The NPR and the CTBT

The new Nuclear Posture Review represents a significant boost to the political and substantive case for Senate ratification of the CTBT.

One of the most dramatic turnarounds from George W. Bush's 2001 NPR is the 2010 NPR's support of Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) ratification and entry into force. Another is the prohibition on new nuclear warhead development and declining the pursuit of new military missions or new military capabilities for the warheads.

The 2001 NPR  sought to provide the president with a broader range of nuclear weapons employment options, reportedly calling for the development of new types of "[nuclear] warheads that reduce collateral damage" as well as "possible modifications to existing weapons to provide additional yield flexibility." The 2001 review also specifically cited the need to improve "earth-penetrating weapons," designed to threaten hard and deeply buried targets, such as command-and-control and weapons storage bunkers. Like its 1994 predecessor, the 2001 NPR endorsed  pursuit of a modified version of the B61-11 nuclear gravity bomb. The George W. Bush administration followed its NPR with a proposal for the "Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator," which was eventually rejected by the U.S. Congress as an unnecessary and provocative program.

In contrast, the 2010 NPR explicitly states: "The United States will not conduct nuclear testing and will pursue ratification and entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty."

"The United States will not develop new nuclear warheads. Life Extension Programs will use only nuclear components based on previously tested designs, and will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities."

Though the NPR does not clearly define what a "new nuclear weapon" is, the policy is the right one from a number of perspectives. There is no technical need for new-design warheads and renewed nuclear testing to maintain the reliability of the existing U.S. nuclear stockpile given the success of ongoing U.S. warhead life extension programs. The JASON independent technical review panel's September 2009 report concluded that the "lifetimes of today's nuclear warheads could be extended for decades, with no anticipated loss in confidence." The JASON findings underscore the fact that new-design replacement warheads are not needed to maintain reliability for the foreseeable future and they clearly influenced the outcome of the NPR on this point.

The NPR does, however, contain a potential loophole, since it could allow for the replacement of certain nuclear components at some point in the future to improve warhead reliability, safety, or surety, if they are "based on previously tested designs" and are expressly approved by the president. As noted by Thomas D'Agostino, the head of the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), at an April 14 House Armed Services Committee hearing, the NPR will allow the national nuclear weapons laboratories to "study all options for ensuring the safety, security, and effectiveness of our nuclear warheads, and we'll do so on a case-by-case basis."

The NPR also calls for the implementation of "well-funded stockpile management and infrastructure investment plans that can sustain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal at significantly reduced stockpile levels without nuclear testing or the development of new nuclear warheads." In February, the Obama administration proposed a fiscal year 2011 budget of just over $7 billion, 10 percent above the current year's level, for NNSA weapons activities. Former NNSA head Linton Brooks said at an ACA briefing on April 9 that, "I ran [NNSA] for five years and I'd have killed for that budget and that much high-level attention in the administration."

The NPR should put to rest any lingering concerns about the "aging" U.S. nuclear arsenal and the quaint but dangerous notion that the United States might need to resume nuclear testing.

As Secretary of Defense Bob Gates wrote in his preface to the NPR, "These investments, and the NPR's strategy for warhead life extension, represent a credible modernization plan necessary to sustain the nuclear infrastructure and support our nation's deterrent." Now, with more than enough resources available for stockpile management, the administration should move the Senate to reconsider and approve the CTBT.