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US Nuclear Arsenal Holds Fast to Status Quo

Barack Obama’s push for nuclear disarmament has slowed considerably since the ratification of New START, and the United States is nowhere close to eliminating its nuclear arsenal.

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Inter Press Service

The United States is likely to maintain and sustain its huge arsenal of nuclear weapons for many years to come, even though President Barack Obama has repeatedly stressed that he stands for nuclear disarmament and global peace, non-proliferation experts believe.

"President Obama is very assertive. But it's not clear how much [more] assertive he chooses to be," said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project with the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), a policy think tank based in Washington that monitors U.S. nuclear policy on ethical grounds.

In an analytical report prepared for FAS last week, Kristensen and his colleague, Robert Norris, warned that President Obama might fail to implement his agenda on nuclear disarmament due to lack of cooperation by the civil and military bureaucracy in Washington.

"There is concern over whether Obama's goals can be realised within the enduring bureaucracies that have a stake in the status quo," Kristensen wrote in the FAS report.

Both Kristensen and Norris think that a "radical break" is needed to set the United States on a new path capable of realising deep cuts in and the possible elimination of nuclear weapons. That break, they argue, must include abandonment of the concept of "counterforce", the ruling paradigm that focuses on eliminating an enemy's nuclear weapons, infrastructure and war-making abilities.

Currently, the United States and Russia are the world's largest nuclear weapons states. They possess 93 percent of the total number of nuclear weapons in the world, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a Swedish think tank that tracks weapon production and exports worldwide.

In addition, China has 400 warheads, France 348, and Israel and Britain 200 each. India is believed to have more than 80 and Pakistan about 40 nuclear weapons. The newest member of the nuclear club, North Korea, has no more than 10 "small" nuclear weapons, according to the institute's estimates.

Many critics see the United States as the most irresponsible member of the nuclear club, for not only failing in its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), but also going to great lengths to derail the international discourse on nuclear disarmament in the past.

The Ronald Reagan administration (1981-89), for example, looked the other way when Pakistan was developing its illegal nuclear programme in the 1980s. Similarly, the George W. Bush administration (2001- 2009) decided to make a nuclear trade deal with India that remains outside the fold of the NPT.

The Obama administration has signed a new strategic arms treaty with Russia, but it allows the United States to keep at least 3,500 nuclear weapons in its arsenal even after 2020. That, as proponents of disarmament noted at the time, was a step in the right direction, but not enough.

According to FAS researchers, the more general policy concepts are currently travelling through the various departments, offices and bureaucracies in Washington, and will then be translated into highly detailed and "carefully orchestrated strike plans that instruct the war fighter how and when to attack a specific target".

The result, according to Kristensen and Norris, is "a fully articulated war plan".

The FAS report points out that the implementation of Obama's Nuclear Posture Review is now taking place at various levels, but that remains out of public view. "It has potentially enormous implementations, depending on the outcome," the report says.

Obama's agenda on disarmament has five key objectives, which include prevention of nuclear proliferation and terrorism; reduction of the role of nuclear weapons; maintenance of strategic deterrence; strengthening of regional alliances; and sustaining a safe, secure and effective nuclear arsenal.

To advance his goals, Obama should issue a Presidential Policy Directive that explains a new nuclear deterrence plan focused on destroying essential enemy infrastructure, Kristensen said.

"The president's guidance is very generic. It has some basic principles," Kristensen told IPS. "It's up to the military to interpret it. Also, there are [several] other actors whose mind-set [is shaped] by the days of the Cold War. It's very hard to change their mind-set."

Reflecting on the FAS analysis, David Krieger, a long-time peace activist and executive director of the Nuclear Age peace Foundation, told IPS that "minimum deterrence would be a significant step forward, if it meant reducing the number of nuclear weapons in our arsenal to 20 to 30 weapons."

On maintaining minimal deterrence, he thinks that moving away from counterforce targeting could be useful, but it is far from sufficient. In his view, it may somewhat reduce the magnitude of the disaster of using nuclear weapons, but it still maintains reliance on nuclear deterrence, a theory that could fail.

"It is deeply immoral and cannot be relied upon for security," said Krieger. "Such a move away from counterforce targeting should be accompanied by a firm commitment to a policy of 'No First Use' of nuclear weapons, to de-alerting the U.S. nuclear arsenal and to the initiation of good faith negotiations for a Nuclear Weapons Convention."

The draft memo the FAS authors prepared for Obama refers to Article VI of the NPT, which calls for "the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons".

"Actually, Article VI calls for pursuing good faith negotiations to end the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament," Krieger said. "The U.S. has viewed it as 'eventual', which may be code for 'never'."

"President Obama's commitment to nuclear modernisation continues the nuclear arms race, albeit at a lower level, and his commitment to nuclear weapons elimination appears to be only in the distant future, not in my lifetime," he said.

For his part, Kristensen stresses that the total abolition of nuclear weapons demands a collaborative international effort. "The word 'deterrence' means different things to different people. None of the nuclear powers are expected to go to zero alone."

"While we talk about disarmament, other nuclear countries have to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in national security," he added, "otherwise, we are not going to get anywhere. It's probably the only and last chance to really influence the U.S. nuclear policy."

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