, and President Obama’s historic Nuclear Security Summit.

Now that all the meetings are over, the fancy pens put away, and everyone is back in Washington, DC, press coverage has died down, but the Senate consideration of the New START treaty is starting to gain steam. Lugar has said that he hopes they can “work quickly to achieve ratification of the new treaty.”

Senator Lugar is in for a frustrating battle against fellow Senate Republicans who are already spinning and distorting the facts of the treaty. Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) is the most vocal so far; in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, and at a seminar at the National Defense University Foundation, he repeated the myth that the New START treaty limits missile defense, and fretted over his favorite topic, nuclear warhead modernization:

Mr. Kyl said he believed the restrictions on replacement parts and what he viewed as inadequate funding for refurbishing weapons were signs that the administration wouldn’t produce a modernization plan for the U.S.’s nuclear arsenal that he could accept. “I am not going to be a party to getting a treaty ratified if I’m not sure that there’s commitment on the other side to an adequate plan.”

I’m not going to go into detail regarding missile defense and New START, since I’ve explained it before. The treaty does not limit missile defense; if you still aren’t convinced, read National Security Advisor General James L. Jones’ letter, published in the Wall Street Journal last week.

What Kyl means by “modernization” is somewhat vague, and a bit confused, since the US has a modernization program in place already. A very detailed Arms Control Association fact sheet explains it well, introducing the subject as:

The U.S. military is in the process of rebuilding, or modernizing, most of its existing strategic delivery systems and the warheads they carry to last for the next 20-30 years or more. These systems are in many cases being completely rebuilt with essentially all new parts, although they are not technically “new” systems. This distinction between “rebuilt” and “new” has led some to reach the mistaken conclusion that the U.S. strategic weapon systems are not being “modernized.”


As this fact sheet demonstrates, the United States currently has “a significant program to modernize our nuclear deterrent.” A robust program to refurbish U.S. nuclear warheads and modernize strategic delivery systems is well underway…

But regardless of definitions, and Kyl’s complaints, “modernization” is not connected to the New START ratification process.

Nuclear Warhead Modernization Is Separate From New START Ratification

What I would like to put to rest today is the Republicans’ spin that warhead modernization goes hand-in-hand with New START approval. No matter how many times the media prints that inaccuracy, it simply isn’t true.

I talked to Kingston Reif, the Director of Nuclear Non-Proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. I asked him about the modernization argument, and he emphasized that it’s separate from the treaty:

The point I want to make is that the issue of modernization, and the issue of the treaty are separate issues… we should want our weapons to be safe, secure, and effective whether we have one or thousands. We should want them to be safe, secure, and effective whether we have the treaty or not. The required reliability for our weapons depends first and foremost on the roles and missions we give them, not how many we have. I think the same goes for our intellectual infrastructure at the nuclear laboratories. We should want capable people no matter how many weapons we have. So, the two issues are separate.

I think it’s also worth pointing out that on the issue of arms control and weapons reductions, the bipartisan Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, which released its final report in May of 2009, and which Kyl and the Republicans often like to cite as requiring a modernization plan for the US nuclear deterrent, nowhere in the report is there any attempt to make the modest reductions called for in New START contingent upon the design and production of new warheads, for example.

So, I think these should be seen as two separate issues. Unfortunately, the Republicans are going to try to link the two.

It’s All Being Funded Anyway

Reif reminded me that the Republicans had sent a letter (pdf) to President Obama in December 2009, requesting:

… full and timely life extension programs for the B-61 and W-76 warheads. It also called for funding for what the letter defines as a “modern warhead”, that includes new approaches to the life extension, which could involve, potentially, replacement. They called for full funding for stockpile surveillance work as well as science and engineering campaigns at the labs. Then they called for full funding and replacement of the plutonium facility at Los Alamos, and the uranium facilities at Y-12 at Oak Ridge.

Although what they mean by a “modern warhead” is somewhat vague, everything else they requested was fully funded. As Reif pointed out:

I would just like to re-emphasize one thing. The budget that the administration released this year, the FY2011 budget, and the funding that it calls for, there’s no doubt that it provides more than enough resources to maintain the safety, security, and reliability of the stockpile going forward. The Secretary of Defense has attested to that fact, the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, STRATCOM commander, the head of NNSA, they’ve all said that the budget and the NPR provide a strong plan moving forward to ensure and enhance the safety, security, and effectiveness of the arsenal.

Reif also pointed out that we’ll get a better idea of what the Republicans arguments are once the 10-year Report on the Plan for the Nuclear Weapons Stockpile, Nuclear Weapons Complex, and Delivery Platforms is submitted with the New START treaty, as required by the FY2010 Defense Authorization Act.

As Usual, Stay Tuned

According to recent media reports, “formal ratification efforts” are supposed to start in the US Senate and the Russian parliament next month. However, as we know, it’s possible there will be delays. Although Obama wants the treaty ratified this year, it may not happen until next year.

It’s going to be one hell of a fight. Kingston Reif told me that he thinks “it’s going to secure overwhelming support”, but he’s not sure when it will happen.

The treaty, and Obama’s overall “nuclear roadmap” has very, very strong backing from everyone, from the Secretary of Defense to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, STRATCOM, and other military agencies.

The Republicans are going to look pretty silly opposing it, but that won’t stop them.

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  1. [...] in the US Senate regarding ratification of the treaty; I’ve discussed this on several occasions, as have a number of other people. We’re all tentatively predicting ratification of the [...]

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