GOP Senators sent a letter to the President this week indicating that they could only support a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with the Russians if the President agreed to build new unnecessary nuclear weapons. The ridiculousness of this was apparently lost on the signatories to the letter, which included all 40 Republican Senators, as well as Joe Lieberman (I-CT).
However, the letter raises concerns over the ease by which a new START agreement – that is set to be completed any day now – can be ratified. START is supposed to be the easy treaty to ratify. It is after all a Reagan-era initiative and has tremendous bi-partisan support. But this letter raises concerns that many GOP Senators, led by Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ), will seek to extract major concessions during that ratification process that would serve to undercut the President’s nuclear agenda.
The GOP letter calls for the building of a new nuclear warhead, which they argue, in the words of the Washington Times, is essential to “modernize” the “aging nuclear stockpile.” The GOP letter stated:
we don’t believe further reductions can be in the national security interest of the U.S. in the absence of a significant program to modernize our nuclear deterrent.
In one sense, this is easy because it is already happening – the US has a significant modernization program in place that costs more than $6 billion per year. However, the GOP is pushing the alarmist notion that our nuclear stockpiles are so decrepit that the only way we can modernize our nuclear arsenal is to build new nuclear warheads. In a retread of the old Cold War “missile gap” claims, many GOP Senators are insisting that the Russians and the Chinese are “modernizing” their nuclear arsenals, while the US is falling behind. This puts forth a totally warped definition of modernization. To these conservatives, “modernization” is only happening if the US is building new warheads – yet in reality the US continuously refurbishes and upgrades its existing warheads, which by any definition is modernization.
Stephen Pifer of the Brookings Institution explained at an event earlier this month:
We [the US] take a missile frame and we modernize it, and we refurbish it, whereas the Russian practice is to take a missile, they use it for 15 years and then they replace it completely. So you’ll see new numbers coming up on the Russian side and you may think that, gosh, the Americans are still deploying these 1970s missiles. I suspect when they retire the last Minuteman III in 2030, it may have three of the original bolts on it from 1970 but it’s going to be a very different missile.
Furthermore, claims that this approach to modernizing are ineffective, were recently debunked. A Congressionally-commissioned study made up of independent scientists concluded just last month that the US nuclear arsenal is in fact in very fine shape. The study concluded that the programs in place to maintain the effectiveness of the US nuclear arsenal – a program called the Life Extension Program (LEP) – is highly effective.
The US does not need a new nuclear warhead. Our nuclear arsenal is doing just fine and remains the most sophisticated and advanced in the world. Kingston Reif in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists rightly called out the critics:
Those who continue to argue that Washington doesn’t show enough interest in modernizing its nuclear weapons should be forced to answer a simple question: If given the choice, would they trade the U.S. nuclear arsenal for the Russian or Chinese nuclear arsenals? Clearly, the answer is no.