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Archive for the ‘nuclear security’ Category

Proliferation News Round Up: Sizing Up Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review

Posted by K.E. White on April 7, 2010

What does President Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review change?  The New York Times squarely answers this question—claiming that Obama has prudently constrained when the United States will deploy nuclear weapons:

The document substantially narrows the conditions under which the United States would use nuclear weapons. The last review — done in 2002 by the George W. Bush administration — gave nuclear weapons a “critical role” in defending the country and its allies and suggested that they could be used against foes wielding chemical, biological or even conventional forces.

The new review says the “fundamental role” of nuclear weapons is to deter nuclear attack on the United States and its allies, and it rules out the use of nuclear weapons against nonnuclear countries, even if they attack the United States with unconventional weapons.

There is an important caveat. That assurance only goes to countries that are in compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which leaves out North Korea and Iran. It would have been better if Mr. Obama made the “sole” purpose of nuclear weapons deterring a nuclear attack. No one in their right mind can imagine the United States ever using a nuclear weapon again. America’s vast conventional military superiority is more than enough to defend against most threats.

Assuming the NPR holds diplomatic weight, how does Obama’s revision shape-up overall? offers three takes on Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), all worth reading.  But all the articles—whether grading the NPR or highlight its surprising results—fail to properly place the NPR within Obama’s overall nonproliferation strategy.  While the review might not be as bold as some desire, it represents one step in the administration’s nonproliferation strategy.  With an upcoming nuclear security summit and NPT conference, the last thing the administration needs is controversy within the administration or the Hill over  Obama’s nuclear weapon policies.  Hence, assessing the NPR in a vacuum does little to map-out America’s nuclear policies at the end of Obama’s first (or second) term.

Peter Feaver writes on the NPR’s significance and uncertain legacy:

On balance, the NPR seems to be a split-the-difference compromise between different factions among Obama’s advisors. In this respect, it resembles the most important national security decisions President Obama has made thus far on Iraq and Afghanistan. Critics may complain that this results in a lack of strategic clarity — and some of the confusion that has attended the Iraq and Afghanistan policies shows that this danger is a real one — but perhaps it will come to be seen as a politically deft balance of competing desiderata. It is unmistakably a step away from the compromises struck during the Bush era, but I don’t see much evidence that this is the bold leap that wins plaudits in academic seminar rooms, activist think-tanks, and Norwegian parliaments.

David E. Hoffman highlights the plan’s shorting-comings.  Among his list:  Obama’s continued adherence to the nuclear triad and keeping nuclear missiles on alert; Obama’s refusal to tackle the problem of attribution (while he reserves to right to use nuclear weapons against biological threats, what happens when the source of the threat can’t be identified?); and finally, the nuclear posture review’s silence on tactical nuclear weapons.

And Josh Rogin, adding an interesting wrinkle, argues the NPR gives “star billing” to missile defense:

Later on in the document, the administration points to Russia and China’s nuclear modernization and notes that both countries view U.S. missile-defense expansion as destabilizing. Secretary Clinton addressed that issue in Tuesday’s press conference.

The NPR itself was careful to mention missile defense as only one of several capabilities needed to counter non-nuclear attacks.

But Secretary Clinton was less careful.

“It’s no secret that countries around the world remained concerned about our missile-defense program,” Clinton said, explaining that the NPR weighs in on “the role [missile defense] can and should play in deterring proliferation and nuclear terrorism.”

Ok, so now missile defense can deter chemical attacks, biological attacks, proliferation of nuclear technology, and suitcase bombs?

Regardless, the document makes clear that with fewer nukes to be deployed once the new START agreement goes into effect, and with the role of nuclear weapons now limited to responding to nuclear threats, the administration is now looking to missile defense, among other technologies, to fill in the gap.

Posted in Nuclear Posture Review | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Fred Kaplan’s Nuclear Poppycock

Posted by K.E. White on March 3, 2010

Slate’s Fred Kaplan gives his take on Obama’s nuclear policy review.  His read:  it’s smart for U.S. nuclear policy to get out of the cold-war era of of targeting thousands of missiles. The bad news?  Cutting U.S. nuclear weapons doesn’t get us any closer to nuclear abolition.

