29 September 2003
At a time when the United States is exerting all the diplomatic and military influence at its disposal to block the proliferation of nuclear weapons elsewhere,
especially to potential hostile powers such as North Korea and Iran, Americans are facing some serious decisions concerning our own nuclear weapons program.
The nation must soon choose whether it will take the actions required to upgrade our aging nuclear stockpile and delivery systems, adopting them to the emerging realities of the post-Cold War world, or allow them to gradually fall into disrepair, choosing a policy of disarmament by default.
We think such upgrades and advances are essential to maintaining the credibility of nuclear deterrence into the 21st century, as well as the safety and reliability of aging warheads and delivery systems, many of which already are beyond their design life expectancy and in danger of falling into disrepair.
But efforts to upgrade our nuclear program are beginning to encounter resistance from Democrats on Capitol Hill.
While many Americans probably haven't given nuclear weapons or deterrence serious thought since the end of the Cold War, an era in which both served as a constant backdrop to superpower intrigues, the fact is that America continues to keep and maintain thousands of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.
But we emphasize the word maintain, since both the development of new warheads and the systems to deliver them years ago slowed to a virtual halt, leaving the U.S. nuclear stockpile in a state of suspended animation.
The Department of Energy has primary responsibility for the design and testing of nuclear bombs or warheads; the Pentagon, for procuring and maintaining the means to deliver them. But America hasn't fielded a major new nuclear weapon system in more than a decade.
Instead of designing new systems, both agencies have been tasked with maintaining and monitoring an increasingly stale stockpile.
In the meantime, nuclear weapons and the sea, land, and bomber-based systems that deliver them, have been aging, weapons productions facilities have been mothballed, and much of the expertise needed to design and build them has been lost to retirements and departures.
But a handful of government officials are beginnign to think again about how to upgrade our nuclear capability and deterrent to compete with the new threats of the 21st century.
Some of that planning is going on right here in Colorado Springs, at Peterson Air Force Base, where Col. Rick Patenaude of Air Force Space Command is soliciting ideas for what future nuclear delivery systems might look like. As part of its mission to ensure deterrence, Space Command not only is working hard to maintain the safety and reliability of the aging missiles in its inventory, but is beginning to think about what will replace these systems in 20, 30, or 50 years.
On what the nuclear delivery systems of the future will look like, Patenaude won't speculate -- the whole purpose of the "Concept Call" isn't to predetermine an outcome, but to lay out some broad parameters and encourage creative minds in the private section to present possible solutions to the national security challenges of the next half-century.
Patenaude and Air Force Space Command are just doing their jobs. But to those viscerally opposed to nuclear arms, or who believe such weapons and concepts are anachronisms in the post-Cold War world, such activities signal a return to the nuclear arms race which must be opposed, de-funded, defeated.
Several weeks ago, Democrats in the Senate, led by Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Edward Kennedy, attempted to eliminate funding for research into a new generation of nuclear weapons from the Department of Energy's budget, arguing that such work will trigger another arms race.
They also tried to cut funding for a new facility to produce plutonium pits, which serve as the triggers for nuclear warheads (and could be in short supply, since one production facility was shut down years ago and never re-o-pened), and nix a Bush administration plan to reduce the time it would take to return to nuclear testing, should concerns about the safety and reliability of the aging stockpile make that necessary.
It was the second attempt this year by Democrats to block research or work involving an upgrade of nuclear programs. And though both efforts were wisely overridden by more rational members of Congress, they provide a worrying preview of the kind of hysterics and hyperbole we can expect in any future debate about an upgrading of U.S. nuclear capabilities.
"There should be no doubt in anyone's mind that this administration is reopening the nuclear door," Sen. Feinstein said during one floor debate. "They are doing this to develop essentially a new generation of nuclear weapons."
Added Kennedy: "The last thing the world needs is to have the United States start playing Lone Ranger with nuclear weapons. How can we demand that North Korea and Iran abandon
their nuclear weapons programs while we develop a new generation of these weapons ourselves?"
"We expect people to say, 'Why are we building a new generation of ICBMs when the Cold War is over?'," Patenaude tells us. "To which I respond, 'We're building a new generation of ICBMs because the Cold War is over." The world is changing and the threat is evolving, Patenaude points out, and "the way we did things in the 1960s maybe isn't the best way to do things today or in 2020."
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see the wisdom in that.