Defense Secretary Robert Gates offered a pragmatic-- some would say bleak--assessment of the nation's nuclear arsenal during a recent address in Washington.
Speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Tuesday, Dr. Gates said America's existing nuclear stockpile is "safe, secure and reliable." He also indicated that the nation's nuclear deterrent will remain necessary for "years to come," noting the threat posed by Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, among others.
In his remarks, Gates also embraced the "lead and hedge" nuclear strategy of the Clinton Administration. Under that approach, the United States plays a leading role in the elimination of nuclear weapons, while (simultaneously) hedging its bets, by maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent.
But Secretary Gates cautioned that sustaining that arsenal will become increasingly difficult in the years to come. America's nuclear weapons stockpile is aging rapidly; we haven't designed a new weapon since the 1980s; built one in almost 20 years, and our last nuclear test occurred in 1993.
Left unsaid by Mr. Gates is another reality of the Clinton era; his decision to postpone (or forgo) key defense projects extended to our nuclear arsenal as well. While the Bush Administration has tried to reverse that trend, Congressional Democrats have consistently denied funds for the so-called Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW), a program aimed at producing more reliable--and secure--nuclear warheads.
As Air Force Times reports, the defense secretary is actually concerned about our ability to build the next generation of nuclear weapons, given two decades of deterioration and neglect in America's industrial and scientific base.
With many scientists that worked on that last generation of U.S. nuclear arms past, at or nearing retirement age, Gates said the nation is suffering from “a brain drain” in this realm. He raised doubts about whether the U.S. industrial base in coming years will even be able to take on the task of designing and building a new nuclear force.
He urged Congress to alter its recent practice of stripping money in annual Pentagon budget requests for the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program, which he said would “reinvigorate and rebuild our infrastructure and expertise.”
Under the RRW initiative, the military would attempt to build a warhead Pentagon and administration officials say would be more secure than the ones that make up Washington’s current force.
Unfortunately, Dr. Gates's plea is falling on deaf ears. Democratic Presidential nominee Barack Obama has called for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons; having staked out that position, it's difficult to imagine his administration pushing for a modernization of our arsenal. And, to be fair, Republican candidate John McCain has discussed similar ideas. We can't say how the RRW program would fare under his administration, either.
In an effort to build support for RRW, Gates has plans to lobby key members of Congress. It's an admirable goal, but a little late in the game for that sort of arm-twisting. Besides, some Democrats are now talking about major cuts in defense; Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank recently suggested a 25% reduction in military spending.
Of course, that sort of decrease will never happen, but Mr. Frank has plenty of allies on his side of the aisle. With the Democrats expected to pad their majorities in next week's elections, many defense programs will become an even tougher sell, and you can put RRW at the top of that list.
On a related note, the Air Force's senior space officer says the creation of the new "Global Strike Command," combining elements of Air Combat Command (ACC) and Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) will take several years. General Bob Kehler, the AFSPC commander, predicted that a "phased transition" will be required, as missile and nuclear-capable bomber units move into the new command.
He also said the reorganization will not result in a "clean break" between Strike Command, AFSPC and ACC. He noted that there will be "crossover" among officers serving in the organizations, with strike command drawing upon missileers that are now a part of AFSPC.
While planning for the new organization has been underway for several months, Strike Command will not actually "stand up" until September 2009.