Nuclear review shows bipartisanship

Politico Nuclear review shows bipartisanship logo President Barack Obama holds a bilateral meeting with President Hu Jintao of China, during the Nuclear Security Summit at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., April 12, 2010. Lawrence Jackson

The release last week of the Obama administration's Nuclear Posture Review brings long overdue attention to the vital issue of U.S. strategic posture. Issues raised in the NPR and START have reinvigorated a crucial national nuclear dialogue that has been missing.

As the chairman and vice chairman of Congress's bipartisan Strategic Posture Commission, which issued its report last May, we have watched with great interest the administration's steady progress this past year on its Nuclear Posture Review and the START negotiations.

Themes from our report run through the Nuclear Posture Review and are embodied in the new START agreement. While debate and disagreement must be part of the crossfire in this renewed nuclear dialogue, we want to emphasize important dimensions of both the Posture Review and START treaty that figure prominently in our bipartisan report.

Now that the NPR is completed, we see that it is compatible with our recommendations. The review gives a comprehensive and pragmatic plan for reducing nuclear risks to the United States. We believe it offers a bipartisan path forward - while allowing for healthy disagreements on specific issues.

And it incorporates many of our points - such as pursuing a quick and modest reduction of nuclear weapons with Russia and sustaining the nuclear triad of land-based ICBMs, sea-based SLBMs and bombers. It also recognizes that nuclear weapons safeguarded U.S. security during the Cold War by deterring attack and that we will need them for deterrence in the foreseeable future, as long as others also possess them.

We also see that the NPR puts special emphasis, as our report recommended, on improving the nation's complex nuclear infrastructure and enhancing programs to recruit and keep the nation's best scientific minds. The administration's commitment to increase investment in our national laboratories also ensures that they continue their important role in sustaining a safe, secure and effective nuclear arsenal and in solving many other problems facing the nation.

The review is correct to make preventing nuclear terrorism and proliferation the top priority, while also seeking to strengthen deterrence and to reassure U.S. allies and recognizing the importance of strategic stability with Russia and an emerging China. Our commission reached the same conclusions.

The NPR's changes in U.S. declaratory policy - especially the assurance that Washington "will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear parties to the Nonproliferation Treaty that are in compliance with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations" - go beyond our recommendation that the U.S. retain "calculated ambiguity."

It is, however, a sensible variation on a theme that the U.S. should support nonproliferation while preserving deterrence for itself and its allies.

We also note that the NPR chose, as we advised, to avoid adopting a "no first use" policy for nuclear weapons while narrowing the scope of possible first use to "extreme circumstances" - language that was in our bipartisan report.

We believe that the substantial edge the U.S. has developed in conventional military capabilities, which the NPR notes, permits this country to sharply reduce reliance on nuclear weapons. But we caution those who make light of this major U.S. strategic advantage and its implications.

We support the NPR's call for the U.S. not to develop new nuclear weapons now. Our report similarly called for a case-by-case approach to extending the life of today's warheads. And we agree that the focus should be on safety, security and reliability - not developing new military capabilities.

The NPR echoes our call to negotiate a worldwide end to the production of new fissile materials - the key ingredients of nuclear weapons.

Our final report strongly endorsed the U.S. deterrence policy to cover our allies and partners with the U.S. nuclear umbrella - an objective the NPR also embraces.

The report suggested deploying proven missile defenses against threats such as North Korea and Iran but emphasized, as the NPR does, that these defenses should not be so big as to encourage Russia to add warheads to counter them, which would only undermine efforts to reduce nuclear weapons. We included China as well as Russia in this.

But in two areas, we believe the NPR might have fallen short of the mark.

First, we understand that the review considered declassifying additional information about the size and composition of the U.S. nuclear stockpile. It should have done so. This would demonstrate U.S. leadership on the transparency that is needed to secure nuclear materials globally and to bolster strategic stability with Russia and China.

Second, the NPR called for the consideration of conventional "prompt global strike" capabilities. But it did not explain whether these systems would have a niche role against small regional powers such as North Korea or be an ultimate substitute for nuclear weapons in deterrence with Russia and China.

We feel the former is the only sensible approach. Keeping this issue ill-defined creates needless anxiety in Moscow and Beijing that could lead to future problems.

Even with these two caveats, the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review makes important strides in charting a sustainable bipartisan path forward for the United States.

Healthy disagreement over some NPR specifics should not obscure the valuable contribution it makes to advancing U.S. security interests - resting, as it does in part, on our bipartisan 2009 Strategic Posture Commission report.

William J. Perry served as secretary of defense in the Clinton administration. He was chairman of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States. James R. Schlesinger was the nation's first energy secretary and served as secretary of defense from July 1973 to November 1975. He was vice chairman of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States.