Kaplan sums this up in the article’s closing paragraphs:

The idea behind no-first-use is to “delegitimize” nuclear weapons—to announce to the world that the foremost nuclear power, the only nation that has ever dropped A-bombs in anger, has concluded that these things have no military utility, no place in wars of the present or the future.

The problem is that history reveals they do have value, whatever we might belatedly say—not necessarily in their actual use but merely in their possession. They elevate one’s standing in a region (see Pakistan); they deter others from attacking (see China in the mid-1960s or North Korea now); they can be brandished as a way of keeping others from responding to lower level forms of aggression. (If Saddam Hussein had built some nukes before invading Kuwait in 1990, it’s doubtful that George H.W. Bush and James Baker could have amassed a large coalition to push him back.)

Which leads to the fourth point: No matter what Washington says, or how deeply the United States or Russia or the other established nuclear powers cut their own nuclear arsenals, it will probably have minimal impact on other countries’ decisions to go, or not to go, nuclear themselves. Their own interests will determine those decisions. In fact, one could argue that a U.S. pullback of this sort may make some technologically advanced countries—which have relied on America’s “nuclear umbrella” for their security—to take the leap and build their own bombs.

The true value of this Nuclear Posture Review depends, in part, on how President Obama views—and presents—its purpose. If he sees it as a way to build institutional support for drastic arms cuts, it could be very valuable indeed. If he sees it as a first step toward his grander goal of wiping nuclear weapons off the face of the earth, he’s going to be sorely disappointed.

Kaplan’s article, while offering strong arguments, needs to address two weak-points.  Kaplan avoids delving into what constitutes “national interest”.  While it is a true that a country will always desire self-protection, what that means depends on what that nation perceives to be necessary.  Also, nations always will make trade-offs:  choosing strategies that get their desired ends for the least cost.

Second, Kaplan doesn’t present a full view of the Obama administration’s nuclear strategy.   His article suggests that nuclear doves have dreamed up the following equation: a new START treaty + a nuclear posture review making deep cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal = the yellow brick road of nuclear abolition.

That’s poppycock.

But these steps, in conjunction with removing nuclear weapons from Europe, holding a nuclear summit in April and pushing a strong disarmament strategy at next summer’s NPT conference can further diplomatically isolate nuclear aspirants.  Will this stop would-be proliferators for all time?  No.  Could it help get current nuclear powers to pursue prudent nuclear policies, limit the amount of weapons, and foster more effective means of counter-proliferation in regards to other nations and, most importantly, rogue nations?  Yes.

Admittedly, nations may be attracted to nuclear weapons.  But I suspect that nations far more prefer keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of fragile regimes (read: Pakistan and Iran), let alone non-state actors.

Posted in Nuclear Posture Review | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Obama’s Nuclear Count-Down: What Will the Nuclear Posture Review Yield?

Posted by K.E. White on March 2, 2010

Last fall President Barack Obama rejected the Pentagon’s first Nuclear Posture Review, suggesting that the initial plan was too timid when it came to cutting back America’s nuclear weapons stock-pile.

Six months latter a final posture review seems eminent, though some details remain to be settled.

The New York Times reveals the key sticking point: how far should the United States limit when to use its nuclear weapons?  While some suggest nuclear weapons should only used to deter other nuclear threats, the post-9/11 world has others suggesting it should be used in response to biological or chemical attacks.

But, as pointed out by NYTimes, a third option may leave both sides satisfied:

Mr. Obama’s reliance on new, non-nuclear Prompt Global Strike weapons is bound to be contentious. As described by advocates within the Pentagon and in the military, the new weapons could achieve the effects of a nuclear weapon, without turning a conventional war into a nuclear one. As a result, the administration believes it could create a new form of deterrence — a way to contain countries that possess or hope to develop nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, without resorting to a nuclear option.

