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Last Updated: 10/11/10

Barack Hasn’t Banned the Bomb

By Selig S. Harrison  | Le Monde Diplomatique
Published April, 2010

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Will the US still strike first?

Although the Nobel peace prize committee believed Barack Obama is passionately committed to nuclear downsizing, if not disarmament, the US president may be no more successful in controlling the hawks than he was with the banks and, for a long time, the health insurers

Barack Obama prepared the way for his Nobel peace prize, and became the hero of nuclear disarmament advocates and the bête noire of true believers in nuclear weaponry, with 11 potent words in a speech in Prague on 5 April 2009. This speech was a direct challenge to three powerful adversaries: the Pentagon bureaucracy, the defence establishments of Japan and other countries covered by the US “nuclear umbrella” and the US defence industries lobbying to sustain or increase US nuclear weapons deployments.

It was no surprise when Obama pledged to renew and extend an existing nuclear arms control agreement with Russia known as the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START (1), that would modestly reduce their nuclear arsenals (2). But it was toxic to the true believers when he declared at Prague that “we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy”. The reason for their alarm was that he had just embarked on the formal Nuclear Posture Review conducted by each new administration. When he repeated the same words in his 23 September 2009 UN speech, their concern grew, focusing on four key issues:

- Would the US renounce the first use of nuclear weapons, as China and India have done and as the Clinton administration promised to do in its 1994 nuclear freeze agreement with North Korea, later abrogated by the Bush administration?

- Would the US rule out a nuclear response in the event of a chemical or biological weapons attack?

- Would Obama withdraw Nato-controlled US nuclear weapons from Germany over the next four years, as Berlin recently demanded? And would he also withdraw the other tactical nuclear weapons stationed in Europe?

- Most important in the view of the defence contractors, would he reduce the number of US nuclear-capable bombers, Trident nuclear missile-firing submarines and land-based ICBMs?

The Norwegian Nobel committee clearly expected that Obama would side with the disarmers on most of these issues, explaining that it had “attached special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons”. But it was clear from conversations with officials closely involved in the review that Obama will give the true believers most of what they want when the review is formally made public on 1 April. There are furious internal battles within the administration over the specifics of nuclear force levels, which directly affect the US posture in the START negotiations, but it is clear that the role of nuclear weapons in US strategy will not be significantly reduced.

Right to first use

The US first asserted its right to initiate the use of nuclear weapons against conventional forces during the cold war, when the Soviet bloc had an overwhelming advantage in troop strength and conventional firepower in Europe. Nato warned of an irresistible human wave attack by numerically superior Soviet forces, and a similar rationale was used to justify the threat of first use in deterring North Korea. But as the former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer has argued, “there are no longer tank divisions along our border that can break through within 48 hours. The first use policy was a response to a situation that has fundamentally changed”. As for North Korea, its once formidable army is now no match for the sophisticated South Korean forces that have been developed with US help in recent decades.

Proposals for no first use pledges are often dismissed as the naivety of do-gooders who do not understand the harsh realities of international politics. But insisting on the right of first use is unrealistic because it is incompatible with the goal of non-proliferation. “If we are serious about non-proliferation,” Fischer observed, “the existing nuclear powers must create a climate of disarmament to reduce the incentive on the part of others to go nuclear.” Article 6 of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) provides for the reduction of existing nuclear arsenals in return for the non-nuclear powers remaining non-nuclear. But if the nuclear powers threaten first use of the nuclear weapons still in their possession, while reductions proceed at a glacial pace over decades, the non-nuclear states can hardly be expected to feel bound by their promise.

In the case of North Korea, the harsh reality is that the egocentric policies pursued by the US will not work. Although the US has unilaterally removed its tactical nuclear weapons from South Korea, it continues to deploy ICBMs and nuclear-capable aircraft on its Pacific aircraft carriers within striking range of North Korea. For this reason, Pyongyang agreed to suspend its nuclear weapons programme in its 1994 agreement with the Clinton administration only after the US pledged in article 3, section 1 that the US would “provide formal assurances against the threat or use of nuclear weapons” upon the completion of the North Korean denuclearisation steps envisaged in the agreement.

A similar pledge, together with steps to normalise relations, would be necessary now to get a new denuclearisation agreement with Pyongyang. But such a pledge has been explicitly ruled out by the Pentagon committee that has conducted the review, in consultation with the White House and outside expert panels. Barring last-minute intervention by the president, the review will accept the long-standing Pentagon premise that any restriction on first use would deny US generals the necessary unpredictability and surprise in countering Pyongyang’s possible use of chemical weapons.

Define the purpose

Pentagon military exercises in South Korea, called Nimble Dancer and based on this premise, have explicitly envisaged retaliatory nuclear strikes if North Korea should ever use chemical weapons. Significantly, the review committee rejected the counter-arguments made by former Defence Secretary William Perry and by an expert Brookings Institution expert panel. Perry has declared that “the US could make a devastating response to a chemical attack without the use of nuclear weapons”. The Brookings panel concluded that chemical weapons “production and storage sites and delivery vehicles could be destroyed pre-emptively” with conventional weapons should there be war with North Korea; and should any chemical or biological weapons survive these strikes, “massive conventional assaults against military targets could limit the scope of chemical and biological attacks without resorting to nuclear weapons”.

