Obama's kick in the arsenal

United States President Barack Obama has demanded the Pentagon conduct a radical review of US nuclear weapons doctrine to prepare the way for deep cuts in the country’s arsenal.

Obama has rejected the Pentagon’s first draft of the “nuclear posture review” as too timid and has called for a range of more far-reaching options consistent with his goal of eventually abolishing nuclear weapons altogether, said European officials.

The options include:

  • Reconfiguring the US nuclear force to allow for an arsenal measured in hundreds rather than thousands of deployed strategic warheads;

  • Redrafting nuclear doctrine to narrow the range of conditions under which the US would use nuclear weapons; and

  • Exploring ways of guaranteeing the future reliability of nuclear weapons without testing or producing a new generation of warheads.

The review is scheduled to be completed by the end of this year. One official said: “Obama is now driving this process. He’s saying these are the president’s weapons and he wants to look again at the doctrine and their role.”

The move comes as Obama prepares to take the rare step of chairing a watershed session of the UN Security Council on Thursday.
He aims to win consensus on a new grand bargain: exchanging more radical disarm-ament by nuclear powers in return for wider global efforts to prevent further proliferation.

That is at the heart of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which is up for review next year amid signs it is unravelling in the face of Iranian and North Korean nuclear ambitions.

According to a final draft of the resolution, however, the UN Security Council will not wholeheartedly embrace the US and British call for eventual abolition of nuclear weapons. Largely on French insistence, the council will endorse the vaguer aim of seeking “to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons”.

Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, is set to renew a diplomatic offensive against Iran for its failure to comply with Security Council demands that it suspend enrichment of uranium.

The issue has been given greater urgency by an International Atomic Energy Agency document leaked last week, which stated that the agency’s inspectors believe Iran already had “sufficient information” to build a warhead and has tested an important component of a nuclear device.

Germany is expected to toughen its position on Iran ahead of a showdown between major powers and the Iranian government on October 1. But it is not clear what position will be taken by Russia, which has opposed the imposition of further sanctions on Iran.

Moscow’s stance will be monitored for signs of greater cooperation in return for Obama’s decision last week to abandon a missile defence system in Eastern Europe, a perennial source of irritation to Russia.

Russia has about 2780 deployed strategic warheads, compared with about 2100 in the US.

The abandonment of the US missile defence system already appears to have influenced arms-control talks under way between Washington and Moscow. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said chances were “quite high” that a deal to reduce arsenals to 1500 warheads each would be signed by the end of the year.

The US policy is aimed at clearing the way for a new round of deep US-Russian cuts to follow as soon as that treaty is ratified to set lower limits not just on deployed missiles but also on the thousands of warheads both have in their stockpiles.

The Obama strategy is to create disarmament momentum in the run-up to the non-proliferation treaty review conference next May, in the hope that states without nuclear weapons will not side with Iran, as they did at the last review in 2005, but endorse stronger legal barriers to proliferation and forgo nuclear weapons programmes themselves.

“The review has been in the hands of mid-level bureaucrats with a lot of knowledge, but it’s knowledge drawn from the Cold War,” said Rebecca Johnson, the head of the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy. “What they are prepared to do is tweak the existing doctrine.

Obama has sent it back saying: ‘Give me more options for what we can do in line with my goals. I’m not saying it’s easy, but all you’re giving me is business as usual’.—

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