National Security

Hey, Big Spender

Republicans like to say that Obama's gone soft on nukes. In fact, he's spending $213 billion more on them.

The Republican Party platform would have you believe that the strongest nation on Earth has decided to hang it up. "The United States is the only nuclear power not modernizing its nuclear stockpile," the party's 2012 platform warns.

Nonsense. All the major nuclear powers -- China, Russia, and the United States -- are modernizing their nuclear forces. While the Cold War has been cold for two decades now and the world no longer sits at the brink of conflagration, nuclear weapons enjoy a strange momentum. Bombs, warheads, and the means to deliver them are being refurbished and created anew so they will remain potent well into this century.

How do we know anyone in 2050 will want them? We don't, but we are delivering them nonetheless. A gift for the next generation.

It's true that in his Prague speech in 2009, President Barack Obama vowed "to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons." But he immediately qualified it, saying, "This goal will not be reached quickly -- perhaps not in my lifetime."

His policies have not exactly been a rush to disarmament.

In his 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, the president kept intact the land-sea-air strategic triad, and backed off his pledge to take nuclear missiles off high alert status. He did eliminate one weapon: a sea-launched, nuclear-armed cruise missile.

Obama also negotiated an arms treaty with Russia, limiting both sides to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads by the treaty's end, after seven years.

But the treaty's reductions from previous levels were modest. Moreover, there are more nuclear weapons outside the treaty than are covered by its limits. This includes about 2,000 strategic warheads in the U.S. non-deployed "reserve" and thousands more Russian tactical nuclear weapons left over from the Cold War -- which have never been covered by any arms control treaty.

When it comes to spending on nuclear weapons, and the complex of laboratories and facilities that support them, Obama has been downright generous in tough fiscal times.

When he submitted the New START arms reduction treaty to the Senate, the president laid out a congressionally required 10-year plan for modernizing and maintaining U.S. nuclear forces, including the warheads, delivery systems, and related infrastructure. Over the decade, the plan envisioned about $88 billion in spending for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semi-autonomous unit of the Energy Department, and $125 billion for updating strategic delivery vehicles, such as submarines, missiles, and bombers.

There's been some grumbling among Republicans that the president didn't keep his promise on this score. The GOP platform declares, "It took the current Administration just one year to renege on the President's commitment to modernize the neglected infrastructure of the nuclear weapons complex -- a commitment made in exchange for approval of the New START treaty."

This is pretty weak criticism. The administration is actually shoveling cash into the nuclear weapons stockpile. The NNSA is carrying out a 20-year, multibillion dollar effort, known as the Life Extension Programs, to prolong the life of four types of nuclear warheads and bombs. It is painstakingly difficult work -- which involves replacing old parts while adding security systems and controls -- and expensive.

Just one of them, the B-61 gravity bomb life extension, was estimated two years ago to cost $4 billion, but in July, Sen. Diane Feinstein, (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees the program, said the cost had doubled to $8 billion. A separate Pentagon estimate runs even higher, to $10 billion.

Under the original 10-year plan, the budget anticipated for NNSA next year was to be $7.95 billion, but the president's request was slightly below, at $7.58 billion. There is a good reason for this, one that the Republicans are well aware of: the Budget Control Act. Given that kind of pressure, coming in just a shade under the 10-year plan is not a sign of bad faith, as some in the GOP suggest. Actually, the president is spending considerably more for nuclear weapons upkeep than did his predecessor, whose budget for NNSA weapons activities in the last year of his administration was $6.3 billion.

Obama also promised in a February 2011 letter to the Senate to accelerate, "to the extent possible," work on design and engineering for a new plutonium facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. It is to be called the Chemical and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) building, and the project is estimated to cost $6 billion. Another project, the Uranium Processing Facility at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was to proceed in parallel. But the cost of doing them simultaneously grew to the point where the administration realized it could not sustain both. The White House decided to postpone the CMRR for five years, while boosting the budget for the uranium facility. This is just common sense at work, not some kind of subterfuge, as the Republicans suggest.

The president has not stinted much on the big-ticket modernization of delivery vehicles, either.