The deadlock between the Pentagon and the proponents of a no-first-use pledge has been part of a broader impasse over how to define the purpose of nuclear weapons. The Pentagon wants a definition stating that “the purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter and respond to the use of weapons of mass destruction, against the US or its allies,” lumping together chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. But the White House would prefer language ambiguous enough to suggest a reduction in the role of nuclear weapons, as pledged at Prague, which has led to a debate between the proponents and opponents of no first use over a compromise formulation. At one extreme, the proponents are pushing for a pledge that “the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to retaliate against the use of nuclear weapons by others against the US or its allies”. The word “retaliate” makes this tantamount to a no-first-use pledge. This would clearly exclude the use of nuclear weapons in response to an attack by conventional as well as chemical weapons, and would thus upset Japanese hawks who believe that the US nuclear umbrella should cover any North Korean or Chinese attack using nuclear, chemical or conventional weapons.

Compromises have been suggested: permit a nuclear response to a conventional or chemical attack by a country not in compliance with the NPT, such as North Korea; or replace “retaliate” with “respond to”, which implies that a US response could hypothetically be initiated as soon as preparations for an enemy attack are discovered.

After the Prague speech, a delegation of influential hawks in the Japanese Defence Agency lobbied Congress and the administration, warning that Japan would develop its own independent nuclear weapons if the US ruled out first use against China and North Korea or failed to deploy what Japan considers adequate nuclear forces. They pushed in particular for continued deployment of the nuclear-tipped version of the Tomahawk cruise missile, now scheduled to go out of service in 2013. The US navy feels that the Tomahawks are no longer necessary, given the efficacy of the Trident missile-firing submarines and the long-range bombers assigned to protect Japan. Eight Tridents constantly patrol the North Pacific within range of designated targets, seven of them constantly on “hard alert” with a 12-minute response time.

Both the true believers in the Pentagon and the Japanese hawks want the US nuclear umbrella over Japan to be based on extended deterrence, under which US forces respond with nuclear weapons to any attack, nuclear, chemical, biological or conventional. Extended deterrence is a fancy name for the hard-line posture toward China and North Korea pursued by the succession of Liberal Democratic Party governments that have ruled Japan for the past five decades.

Flexible deterrent

But last August’s election in Japan brought to power a new Democratic Party government that is strongly supportive of Obama’s Prague vision. The foreign minister Katsuya Okada has made this support very clear. At the inauguration of the DPJ cabinet on 16 September 2009, he questioned “whether countries that declare their willingness to make first use of nuclear weapons have any right to speak about nuclear non-proliferation”. During a 16 October meeting with the visiting defence secretary Robert Gates, Okada told Gates that he would like to discuss the first use issue. Gates avoided the issue, the Japanese media reported, but responded later at a press conference by emphasising the need for a flexible deterrent.

On the same day, Okada, speaking in Kyoto, underlined the contradiction in Japan’s past policy on nuclear weapons. “Hitherto,” he said, “the Japanese government has said to the US ‘We don’t want you to rule out first use because it will weaken nuclear deterrence’. However, it cannot be said to be consistent for Japan to call for nuclear abolition in the world while requesting the first use of nuclear weapons for ourselves.” Answering critics, Okada argued that if the US should adopt a no-first-use policy, “that does not mean that Japan would be outside the nuclear umbrella. In the unfortunate event that Japan suffers a nuclear attack, we are not ruling out a nuclear response to it.”

The conflict between Tokyo and Washington over the issue was underlined when the visiting chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, echoing Gates, emphasised the need for flexibility in response to a press conference question about first use, but went on to say that “in a region where the threat continues to grow, I think we have to be very careful with respect to that”.

Besides his heresy on the first use issue, Okada has outraged hawks in both Tokyo and Washington by saying that “we do not necessarily need a nuclear umbrella against the threat of North Korea,” since conventional weapons were enough to deal with it, and that “a Northeast Asia Nuclear-Free Zone,” presumably barring US nuclear deployments, would be desirable.

The DPJ prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, has been more circumspect than Okada, and it is not clear whether the foreign minister speaks for his more hawkish party boss, Ichiro Ozawa. There are deep divisions within the DPJ and within Japanese society as a whole over security relations with the US, and over whether Japan should have its own nuclear weapons. In many cases, the hawks who favour first use and an extended deterrent are also advocates of an independent Japanese nuclear weapons capability, and would like to use a breach with the Obama administration over the review to strengthen their case for a nuclear-armed Japan.

Many hawks in Washington refuse to take seriously either Okada or the German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle, who has repeatedly called for the removal of US tactical nuclear weapons from Germany. The hawks view them as passing figures who will sooner or later be overruled by a pro-US in-group. Morton H Halperin, during his tenure as chairman of the State Department’s policy planning council in the Clinton administration, told me that a senior official of the department’s European bureau dismissed anti-nuclear statements by German leaders, saying, “That’s not the real German government”. I have often heard a similar attitude expressed towards the new DPJ government in Tokyo.


