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Despite Cuts, Nukes Still Integral to U.S. Security Strategy

Some analysts think that new U.S. plans to improve its nuclear weapons complex are likely to hinder international efforts to halt the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

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Inter Press Service

The new U.S. plan to maintain and improve its nuclear weapons complex is likely to hinder international efforts to halt the spread of weapons of mass destruction, say independent analysts who have watched a series of U.N.-led talks on nuclear proliferation and disarmament for years.

"So long as the U.S. continues to rely upon its nuclear arsenal for security, it is hard to make the argument that other states should refrain from following this course," said David Krieger, president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, who has attended scores of U.N.-led talks on the nuclear issue.

Krieger's remarks came after the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), a Washington-based independent organisation, released an unclassified document last week revealing the Barack Obama administration's plan to reduce the U.S. nuclear stockpile by about 40 percent by the end of 2020.

Like other disarmament advocates, Krieger welcomed the planned cuts, but said he was unsure if they would help pave the way for total elimination of nuclear weapons, a task that a vast majority of U.N. member states, as well as the world body's secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, want to be taken seriously.

"I see all plans to reduce nuclear arsenals as being beneficial," he told IPS. "What I find missing, however, in the Department of Defence's plan is a sense of urgency and a negotiated plan to go to zero."

The new plan suggests that, despite significant reduction of the existing stockpile, the U.S. must remain in possession of at least 3,000 to 3,500 nuclear weapons after the end of the next decade. Currently, the U.S. has 5,113 declared nuclear weapons, of which about 2,700 are operational warheads.

The U.S. would not only continue to maintain and modernise its nuclear weapons complex after reduction of the existing stockpiles, it would also spend more money to do so ever than before.

According to the National Nuclear Security Administration, the annual costs for the weapons complex would increase from about seven billion dollars in fiscal year 2011 to more than eight billion dollars in 2017 and more than nine billion dollars in 2030.

The plan indicates that the nuclear establishment's infrastructure will support "active, logistic spare and reserve warheads", which will not be designed to have the "capacity to return to historical cold war stockpiles, or rapidly respond to large production spikes".

Does this mean the U.S. is getting serious about fulfilling its obligations to the international community under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which requires all declared nuclear weapon states to take "significant steps" towards the abolition of nuclear weapons?

Independent observers have their doubts.

"[it's] contrary to the international law requirement that the United States act in 'good faith' to meet the NPT Article VI obligation of negotiating for nuclear disarmament," said John Burroughs, president of the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, about the new plan.

The Nuclear Posture Review prepared by the Obama administration contends that "reducing the role and number of nuclear weapons" will demonstrate U.S. compliance with the NPT disarmament compliance obligation. But some legal experts are not convinced.

"While welcome," says Burroughs, "such reductions do not suffice." In order to make his point, he cites the 1996 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice, concluding that Article VI of the NPT requires states to "pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament under strict and effective international control."

A U.N. General Assembly resolution welcomes the court's decision, and calls for negotiations to prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons globally as the means of meeting the NPT obligation. In recent statements, Ban has also voiced his support for this call.

In Burroughs's view, the U.S. unilateral cuts are on an alternative path, and are encouraged by NPT obligations. But, he notes, "unfortunately, the Nuclear Posture Review report ties U.S. reductions to the need to avoid to the large disparities in nuclear capabilities with Russia."

He thinks the U.S. could reduce its nuclear stockpiles to much lower levels "on its own" – in the tens of low hundreds of nuclear weapons – without putting in question the option of making a nuclear response to a nuclear attack.

In 1964, Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara proposed the U.S. arsenal be sized so as to achieve the "assured destruction" of the Soviet Union and argued that "the destruction of, say, 25 percent of its population (55 million people) and more than two-thirds of industrial capacity would mean the destruction of the Soviet Union as a national society."

McNamara estimated that it would require about 400 nuclear weapons of the kind the U.S. then had in its arsenal to wreak this level of devastation. He calculated that "the proportion of the total population destroyed would be increased by only about 100 percentage points" if the U.S. were to use 800 nuclear weapons.

"The McNamara criterion (the death of 25 percent of the population) could be met today for Russia with only 51 modern U.S. nuclear weapons," Zia Mian of the Programme on Science and Global Security at Princeton University told IPS, citing a 2001 study by the Natural Resources Defence Council.

"It would take less than 400 weapons to meet that goal for China," he said.

For his part, Krieger holds that a "commitment to zero nuclear weapons within a reasonable timeframe" is a must by opening negotiations for a new treaty, a Nuclear Weapons Convention, "for the phased, verifiable, irreversible and transparent elimination of all nuclear weapons".

"Within this framework, weapons reductions could be measured against the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons from the arsenals of all states. In the meantime, large expenditures on maintaining and improving the nuclear arsenal would seem to point in the wrong direction and will likely lead other states to doubt U.S. sincerity in seeking a world without nuclear weapons," he said.

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