One of the largest is the Navy's planned replacement of the fleet of Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines. Today's fleet of 12 deployed submarines carries a total of 288 Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The first of them entered service in 1981. These were the real workhorses of nuclear deterrence -- nearly invulnerable and incredibly accurate from 4,000 miles away. The Ohio-class boats each can carry up to 24 missiles, but will only have 20 under the new treaty with Russia. The new class of submarines, the SSBNX, will carry just 16 missiles, for a maximum of 192 when the fleet is fully replaced. The cost of this new generation of submarines, now advancing through the planning process, is roughly $100 billion.

Similar replacements will be offered for land-based missiles and the air leg of the strategic triad. Whoever is elected the next president will face enormous budget pressures and may yet decide that a triad is a Cold War relic, and no longer necessary. But Obama did not want to go there in 2010. His nuclear posture review looked at the possibility of a two-pronged nuclear deterrence force, say just land-based missiles and submarines, and shuddered. The report declared: "Retaining all three Triad legs will best maintain strategic stability at reasonable cost, while hedging against potential technical problems or vulnerabilities."

And as to the Republican criticism that Obama's deterrence strategy is insufficient, that seems like old politics. In 2008, presidential candidate Obama promised to take nuclear-tipped missiles off launch-ready alert. He didn't.

Today, one-third of U.S. strategic forces, including almost all land-based missiles and some sea-based, are still ready for a prompt launch. This has not changed since the Cold War ended. The launch-ready alert time is four minutes from the moment the president gives the order for land-based missiles, and about 12 minutes for submarines.

Obama's nuclear posture review acknowledged the need for more presidential decision time in a crisis, but the alert posture was left unchanged. The only reason the United States maintains a hair-trigger posture today is because Russia does. (China is not believed to keep weapons on launch-ready alert.)

Despite tensions that flare up, the United States and Russia are no longer enemies; the chance of nuclear war or surprise attack is nearly zero. We trade in each other's equity markets. Russia has the largest audience of Facebook users in Europe, and is open to the world in a way the Soviet Union never was.

Yet the missiles of Armageddon are still on prompt launch.

Another nuclear relic of the Cold War are the 200 or so tactical nuclear weapons the United States still retains in Europe as part of the NATO nuclear deterrent. The refurbished B-61 bombs would replace the older tactical B-61s now deployed at bases in Belgium, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, and Turkey. These forward-based tactical nuclear bombs were intended to deter a Soviet land invasion of Europe. That threat vanished long ago, and so has the military mission for the weapons. They are now there entirely as a political device to reinforce the idea that non-nuclear members are sharing in the alliance defense burden.

Obama didn't change this. Perhaps he concluded these nuclear weapons should be part of a larger deal with Russia later on, putting the big Russian stockpile on the negotiating table. But some NATO members are growing restive about them, and these weapons are ripe for a future deal.

Clearly, Obama is not a disarmament dreamer. But what would he do in a second term? Would Obama consider negotiating deeper cuts in the arsenals with Russia? Would he take missiles off prompt launch?

The White House carried out a detailed implementation study after the nuclear posture review. Sources say the study sketches out alternative paths for U.S. nuclear forces -- keeping today's levels, or seeking deeper reductions. The results of this study have been locked up during the election campaign, but if Obama is re-elected, he will have to make decisions relatively early in a new term.

Mitt Romney opposed the New START treaty and called for a large defense spending increase and even more for missile defense. In general, he seems skeptical of the need for negotiated nuclear arms control and has promised to stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin. But if elected, he would face some pressures similar to those confronting Obama. The large number of Russian tactical nuclear weapons is a continuing worry. Congress is unlikely to approve such a large defense spending increase, and the new president may have to find ways to scale back the strategic nuclear deterrent as a result -- perhaps with fewer submarines or missiles. The NATO allies are restive about continuing to station American nuclear bombs in Europe. The question is what would Romney do once in the White House -- and how much does his campaign rhetoric really say about where he would take nuclear weapons policy?

At the Seoul summit, in March 2012, President Obama declared, "We can already say with confidence that we have more nuclear weapons than we need..." For him, too, the question is: What will he do about it?

Mike Heffner/Getty Images


Caught in the Crossfire

If the United States wants to save Lebanon, it should get off the sidelines and help topple Bashar al-Assad's bloody dictatorship.

Lebanon is returning to an all-too-familiar-game. On Oct. 19, a large explosion shook Beirut, killing senior Lebanese security official Gen. Wissam al-Hassan and unleashing a round of sectarian street battles across the city.

Among those who speak out against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his ally, the Lebanese Shia militant group Hezbollah, an instinctive reaction kicked in. I went down my list of family and friends, trying to reach my loved ones, until Hassan's death was announced.