But what are non-nuclear prompt global strike (PGS) weapons?  Walter B. Slocombe and Keith B. Payne offer this informative (and readable) report on the subject, which they presented to Rethinking Nuclear and Non-Nuclear Elements of Deterrence, a 2007 conference.

PGS refer to the “capability to strike any point within an hour of authorization” within a bounded set of targets.  Basically, trade the massively destructive power of a nuclear bomb for the pin-point precision of a non-nuclear missile.

Slocombe and Payne’s paper reviews the topic in depth, and points out some draw-backs of swapping nukes for PGS.  Also, this Arms Control Association 2008 article illustrates past Russian objections to such a program.

But, most pressingly, will trading one type of military superiority (nuclear weapons) for another (tactical missile strikes) really change the incentives countries may feel towards gaining nuclear weapons? If not, fewer U.S. nukes could result in spurring more nations to start nuclear programs.  (But the most likely accelerant to proliferation remains Iran and its continuing nuclear brinkmanship.)

In any case, regardless of the nuclear posture review it should be pointed out Obama has already taken steps to change U.S. nuclear weapons policy.  The Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation illustrates the funding increases the White House has proposed for threat reduction and nonproliferation programs. The biggest winner? The Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, funded through the Department of Defense.

Posted in Nuclear Posture Review, Nuclear Weapons | Tagged: , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

GAO Reviews Security of DOE Controlled Nuclear Materials

Posted by K.E. White on January 30, 2010

Some fun facts:

  • The Department of Energy(D.O.E.) possesses and secures its own nuclear materials.
  • The D.O.E. sites storing these holding these materials are protected by private contractors.
  • A separate agreement governs each nuclear site

Such a decentralized system–on its face–doesn’t seem best at cutting costs or ensuring effective security. But we should all read the GAO report first.

Posted in nuclear security | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

America and Pakistan: Uncertain Nuclear Security Cooperation

Posted by K.E. White on June 26, 2009

The Center for American Progress has just released this survey on Nuclear Security Ties between the United States and Pakistan from 2000-2009. The main message seems to be, ‘Thumbs up Obamaland!’ But the survey gives no evaluation of the administration’s–admittedly clandestine–policies, nor does it offer any fresh insights into securing Pakistani nuclear materials. (Correction: It does recommend against “well-publicized” questioning of Pakistan’s ability to secure its nuclear materials)

The most pertinent part of the report comes in its concluding paragraphs:

In any event, cooperation between the two countries on enhancing the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal appears to continue. There are recent reports that secret talks took place in May 2009 between Energy and State Department officials and their Pakistani counterparts on expanding cooperation. The United States has reportedly continued to provide additional training and detection technology for Pakistani ports, airports, and border crossings. Major initiatives considered in recent talks reportedly include shipment of Pakistani highly enriched uranium fuel to the United States for disposal and a plan to destroy risky radioactive materials. Pakistan, however, denies the talks have occurred. Pakistan has also reportedly requested assistance with redirection programs for retired scientists. The United States was apparently noncommittal.

President Obama has said that “we have confidence that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is safe.” The United States has a fundamental national security interest in ensuring that this remains the case, and it should seek to sustain its cooperation with Pakistan. Achieving this objective will require the United States to avoid aggressive and well-publicized rhetoric questioning the competence of the Pakistani military to manage its own nuclear assets, and continued behind-the-scenes negotiations with military and civilian leaders in Pakistan to share technology and advice consistent with U.S. law and the Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT.

But the survey gives a solid history of nuclear security ties between Pakistan and the United States. This makes it an excellent compliment to this May 2009 Stratfor report: the report fleshes out the tensions that define this area of cooperation; details Pakistan’s nuclear command-and-control system; and, finally, discusses how nuclear security fits into other US objectives in the region:

The view within the U.S. intelligence community is that there is simply no sound way to independently assess the workings of the systems with any great certainty. Obviously, for reasons of national security and sovereignty, the Pakistanis will try to keep the system as opaque as possible. This means Washington has to rely on what it is hearing from Islamabad about control over its nuclear facilities, and on unilaterally obtaining information from third-party intelligence sources and intelligence-sharing with other countries, such as India.

