Rice Declines to Sign U.S. Nuclear Strategy Paper

By Elaine M. Grossman
Global Security Newswire

WASHINGTON – U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has declined to formally endorse an interagency “white paper” on nuclear deterrence strategy, Global Security Newswire has learned (see GSN, July 25, 2007).

The roughly 30-page document, which has yet to be publicly released, is intended to expand on a four-page statement about nuclear weapons policy issued jointly in July 2007 by three Cabinet secretaries:  Rice, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman.  The unclassified version of the new paper has been delayed several times but should be unveiled in the next few weeks, according to Bush administration officials.

The State Department was consulted on the white paper and supports its contents, but has stopped short of officially sponsoring it, Rice’s staff officially confirmed.  Aides said Rice opted to leave it to her defense and energy counterparts to issue the new document because it is more technical than last year’s statement, and thus lies outside her diplomatic purview.

The 2007 statement emphasized a need for a smaller, more modern U.S. nuclear arsenal in the face of increased capability among “rogue states” as well as weapons improvements by other “established nuclear powers.”

The three secretaries argued in favor of moving forward with the development of a new nuclear weapon, the Reliable Replacement Warhead.  Proponents say the weapon concept, which has drawn little support from the Democratic-controlled Congress, would offer gains in safety, security, reliability and maintainability, compared to today’s stockpile.

A classified version of the expanded report on “National Security and Nuclear Weapons: Maintaining Deterrence in the 21st century” was submitted to Congress in March, according to Thomas D’Agostino, head of the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration.

He said a declassified copy would soon follow.

“We’re working to be able to take out the classified sections and release an unclassified version because we are confident that it’s important to get as much information out in the public as possible,” D’Agostino told a House panel in early April.  “This administration is driven by Department of Defense [officials] and combatant commanders [who] believe that the effort to study replacement concepts is important to the long-term assurance of the stockpile.”

To date, neither D’Agostino nor any other government leader has publicly disclosed that the expanded paper was signed only by two of the three secretaries who issued last year’s statement.

The latest delay in the white paper’s planned debut by the Defense and Energy departments reportedly is due to State Department requests to alter some descriptions of potential nuclear adversaries.  Further details about these discussions could not be independently verified at press time.

However, a difference over report language is not the reason that State Department officials are citing for why Rice has declined to co-sponsor the white paper.

“The March 13, 2008, paper addresses technical issues for the Congress such as design, manufacturing, and operational status of the U.S. nuclear arsenal,” State Department officials said in a written response to questions.  “These are properly the responsibilities of the departments of Defense and Energy.”

They added:  “Appropriate offices of the Department of State were consulted early in the paper’s preparation and the Department supports the paper’s conclusions.”

Yet, there might be more to Rice’s decision than meets the eye, according to some observers.

State Department leaders might prefer to avoid focusing on new warhead development as the United States seeks to rally global support for dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and a suspected developmental effort in Iran, said one former defense official involved in nuclear affairs.  An RRW supporter, the former official spoke on condition of anonymity.

Some RRW opponents have asserted that the United States might argue more successfully against global nuclear weapons proliferation if it set aside its own plans for stockpile modernization and focused instead on force reductions.

In signing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1968, the United States agreed with other declared nuclear-weapon nations to “achieve at the earliest possible date the cessation of the nuclear arms race and to undertake effective measures in the direction of nuclear disarmament.”

Last year’s interagency statement turned that thinking on its head.

“Without assuming serious risk, further reductions in the total stockpile are only achievable with a responsive nuclear infrastructure,” stated the document, referring to RRW program objectives.

The three secretaries also declared that delays in producing the new warhead “raise the prospect of having to return to underground nuclear testing to certify existing weapons.”

The incoming leaders of the Joint Chiefs of Staff tempered these assertions a few days later.

Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, now the vice chairman, told a Senate committee that the proposed warhead would help facilitate stockpile reductions but was not necessary to begin such cuts.  Testifying alongside him, now-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen emphasized that the Stockpile Stewardship Program continues to allow the nation to avoid explosive nuclear weapon tests (see GSN, Aug. 1, 2007).

Still, administration leaders are expected to continue to argue in the new white paper that the United States must maintain a nuclear weapons stockpile numbering roughly 5,000 warheads into the foreseeable future, according to Jeffrey Lewis, director of the New America Foundation’s Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative.

While that figure represents just one-quarter of the warheads in the stockpile at the height of the Cold War, it remains far more than some critics believe is necessary to preserve nuclear deterrence against current and projected threats.

“At a time when the State Department is trying to get Russia and China to back tougher sanctions on Iran, explaining that we need several thousand nuclear weapons to keep parity with the Russians and overwhelm the Chinese is not helpful, to say the least,” Lewis said yesterday.  “If I were Secretary Rice, I would prefer those things be left unsaid.”

These issues are expected to be taken up again later this year.  A congressionally mandated bipartisan review commission on the U.S. strategic nuclear posture is set to report its recommendations by Dec. 1 (see GSN, March 20).  The panel is headed by former defense secretaries William Perry and James Schlesinger.

[Reprinted by permission of National Journal Group. This article may not be reproduced or redistributed, in part or in whole, without express permission of the publisher. Copyright 2007, National Journal Group. For more information and exclusive news, go to http://www.globalsecuritynewswire.org or http://www.nationaljournal.com.]

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