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Ford Responds to David Lowry: Nuclear Modernization


These comments respond to David Lowry’s guest blog entry on the previous page, “Disarmament, the NPT, and Modernization.”

Notwithstanding whatever Britain’s junior minister of state for foreign affairs, Fred Mulley, may once have said, Article VI does not actually say that disarmament negotiations are “required.”  Its text is clear: all parties are required to “pursue” such negotiations.  It’s an empirical question as to during what period(s) the United Kingdom actually pursued disarmament talks after signing the Treaty, but it certainly seems that London meets this criterion today.   Then-Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett called in mid-2007 for opening up post-START negotiations – at least with respect to their transparency and confidence building measures – to participants beyond just the United States and Russia: she urged more “global transparency and global verification ... beyond the bilateral arrangements between Russia and the US” and involving “deeper relationships on disarmament between nuclear weapon states.”  Defense Secretary Des Browne called in early 2008 for “a technical conference of P5 nuclear laboratories on the verification of nuclear disarmament” in order to see if progress could be made on how to move forward.  To date these initiatives haven’t led to much – such overtures running aground, I am told, upon the general disinterest of Russian and Chinese officials in broader transparency – but that’s hardly London’s fault, or any kind of British compliance problem under Article VI of the NPT.

As for Mulley’s comment that NPT Articles I and II close “all loopholes of practical significance to the proliferation of nuclear weapons,” I think he was both right and wrong.  If sensibly interpreted, the Treaty can indeed close all such loopholes.  The problem in recent years – and this seems for the most part to be a more recent phenomenon that cannot really be laid at the doorstep of officials of Mulley’s vintage – has been that self-interested parties have been trying to reinterpret Article IV to undermine Article II by opening just such a loophole.  Such revisionist interpretations would deem Article IV to provide every NPT State Party with the legal “right” to acquire the capability to produce fissile material usable in nuclear weapons, a nuclear weapons “option,” as it were.  As I have detailed at painful length elsewhere, I think this interpretation is in no way legally required, and is both inconsistent with the basic scheme of the NPT and – most importantly – quite foolish.  Pervasive, however, it remains.  (Now that’s I loophole I would love to work with David to help close ....)

But let’s turn to David’s own argument.  With regard to Britain’s purchase years ago of the Trident system from the United States, I should remind the reader that Trident is actually a missile, not a “bomb” or “warhead.”  (Nor is it a submarine; the British build their own submarines for launching Trident missiles.  That’s what they decided in December 2006 to keep doing.)  The Trident missile carries nuclear warheads, of course, but one must be careful to remember that warheads and delivery systems are not the same things, and that they have long been treated differently in arms control agreements.  (Indeed, having treaties that deal with warheads at all is a development pioneered by President Bush in the Moscow Treaty of 2002.  The post-START negotiations started by Bush in 2006 and recently concluded by President Obama build upon this legacy, dealing both with delivery systems and with warheads.)  At any rate, David is thus incorrect that British purchases of ballistic missiles from the United States presents an Article I problem.  Article I prohibits transfers of “nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices,” not missile,s and the UK’s Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) has, as I understand it, built its own warheads for Trident.

I also take issue with a couple of further assertions David makes.  First, he  describes nuclear modernization as being “hugely capital-intensive” and unsupportable in light of tight government budgets.  Modernization certainly isn’t, or wouldn’t be, costless.  Whether maintaining a secure nuclear deterrent and laying the infrastructural and technical groundwork for making further reductions possible is worth the cost, of course, is a question that U.S. political leaders and voters will clearly have to consider.  We should, however, keep this “huge” expense in context.

President Obama’s budget proposal for 2011 is $3.69 trillion dollars, on the heels of a similarly gargantuan 2010 budget of $3.60 trillion.  Of the 2011 budget, nearly $2.2 trillion is to be spent on social security ($738 billion), Medicare ($498 billion), Medicaid ($381 billion), and such things as unemployment insurance, food stamps, pensions for federal employees, and the earned income tax credit ($567 billion).  How much of this is proposed for modernizing the U.S. nuclear weapons production infrastructure?  Only $7.01 billion.  According to my calculation, this is less than two-tenths of one percent of the total 2011 budget request.  (Out-year spending on such work in the Obama budget increases to something like $8 billion in 2015 – a figure which will still be more than $2 billion less than what will be spent on children and families services programs even in 2011.)  The United States, in other words, could spend vastly more on nuclear-weapons-related modernization without its budget totals for such activity even beginning to look significant alongside the extraordinary mounds of taxpayer dollars and borrowed foreign money being spent by the Obama Administration.

David also complains that that “the atomic arms race amongst the NPT depository states has spiraled.”  This comment simply confuses me, since clearly the opposite is true – at least if he means spiraled up: the number of nuclear delivery systems and warheads alike have been repeatedly slashed – both unilaterally and on a treaty-based agreed basis between the United States and Russia – since President Reagan’s INF Treaty of December 1987.  Today, the United States, for instance, has gotten rid of something like three-fourths of its Cold War arsenal, with Russia making commensurate cuts (except, notoriously, in so-called “tactical” nuclear weapons).  Russia is modernizing, to be sure – as I mention frequently.  But it is also still reducing, by replacing larger numbers of older systems with smaller numbers of new ones.  The British (and French) have also reduced significantly.  Perhaps David means to direct his criticism solely at Beijing – for the Chinese are, uniquely among the NPT nuclear weapons states, both modernizing and increasing the size of their arsenal – but one country’s build-up doesn’t sound like much of a “spiraling race.”  [Note: Nor is China an NPT depository state.] I am left, therefore, simply being baffled by what he could possibly mean.

That said, I did like David’s invocation of the point apparently made, in a paper for British ministers in April 1968, that the NPT is “in the first instance, in the interests of non-nuclear countries themselves, adding to their security against the development of nuclear weapons in non-nuclear rival states.”  This is quite true, and is a point that I have myself advanced many times, both in and since leaving government.  It is also a point that has indeed been sadly forgotten.

The ones who have most tragically forgotten it, however, are not the British leaders who made the decision in December 2006 to build a successor to their current Trident-equipped submarine.  (Actually, the quoted 1968 comment, on its face, didn’t apply to Britain in the first place, because it was addressed to “non-nuclear countries” and the UK was an NPT-recognized nuclear weapons state from the beginning, but perhaps that’s quibbling.)  Any number of NPT non-nuclear weapons states seem to have forgotten that the Treaty is profoundly in their security interest precisely to the degree that it prevents the further spread of nuclear weapons – and indeed that this is the case whatever their views happen to be on the broader issue of disarmament by the weapons states.  Today, the greatest crisis facing the NPT is countries’ generalized loss of interest in nonproliferation compliance enforcement, which is rapidly leading us into a future in which the Treaty is exposed as a hollow shell incapable of performing its primary function and thus also incapable of supporting other important goals such as disarmament.  And this collapse of nonproliferation compliance enforcement seems to stem directly from not understanding or admitting the very point that David quotes the April 1968 British ministerial paper as having made.

I take issue with his own interpretation of British nuclear issues, but I thus applaud David for calling attention to the critical point that the NPT – and ensuring strict compliance with its nonproliferation rules – is above all in the interest of non-nuclear weapons states.  I dearly wish they would listen to him.

-- Christopher Ford

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