Given the history of security concerns in Pakistan and the problematic relationship between the Bush administration and the Musharraf regime in the context of the jihadist war, Washington has a significant trust issue with Islamabad. The issue is not that Islamabad is providing false assurances; rather, it has to do with the fluidity of the situation in a country in which the government itself cannot be completely certain that all its moving parts are in synch. Even if the reality is that Pakistan’s nuclear facilities are secure from any intrusion by a nonstate actor, one cannot be sure that this is the case.

The United States works very closely with India on the issue of Pakistan’s nuclear security. New Delhi is a key source of intelligence on the status of that security, and a good — albeit imperfect — measure of valid concern is the degree to which India is worried about it, since it stands the greatest risk of being targeted by Pakistan-based nukes. And although India continues to underscore the threat it faces from Pakistan-based militants, it remains comfortable with Pakistan’s nuclear command-and-control infrastructure. This would explain to a considerable degree the current U.S. comfort level. In the past week, following media coverage of Pakistan’s nuclear security, several senior U.S. officials — Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus — all said Islamabad’s nuclear sites were secure.

The public discourse over Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is part of an issue much wider than simply the country’s nuclear security or the Taliban threat to Islamabad. The Obama administration is in the process of downgrading expectations about the war in the Afghanistan-Pakistan theater. There is a growing realization within the White House that the counterinsurgency successes in Iraq are unlikely to be replicated in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

Therefore, the emerging objective in southwest Asia is not to defeat the Taliban, but to neutralize al Qaeda prime and help Pakistan ensure that its nuclear sites remain secure. The Obama administration’s strategy to deal with the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan is to be able to demonstrate success on these two fronts, which are the most immediate of concerns regarding U.S. national security.

Posted in nuclear security, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Energy Security, But At What Cost? Glancing at the NPEC’s New Report on Security at Nuclear Power Sites and It’s Catch by Economist Magazine

Posted by K.E. White on August 29, 2007

Economist brings attention to a new NPEC report on nuclear security: specifically the urgent need for tighter security at civilian nuclear sites.

The Economist article points for the need for greater funding and real-time camera monitoring of nuclear sites. (Yes, putting real-time cameras at nuclear sites is a ‘new’ idea. And yes, the NPEC report highlights black-out periods in current video monitoring of nuclear sites)

So has the IAEA put the cart in front of the horse? The concept of international fueling stations has been floating around for years. But, as the Economist points out correctly, what’s the point of international sites if these sites aren’t monitored:

Henry SokolskiThat is because of the volume of material involved and the way the plants work. Material unaccounted for (called MUF) is often stuck in piping. Discrepancies, even at the best-run plants, can amount to many bombs’ worth. And it can take months for inspectors to be confident they have it all more or less accounted for. Imagine the problems if the IAEA is attempting to monitor such plants in a country like Iran, with its past record of lying to inspectors.

Mr ElBaradei and others have suggested multinational fuel centres as a way to avoid dangerous technologies being abused by individual governments. But safeguarding those would be no easier. Better that such fuel-making technology isn’t spread around at all.

If the IAEA wishes to show nations—like the United States—that they can adequately monitor future nuclear power nations (whether they be Turkey or Iran), their monitoring regime must be developed and more adequately funded.

Especially when even Hans Blix is praising nuclear power:

Hans BlixDr Blix says an international inspection regime and treaty would help remedy that, and ease the environmental pressures of India’s growing economy.

“It is highly desirable that countries like India and China, huge counties that will consume more and more electricity, that they switch increasingly from the coal, which dominates enormously and which really hurts the environment, to nuclear power, that does not,” he said.

“China does that in a big way and India wants to. And I think it would be good that they get access to the latest technology.”

Posted in ElBaradei, Hans Blix, Henry Sokolski, IAEA, NPEC, Nuclear power, nuclear security | Leave a Comment »