Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Today President Obama wrapped up a two-day summit on reducing the threat of nuclear terrorism in the world. With that in mind, I thought it was worthwhile to take a look at the historic deal he signed last week with his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev. Nuclear disarmament advocates are hailing the new START treaty as an important step towards a nuclear-free world. Sadly, I think they’re overstating the importance of the treaty.

While START slashes the nuclear arsenals of both countries, it still allows each side to have 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads – more than enough to destroy all life on Earth. And since nuclear weapons need to be actively maintained in an operational state, in reality for the Russians (and to a degree for the US as well), START only means that they’ll have to replace fewer obsolete nuclear warheads then they would have needed to without the agreement. The treaty also limits each side to 700 “deployed delivery vehicles” (that’s bombers and missiles to you and me), but the Russians currently only have about 590 deployed delivery vehicles in their military, meaning that under the arms reduction treaty they can actually deploy more weapons systems than they have right now – that doesn’t seem like much of a “reduction”.

START has had some benefits, it is a major foreign policy achievement for Pres. Obama and it is a step towards the “reset” in relations with the Russians that his administration promised last year. The United States was able to negotiate the Russians past their insistence that ending American plans for a ballistic missile defense system based in Europe be part of any nuclear reduction deal. And anything that improves US-Russian relations is a plus for both countries.

But ironically, START could make the world a less safe place. That’s thanks to some of the planners in the Pentagon who have been working on an idea to repurpose some of those nuclear weapons-carrying ICBMs into a new, non-nuclear weapon system called the Prompt Global Strike. Basically it involves putting a high-explosive warhead onto an intercontinental ballistic missile that could be used to hit a target anywhere in the world, its designers say, within an hour. A high-explosive warhead, combined with a hypersonic reentry speed, would deliver a “devastating” payload to its target. Frankly, it seems like not only a pretty expensive way to blow up some remote corner of the world (those ICBMs aren’t cheap), but also a potentially dangerous one as well since the other nuclear armed countries, like Russia and China, wouldn’t be able to tell whether an ICBM was carrying a nuclear or a Prompt Global Strike payload and thus could easily misinterpret a Prompt Global Strike launch as a sneak American nuclear attack and react accordingly. Or as Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov put it earlier this week: “world states will hardly accept a situation in which nuclear weapons disappear, but weapons that are no less destabilizing emerge in the hands of certain members of the international community.”

While the Prompt Global Strike concept has been on the drawing boards since the mid-90s, Pres. Obama recently increased the funding for its development with a goal of getting PGS into the American arsenal by the middle of the decade. Whether the other nuclear powers think this weapon flies in the face of arms reduction efforts remains to be seen, though Lavrov’s comments give you an idea of what they’ll likely think if Prompt Global Strike becomes operational.
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