On Nukes, Obama Plans Hands-On Approach

President Obama plans to take a more active role in preparing America's nuclear weapons strategy, helping to ensure that the final document, due out next year, reflects his priorities, rather than just the institutional views of his government, administration officials said.

Mr. Obama was said to be unhappy when the Defense Department presented to him its decision to remove a long-range missile battery from Poland and a sophisticated radar system from the Czech Republic. Obama had little time to study the issue before the vagaries of the Pentagon's budget procedures forced his hand. Responding to concerns that the Nuclear Posture Review  (NPR) was being completed without enough input from his staff and from the State Department, Obama has decided to provide guidance directly, and plans to participate in several high-level meetings.
At stake is the future of America's deterrence policy and whether its nuclear weapons stockpile needs to be significantly modified. Obama has called for a move towards "global zero," a world free of nuclear weapons, but has insisted that, so long as countries possess nuclear weapons, America's policy of possessing nukes as a means to deter their use would remain in effect.  The NPR will reveal whether the tenor of the deterrent changes. For example, Obama may decide that America would not use nuclear weapons against a state that did not also possess them. 

The Defense Department wants the NPR to include new designs for warheads.  Earlier this year, Obama zeroed out funding for a so-called "Reliable Replacement Warhead" and has resisted attempts to restore the money. 

In a speech earlier this week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told an arms control association that "we can't afford to continue relying on recycled Cold War thinking."   She said that next year's budget would include what she called a "stockpile management program."  The phrase comes from one of her deputies, Ellen Tauscher, formerly the chair of the House strategic forces subcommittee. Tauscher is now the undersecretary of state for arms control.  Managing the aging stockpile doesn't necessarily imply a new warhead. Indeed, the administration will probably reject any attempts to fund warhead improvements and instead work on making sure that the delivery mechanisms, like missiles, are in top order.  For example, vacuum tubes, constructed in the 1960s, might have to be replaced. 

"General Chilton, Commander of U.S. Stratcom, has said repeatedly that he doesn't need new nuclear weapons capabilities - but he must be confident in the capabilities that we have," Clinton said.

That's a direct challenge to the Pentagon's view - using the words of the Pentagon's top nuclear warrior. [This line turns out not be quite true.]
Presented by

Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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