Analysis by Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists shows that the US still keeps 10 to 20 B61 free-fall nuclear bombs at Buchel air force base in western Germany and has 150 to 240 nuclear weapons in Germany, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. The review is expected to reject proposals for their withdrawal, because Turkey wants to keep them to deter a hypothetical future nuclear attack by Iran, and the Pentagon argues that since a Nato strategic review is scheduled for next year, it would be premature to withdraw them now unilaterally. Another argument is that the START agreement will address only the strategic nuclear arsenals of the two sides and will leave Russia with an advantage in tactical nuclear weapons. Estimates of US tactical nuclear weapons usually range from 500 to 1,200, including those in Europe, as against some 2,000 deployed by Russia, which has up to 6,000 more in reserve. Ground-launched tactical nuclear weapons have a range of 300 to 400 miles.

The Obama administration’s decision to seek START reductions of deployed strategic nuclear warheads from 2,200 to 1,500-1,675 disappointed arms control advocates. Russia has signalled that it is ready to go down to 1,000 to reduce its defence budget and there is consensus in Washington that this would be a safe level. Even John Deutch, a hard-liner who headed the Clinton administration’s review, has pushed for 1,000.

But more important to experts than the number of warheads and delivery systems is how the nuclear triad (number of strategic bombers, land-based and sea-based nuclear missiles) on each side will be configured. The mix recommended in the review must be the same as that pursued in the START negotiations, and a bitter struggle over whether to cut bombers, ICBMs or Trident submarines has added to the delays in making the review public.

Surprisingly, even the Air Force Association, which usually lobbies for air force interests, recommended in a recent study that the 114 nuclear-armed B-52 and B-2 bombers now in service should be phased out, and primary reliance placed on ICBMs and nuclear-armed submarines, because they are more likely to survive a first strike than the bombers. Such a sweeping change is unlikely, but the number of ICBMs, now 450, is likely to be reduced as part of the START reductions. Only the 13 nuclear-firing submarines, each with 24 Trident missiles, appear likely to survive as they are.

Refurbish or upgrade?

Congressional allies of the Pentagon true believers are unhappy with the START reductions. They would prefer to see the US nuclear arsenal become bigger and better and have threatened to hold up ratification of the START agreement unless they are satisfied with projected legislation designed to modernise existing US nuclear weapons. The Bush administration tried unsuccessfully to push through a controversial Reliable Replacement Warhead programme intended to upgrade the existing arsenal. Obama says that his Stockpile Management Programme will merely refurbish the existing weapons to make them safe and reliable without upgrading them. But all 40 Republican Senators, plus the independent Senator Joseph Lieberman sent a letter to Obama on 17 December 2009, stating: “We don’t believe further START reductions can be in the national security interest of the US in the absence of a significant program to modernize our nuclear deterrent.” Specifically, they called for full and timely upgrading of the B-61 and W-76 warheads.

The respected Arms Control Association has reported that both STRATCOM and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) “are pushing for the ability to design new warheads” and that the review committee is still wrestling with this. A leak from the NNSA last year revealed that it has a detailed plan for expanding the plutonium construction capacity of its Los Alamos (New Mexico), Oak Ridge (Tennessee) and Kansas City (Missouri) facilities; and is seeking Congressional sponsorship for legislation to begin implementing the programme, which would, if carried out, enable the US to quadruple its annual production of plutonium warheads from 20 to 80.

The NNSA plan has not as yet surfaced in Congress, but its existence underlines the size of the entrenched vested interests that Obama would have to overcome if he should seriously pursue his vision of nuclear disarmament. In retrospect, it is clear that he seriously underrated his enemies in the military-industrial complex, just as he has done with the pharmaceutical-health insurance complex and the banks. Besides keeping Gates on as defence secretary, he has failed to appoint any civilians sympathetic to nuclear disarmament to key Pentagon positions, leaving hawks in control of the review. He kept on the Bush administration’s director of the NNSA along with the entire staff responsible for the plan to quadruple plutonium production capacity. And at the White House, Ivo Daalder, the strongest advocate of nuclear disarmament among his advisers, was sidelined with Obama’s approval to a cushy Nato job to make way for national security staffers favoured by the Pentagon.

Once Obama started making statements about the need to “maintain a strong nuclear deterrent as long as nuclear weapons exist,” he lost the battle over nuclear disarmament to the aggressive STRATCOM commander, General Kevin Chilton. On 11 November Chilton predicted that the US “would still need nuclear weapons 40 years from now”. And on 15 December, at a conference of military and arms control specialists in Omaha, Nebraska, sponsored by the Program on Nuclear Information with part of its funding from STRATCOM, he declared: “We will need nuclear weapons as long as there is a US.”

Original text in English

Selig S Harrison is director of the Asia programme at the Center for International Policy, Washington, DC

(1) The START 1 and START 2 agreements, signed at the beginning of the 1990s, aimed at a substantial reduction in the two superpowers’ strategic arsenals.
(2) See Olivier Zajec, “Russia’s view of US missiles”,Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, April 2008.


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