Tauscher: Sorry, Republicans: no return of the Reliable Replacement Warhead

Tauscher: Sorry, Republicans: no return of the Reliable Replacement Warhead

If there’s one point at which both the Obama administration’s drive to reset U.S. relations with Russia and its stated goal to rid the world of nuclear weapons converge, it’s the ongoing negotiations to produce a successor to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which expires in December.

To get the new agreement to a point where the Russians, and then Senate Republicans, can sign on, the administration has narrowed the scope of what the follow-on treaty will cover and made some choices about how and when it will move the process through Congress.

Senate Republicans are not completely unwilling to get behind a new nuclear reduction treaty, but they intend to bargain for concessions before supporting ratification. One key concession they will not get, though, is a revival of the Bush administration’s plan to build a new class of nuclear warheads known as the Reliable Replacement Warhead, according to the State Department’s top arms control official.

“I think there are a lot of people that still hope for the return of RRW and they are going to be sadly disappointed,” Ellen O. Tauscher, the newly minted under secretary of state for arms control and international secretary told The Cable in her first interview after taking up her post.

In her previous role as head of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces subcommittee, Tauscher played a key part in beating back repeated Bush administration attempts to move forward with developing RRW, which supporters maintain is a needed hedge against the risk associated with the nation’s aging stockpile of nuclear warheads.

But Tauscher has long argued, and the arms-control community agrees, that RRW is less preferable than other measures, such as refurbishing existing warheads, that could be used to modernize the U.S. nuclear stockpile. Moreover, they warn that building new warheads could set back nonproliferation efforts worldwide by creating a new arms race.

Regardless, Senate Republicans are sure to push for RRW when the new treaty comes before them, but Tauscher said the administration would hold firm, and is instead offering them a stockpile management plan that increases the confidence in existing warheads.

Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, who had held up Tauscher’s nomination before she was ultimately confirmed on June 25, successfully added an amendment to the Senate’s version of the defense authorization bill that would require the administration to submit a plan for modernization of the nuclear complex at the same time it submits a new nuclear treaty for verification.

The House’s version of the bill contains language that would fund “stockpile management” for the aging warheads, and “As far as I know, the stockpile management that’s in the House bill negates the need for RRW,” Tauscher said.

“I think there are people who are deeply concerned about the return of RRW and I think they are going to feel pretty good about stockpile management,” she declared.

An article last month in Global Security Newswire reported that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was pushing internally to have RRW funds requested in the fiscal 2011 budget, due out in February, placing him in direct odds with Vice President Joseph Biden, who is set against the program.

The report also said that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was backing Gates, but State Department sources denied that Clinton had formed a set position either way.

Ultimately, the RRW program would be part of the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration budget request and funds have been requested in the past as part of the Navy’s research budget.

Getting to ‘Da’

The U.S. and Russian sides met in Geneva earlier this month to negotiate the START treaty’s successor, with the U.S. delegation led by Assistant Secretary of State for Verification and Compliance Rose Gottemoeller.

Obama and Putin are scheduled to meet on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh later this month, according to diplomatic sources, and Secretary Clinton will travel to Russia in October. Tauscher will either go with her or follow soon after to make the final push.

Decisions about when to seek Senate ratification will follow after that, said Tauscher, who wants to see the new agreement ratified by the start of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference at the end of April.

To bridge the time between the expiration of START and the ratification of the follow-on treaty, a “collar” will be probably be placed around the new agreement that extends the verification measures of START until the new treaty can be approved, Tauscher said.

A senior U.S. administration official, speaking on background, gave The Cable the details of what will and won’t be included in the new agreement.

For example, the fraught issue of missile defense will not be discussed, although there will be a statement acknowledging the general relationship between offensive and defensive capabilities, as was alluded to in the July 8 Joint Understanding signed by Presidents Obama and Medvedev, the official said.

Any discussion of Russian tactical nuclear weapons will also be left out of the new treaty, the official explained, but could be part of the next round, which insiders are calling “the follow on to the follow on.”

Verification of some non-nuclear U.S. systems probably will be included in the new treaty, the official noted.

But there will be no provisions determining how each side can configure its nuclear forces within the limits, the official said, and there will be no linkage to parallel efforts to get Russia to help persuade Iran to be more cooperative over its nuclear program.

“START is in its own lane and we try to keep it there,” the official said.

“Republicans can probably live with that, assuming there aren’t any limitations on missile defense and conventional long-range strike systems,” said one GOP Senate aide.

Still, there is a need for a savvy strategy for the administration to secure the 67 votes needed for Senate ratification, and some leaders of the arms-control community are concerned.

“There should be a coordinated effort. State, Defense, NSC, [and the] Department of Energy should be working together and having a common communications plan and a common lobbying strategy,” said John Isaacs, executive director of the Council for a Livable World, an advocacy group that favors arms control. “And that’s not happening yet.”

Photo of Tauscher shaking hands with Obama by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images