For decades, America’s nuclear weapons have been seen as a way to deter a nuclear attack. But a Pentagon planning document calls for new nuclear arms that could have a lower yield and produce less nuclear fallout. Critics worry that those weapons might be easier to envision using to fight a nuclear war.
With me in the studio to discuss the nation’s nuclear posture are Ivo Daalder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He served on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration. And Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy. He served in the Defense Department during the Reagan administration.
Welcome to the Diane Rehm show. Frank Gaffney, tell us what this document that was leaked last week involves—what does it say about the nation’s nuclear posture?
FRANK GAFFNEY: The first thing to understand about it is it is a classified document, so I haven’t seen it. I have read reports of it, published by people who had the parent list. They received it. Sources we know not exactly whom and presumably they’d seen the whole thing. But all I have seen are selected excerpts, many of which frankly I think have been designed for publicity to maximize debate about certain aspects and according to the Secretary of Defense yesterday, in fact misrepresenting, in some respects at least, the nature of this report. But having said that, what it is is the classified submission to the Congress of a report assessing what we need in the way of a nuclear deterrent for the early period of the 21st century. It was mandated by the president, really before he became president because he wanted to see what the lowest possible level of nuclear forces could be compatible with our national security requirements. And they also used this as an opportunity to revisit policies that were adopted during the Clinton administration. I think most importantly with respect to what it will take to assure the credibility, which is to say the reliability, the safety, and the effectiveness of the nuclear deterrent for the foreseeable future.
SUSAN PAGE: Now it’s true that President Bush has long embraced lower levels of nuclear weapons, but Ivo Daalder, what struck you about reports on this planning document that represent a change from what was the case with the Clinton administration.
IVO DAALDER: Two things. Let me say that this is a classified report, so like Frank, I have not seen it. But the administration released an unclassified briefing back in January. In fact the administration senior officials have testified on the Hill, so although some of the phraseology that we saw over the weekend coming in the news reports was new, the essential thrust of the document has been known publicly for some time—including the question on reductions. President Bush announced last November in a summit meeting with Russian President Putin that the United States would unilaterally reduce its strategic nuclear forces—long-range weapons—to 1,700 to 2,200 weapons on the U.S. side. Down from, depending on what kind of counting will be used, somewhere around 6-7,000 today. That’s a significant reduction. It in fact fulfills our reductions. The question that has come up since January now reinforced by the report is what is going to happen to the weapons that are going to be reduced? And the point that we are finding out is that these weapons are not going to be destroyed, they’re not going to be eliminated. They are going to be put in storage, as part of what the Pentagon report calls a responsive force—a force that would be available if circumstances warranted it. If there are changes for example in the political climate in the Soviet Union, or whatever, and we would have to, under those planning assumptions, go back up to the 6 or 7 or 10,000 nuclear weapons that we have today or we had during the Cold War. So these reductions really aren’t “real” in terms of the terminology we have used in the past.
The second noteworthy thing about this document is that it tries to look at nuclear weapons in a different way. It tries to integrate them in our general military planning. Nuclear weapons in some senses are being referred to as if they are just other kinds of weapons. That they are like conventional weapons, and that is a move in a different direction, certainly from the Clinton administration and in many ways a different direction from where we have been in the past.