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Gates bid to restart RRW

ImageElaine Grossman has reported that US Defence Secretary Robert Gates attempted to revive the Reliable Replacement Warhead project at a meeting in June.  Her sources said that the move was supported by Hilary Clinton, General Cartwright (Joint Chief of Staff) and others but was blocked by Vice President Jo Biden (pictured).  The issue of modernising the US nuclear arsenal is unlikely to go away.

"The conflict between Gates and Biden came to a head at the June meeting of the Principals’ Committee, a White House forum in which top national security officials consider major policy issues. Sources would describe the meeting only on condition of not being named because they were not authorized to discuss the sensitive subject publicly.

Spokesmen for Biden and Gates would not confirm any details of the meeting, which sources said took place during the second week of June. A National Security Council spokesman declined to reveal the date on which the Principals’ Committee met.

Nuclear stockpile modernization was not on the official agenda for the high-level gathering, which centered instead on preparing a U.S. negotiating position for arms control talks with Moscow, according to sources.

Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in July announced they had agreed to nuclear-warhead and delivery-vehicle reductions for a new accord, which they hope will replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty before it expires in December.

During the interagency meeting, Gates reportedly volunteered that a warhead-replacement effort would be vital to maintaining the nuclear arsenal’s viability, particularly after additional arms control reductions are taken.

Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, provided Gates backup at the meeting, according to these sources. Formerly the top combatant commander for strategic nuclear weapons, the Marine Corps general expressed concern that today’s arsenal incorporates vacuum tubes and other outdated technologies that should be replaced, sources told GSN.

Through a spokesman, Cartwright declined comment for this article.

His successor at U.S. Strategic Command, Gen. Kevin Chilton, stirred some controversy this spring after voicing similar worries about vacuum tubes. Nuclear-weapon experts have cast doubt on the notion that the vintage technology constitutes a valid basis for a warhead-replacement program, because it is used sparingly in the arsenal and could easily be tested and replaced, if needed (see GSN, May 14).

Clinton, also at the June meeting, joined in supporting Gates by noting that a U.S. nuclear modernization program that includes warhead replacement might be necessary for domestic political reasons, according to sources. Specifically, she argued it might be necessary for the Obama administration to embark on an ambitious warhead modernization effort if it is to win enough Republican support for Senate ratification of the START replacement pact, according to sources.

A similar quid pro quo, according to conservative thinkers, might also be necessary next year for Senate approval of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, another objective Obama laid out in his Prague speech. “Then you can have your cake and eat it, too,” one senior Senate aide said last week.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu, whose agency maintains the atomic stockpile via its semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration and took the lead in planning the RRW program, reportedly weighed in on the June discussion with a modest show of support, saying that replacement warheads might be needed.

Though James Steinberg, Clinton’s deputy, volunteered that Obama should be consulted before his administration changes course on warhead replacement, it was left to the vice president to express full-throated opposition, sources said.

Biden raised the notion that an ambitious nuclear modernization effort that includes building replacement warheads could undercut the Obama administration’s nonproliferation goals, according to these sources. Most importantly, Washington is attempting to build international consensus against Iran’s suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons and North Korea’s maintenance of its nascent arsenal.

Biden reportedly argued that the international community would almost certainly cry foul on a replacement-warhead effort, particularly given Obama’s pledge to work toward the long-term elimination of nuclear weapons around the world. This spring, Obama tapped Biden to lead the administration’s nonproliferation initiatives (see GSN, April 8)."