The assassination of Lebanon's director of security intelligence has sparked an angry reaction in Beirut, one the current government has proven powerless to control. His funeral on Oct. 21 devolved into clashes between security forces and anti-Assad protesters who tried to push their way into the prime minister's office. The violence continued into this week, with deadly skirmishes between protesters and the military in both the capital and the northern city of Tripoli. It is hard to see how the country can return to the status quo that existed before Hassan's killing.

In truth, Hassan had been a dead man walking for some time. In August, he uncovered a Syrian plot to export the Assad regime's troubles through a bombing campaign against its fragile neighbor. The case implicated Syria's national security advisor, a top aide to President Assad, and a former Lebanese minister with close ties to Damascus. The evidence was overwhelming: Hassan not only seized the explosives that would have been used in the plot, but presented video and audio footage of the perpetrators discussing the operation.

Hassan had gone where no other Lebanese security official dared -- and as a result, he was living on borrowed time. Like Gebran Tueini, the late publisher of Lebanon's anti-Syrian An-Nahar newspaper, he was tailed upon arriving at Beirut Airport and car-bombed within hours of his return home.

This is not only a Lebanese tragedy, but one precipitated by the world's lack of action to Syria's 19-month revolt. In Washington, critics of President Barack Obama's approach have long warned that continued U.S. inaction will surely lead to contagion -- broadening the conflict to Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and, of course, Lebanon.  In fact, while Hassan's killing represents a watershed moment when the Syrian conflict jumped the border into Lebanon, it is far from the first time that Syria has provoked chaos among its neighbors. Most notably, Syria has repeatedly shelled Turkish border villages, given Kurdish insurgents a free hand to carry out cross border attacks from its territory, and even downed a Turkish fighter jet. These provocations have largely gone unanswered, and are undermining U.S. influence, and that of its allies, in the Middle East.

To put it bluntly, the Middle East cannot wait for Washington to emerge from its electoral hiatus. And while Republican nominee Mitt Romney has sharply criticized Obama's Syria policy, he has yet to offer much beyond campaign rhetoric. It is incumbent on the United States to show greater leadership in a part of the world that remains vital to its interests, and in which its Arab, Turkish, and European allies are all urging it to do more.

But with Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Libya in mind, there's a palpable sense of Middle East fatigue in Washington, among Republicans and Democrats alike. So what can realistically be done, short of an all out U.S. intervention in Syria?

To begin with, the Obama administration needs to lift its veto on the Gulf states providing anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to the Syrian rebels. Such arms are a necessity if anti-Assad forces are to take on the regime's Russian-made tanks and fighter aircraft, which are devastating civilian areas throughout the country. While there are justified concerns of such equipment falling into extremists hands, such risks can be mitigated through the careful vetting of rebel leaders -- a process that has been ongoing by the United States for months.

Working with NATO allies such as Turkey, as well as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan, the United States can also help create safe havens within Syria without the need to put any boots on the ground. By moving Turkish and Jordanian anti-aircraft batteries to the Syrian border, it would be possible to create de facto no-fly zones 50 miles into Syrian airspace. Such a step would protect major Syrian population centers, including the cities of Aleppo and Deraa. It would also stem the outflow of hundreds of thousands of refugees into Syria's neighbors.

Turkey and Jordan will not act without U.S. security guarantees and Saudi money. The United States and Saudi Arabia have so far resisted taking such steps, however.

A more robust U.S. approach to Syria should not preclude a meaningful diplomatic effort, one that aims at securing Assad's departure and preserving Syrian state institutions. Russia, Assad's traditional backer, is a key player in achieving such an outcome. But after being at loggerheads on the Syrian issue for months, during which Moscow vetoed three U.N. Security Council resolutions on the subject, a U.S.-Russian understanding looks as distant as ever.

A telling open microphone moment between Obama and then Russian President Medvedev in March suggests a mutual accommodation might become more likely after the U.S. elections. The U.S. president was overheard saying he would have "more flexibility" after the election to compromise on some of Russia's foreign policy concerns. A solution for Syria could conceivably be part of such an accommodation.

Until then, more can and must be done to limit Assad's killing machine, and to set the stage for a positive political outcome in Syria. Meanwhile, Lebanon and the region will remain on a knife's edge, leaving us guessing whom the next car bomb victim will be.

-/AFP/Getty Images