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A nuclear-free world? Not in 2010

A nuclear-free world? Not in 2010

In Thursday’s Nobel lecture, praised by many for its head-on attempt to grapple with the incongruity of a war-time president accepting a hallowed prize for peace, Barack Obama proudly cited his "effort to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, and to seek a world without them" and said that upholding the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was "a centerpiece of my foreign policy."

But as the president made clear throughout his speech, aspiration and reality are different beasts. Behind closed doors, his advisors are busy finalizing his administration’s strategy for all things nuclear, according to a source outside government who was briefed on the internal deliberations. And if early reports are any indication, Obama’s nuke-free world is still a ways off.

At issue is the 2009-2010 Nuclear Posture Review, or NPR for short, which is mandated by Congress and is supposed to lay out the Obama team’s approach to aligning the U.S. nuclear arsenal with today’s threats. After months of lower-level discussions and debate, the review is now nearly complete. Last Friday, the first deputies-level meeting was held, chaired by Deputy National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, with multiple representatives from the State Department, Pentagon, and the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration in attendance. A second high-level meeting was scheduled to be held soon afterward.

The tentative deadline for completing the work is Jan. 15 so that the document can go to the printer by Feb. 1, the source relayed, adding that the timeline could slip. Meanwhile, inside the process, the positions of the different government actors are becoming clear.

The Pentagon is said to be against reducing the overall U.S. nuclear arsenal any lower than whatever is agreed to in the ongoing negotiations with the Russians for a follow-on to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).

"Though we’ve been told repeatedly that the president will be given options, at this meeting the Pentagon was making recommendations, rather than presenting options," the source said.

Previously, a senior administration official told The Cable that the NPR spun out an early analysis on nuclear-weapons levels specifically to inform the START follow-on negotiations, meaning that the two processes are closely coordinated and the numbers should match. The official also said that the limit for deployed warheads under the follow on would be between 1,500 and 1,675 and the limit on delivery vehicles would be somewhere between 500 (the Russian position) and 1,100 (the U.S. proposal).

Also, according to the official, the START follow-on will not limit weapons that aren’t deployed and will not force either side to rearrange its strategic architecture, which on the U.S. side is based on what’s known as the nuclear triad, the combination of intercontinental ballistic missiles, strategic bombers, and submarine-based missiles.

On one critical issue that’s a point of contention between the Defense Department, the State Department, and the Energy Department — whether to build a new class of nuclear warheads — Foggy Bottom seems to be winning the argument.

The Pentagon and NNSA are reportedly still pushing to move forward with the Reliable Replacement Warhead program, a Bush administration effort to build a new class of nuclear warheads that has been sold as a means of updating the arsenal and maintaining the nuclear expertise and experience found in the U.S. government.

Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher has made it clear that she opposes RRW and prefers a stockpile modernization plan, which could include some new weapons but would be branded as more of refurbishing the existing ones.

Advocates of new nukes lost ground inside the debate following a report by what’s known as the "JASON" group, an independent scientific panel that was tasked to determine whether or not the existing nuclear stockpile needed new testing or could be relied upon using "Life Extension Programs."

"JASON finds no evidence that accumulation of changes incurred from aging and LEPs have increased risk to certification of today’s deployed nuclear warheads," the report states, adding, "Lifetimes of today’s nuclear warheads could be extended for decades, with no anticipated loss in confidence, by using approaches similar to those employed in LEPs to date."

The new JASON report has forced NNSA to abandon efforts to call for increased reliability as a way to justify a decision to design a new warhead, the source explained. The NNSA put out a press release that many view as trying to undermine the report.

NNSA and Pentagon advocates are now switching their argument to focus on the issue of "surety," which is defined by the Pentagon to include a lot of things outside just the weapon itself, including the materiel, personnel, and procedures that contribute to the safety, security, reliability, and control of nuclear weapons, the source said.

"To the extent one wants to increase surety there are many ways that are cheaper, MUCH quicker, and more reliable than trying to design a new warhead," the source argued.

Tauscher and the Pentagon’s Ted Warner were among the key officials involved in the NPR. Now that it’s risen up the ranks, the key players are Donilon, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn, and Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman. State’s Robert Einhorn is also said to be playing a key role in the discussions.