Q+A: Obama's middle-path on limiting nuclear weapons

WASHINGTON Tue Apr 6, 2010 11:31pm EDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama's new policy restricting the use of nuclear weapons is a middle-of-the-road approach which may not go far enough for staunch non-proliferation advocates or appease Republicans hawks.

The administration's policy document, called the Nuclear Posture Review, uses careful language that gives Obama and the Pentagon some flexibility in nuclear strategy even as it promotes a broad, non-proliferation agenda.

Here are some questions and answers about the Nuclear Posture Review, its limitations and its implications for U.S. defense strategy.

IS THERE A POLICY SHIFT?

Yes. The United States for the first time is forswearing use of atomic weapons against non-nuclear countries, even if attacked with chemical or biological weapons. That is a break with a George W. Bush-era threat of nuclear retaliation in the event of a biological or chemical attack.

Still, like most parts of the NPR, there are exceptions.

The first is that this assurance applies only if those countries are in compliance with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty -- something Defense Secretary Robert Gates said was a not-so-subtle warning to countries like Iran and North Korea.

The second caveat deals with the evolution of potentially devastating biological weapons. If the biological weapons threat grows significantly, and the U.S. capability to cope with it doesn't grow correspondingly, then the Obama administration reserved the right to change its policy.

DOES THE UNITED STATES RULE OUT A FIRST NUCLEAR STRIKE?

No. Gates said the United States was not yet ready to rule out first use of a nuclear weapon under any circumstances -- a move which would have given ammunition to Republicans in portraying Obama as soft on defense.

"We didn't think we were far enough along the road toward getting control of nuclear weapons around the world to limit ourselves so explicitly," Gates said.

ARE THERE ANY NEW WARHEAD REDUCTIONS?

No. U.S. officials are still not willing to map out their vision of the future U.S. nuclear arsenal. The NPR only signaled a general intent to push further reductions beyond those agreed in the new START arms control treaty with Russia, which Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are to sign in Prague on Thursday.

Still, the Obama administration said clearly that it needs far less weapons than it has now to maintain a strategic balance with Russia and defend against what it sees as today's most pressing threats: terrorists getting their hands on nuclear weapons and nuclear programs by states like Iran and North Korea.

The document says: "The threat of global nuclear war has become remote, but the risk of nuclear attack has increased."

ARE ANY WEAPONS BEING ELIMINATED?

Yes. The Obama administration said the nuclear-tipped, sea-launched cruise missile -- better known as the Tomahawk -- is being eliminated from the nuclear arsenal. But Pentagon officials say the weapon has been on the sidelines and not deployed for several years, so that has little strategic impact.

In fact, the Pentagon stressed that its so-called "nuclear triad" -- the ability to fire nuclear missiles from the land, sea and air -- was intact. It will be ready with inter-continental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles and nuclear-capable bomber aircraft.

NO NEW WARHEADS? REALLY?

There's a key caveat here too. Although the Obama administration has sworn not to develop any new nuclear warheads, or conduct new nuclear tests, it does not rule out creating so-called "replacement" warheads.

The United States has conducted hundreds of nuclear tests in the past and many of the designs that came out of those tests are not in the stockpile. The Pentagon reserved the right to use previously unseen, but previously developed designs, to replace warheads needed to safeguard its nuclear deterrent.

"On technical and nonproliferation grounds, the policy should have ruled out replacement options, which can result in significantly changed warheads. The decision not to do so reflects political considerations," said Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists.

Still, the Obama administration expressed a strong preference for refurbishing or reusing components from other warheads to extend the operational lifetime of U.S. warheads. (Reporting by Phil Stewart)

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