The announcement earlier this month that the United
States will pursue the design and construction of new nuclear weapons has not
been warmly embraced by the rest of the world.
In fact, most people outside the country view the move as more evidence of
a policy favoring unilateralism and the pursuit of absolute military superiority,
according to a report written last December but just released Wednesday on global
perceptions of U.S. nuclear policy.
The report, commissioned by the Pentagon's Defense Threat Reduction Agency
(DTRA), used focus groups and written and oral interviews with participants
in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America to assess international
feelings toward the plan for a new generation of nuclear warheads.
It found that China and Russia, in particular, are watching the scope of U.S.
missile deployments with concern that Washington might be attempting to move
away from a deterrence posture through more effective defenses.
Under the new Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program, older nuclear warheads
currently maintained under the Stockpile Stewardship Program will be replaced
by simpler weapons meant to be more reliable, easier to manufacture and more
robust than current models. They would reportedly be ready for production by
The decision to upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal is being opposed by some members
of the U.S. Congress, who believe it sends a message that Washington is pursuing
first strike capabilities instead of a policy of détente and arms reduction,
as was the case during the Cold War.
"The whole name of the reliable replacement warhead is insidious since
it suggests the current weapons are not reliable," Stephen Schwartz, editor
of the Nonproliferation Review at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, told
The Union of Concerned Scientists says that the plan to update the U.S. nuclear
arsenal is unnecessary because the current arsenal's reliability is not degrading.
Changing the design of nuclear warheads is expensive and dangerous, the group
argues, and political pressure within the United States could lead to the testing
of new nuclear weapons before they replace existing weapons.
The new warheads are based on a design that was detonated in underground tests
during the 1980s.
Although part of the George W. Bush administration's rationale for the RRW
is a need to have a more flexible arsenal to engage and deter so-called "rogue
states", such as North Korea and Iran, the DTRA report concludes that Russia
and China's future decisions about their nuclear arsenals will be dependent
on "their perceptions of U.S. strategic intent, plans, and commitments."
The departure from a policy of nuclear deterrence has also caused concern in
Japan and Turkey, where U.S. commitments of extended deterrence are seen as
essential security guarantees. The new policies have led both countries to question
the credibility of a U.S. nuclear guarantee, says the report.
Focus groups and written responses from U.S. allies and friends "oppose
U.S. development of new, tailored, low-yield nuclear weapons as unnecessary,
potentially dangerous, politically divisive, and adversely impacting nonproliferation,"
says the report.
While the DTRA's report is one of the first to address the geo-strategic effect
the new weapons will have on nonproliferation and global stability, there are
also concerns here that the new weapons will eventually require potentially
The U.S. Senate has not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT),
which bars nuclear weapons tests, and some fear that the Bush administration's
plan to develop new nuclear weapons could seriously undermine the possibility
of a Senate ratification of the treaty.
"A number of people have raised the point that even if the scientists
are confident the weapon will work, many military leaders will be a bit skeptical
and demand actual proof," warned Schwartz.
There are no current plans to test the new weapons, but the development of
new warheads does make some countries doubt the United States and other nuclear
weapons powers' commitment to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which
includes disarmament obligations such as ratification of the CTBT.
The U.S. government, in the past, has implied that the development of more
reliable nuclear warheads will allow it to reduce its total number of nuclear
warheads and comply with reductions required in the NPT.
"[But] if you're looking at this from the outside (of the U.S.) you'll
see the U.S. has 10,000 nuclear weapons and is going to build more," said
The DTRA study concludes that the message from U.S. allies to Washington is
"that a greater U.S. readiness to engage on nuclear disarmament issues
would pay off in increased support from other third parties in pursuing U.S.
"Building these new warheads will restart the Cold War cycle of designing
and producing new nuclear weapons. Instead, the United States needs a thorough
review of its outdated nuclear weapons policy, under which it keeps thousands
of warheads on high-alert status. Rather than building new nuclear weapons,
the United States should be looking for ways to reduce its reliance on them,"
said Dr. Robert Nelson, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists,
in a statement.
On Mar. 18, a panel composed of retired nuclear weapons laboratory directors
and former defense and energy department officials also weighed in on the debate,
recommending that "any decision to proceed with RRW must be coupled with
a transparent administration policy on nuclear weapons, including comments concerning
stockpile size, nuclear testing and nonproliferation." The panel's full
report is expected next month.
(Inter Press Service)