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Defense chief promotes nuclear deterrent

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By Roger Snodgrass

In a major address at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on nuclear weapons, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday that America would continue to need a nuclear deterrent.

“Simply put, we cannot predict the future,” he said. “Even as we strive to live up to our noblest goals, as (Andrew) Carnegie did, we must deal with the messy realities of the world in which we live.”

Gates said that even Carnegie, the American philanthropist who dedicated the final years of his life to the cause of World Peace, found himself encouraging President Woodrow Wilson to declare war against Germany before World War I.

“As long as human nature is what it is – as long as the tragic arc of history continues its course – we cannot eliminate the need to be prepared for war any more than Andrew Carnegie was able to eliminate war itself,” Gates said.

Gates speech was delivered against a backdrop of a reduced numbers of nuclear weapons under the Moscow Treaty with Russia, a period of military incompetence in the mishandling of nuclear weapons and flat budgets across a nuclear weapons complex that is committed to reducing its footprint.

Gates swore in new Secretary of the Air Force Mike Donley on Oct. 17 to replace the top Air Force official who was fired in June for failing to respond to warning signs about a decline in nuclear expertise over recent years.

“You are well aware of problems over the last year or so with the Air Force’s handling of nuclear weapons,” Gates told the Carnegie audience, listing some of the steps that have been taken to restore trust.

He was referring two incidents, one involving the unwitting airborne transfer of live nuclear weapons from North Dakota to Louisiana in August 2007, and the other concerning electrical fuses used to detonate strategic nuclear missiles, which had been shipped to Taiwan in error and went unnoticed for several months.

A series of high level studies and corrective actions have followed, including the preparation of a “Nuclear Enterprise Roadmap,” released on Friday, that called for the establishment of a Global Strike Command and a Headquarters Air Force staff agency to handle Air Force nuclear assets.

“The Nuclear Weapons Center at Kirtland Air Force Base (in Albuquerque) is being revitalized and expanded – with focus on sustainment and clearing up ambiguous chains of command that have created problems in the past,” Gates said Wednesday, discussing what he expected to be a “long term process” with further high-level reviews due in December.

Nearly two years ago a Defense Science Board report on issues related to the nuclear weapons programs recommended that the national security leadership should “declare unequivocally and frequently, that a reliable, safe, secure and credible nuclear deterrent is essential to national security and a continuing high priority.”

As he has in other speeches and policy papers recently, Gates reiterated his support for the Reliable Replacement Warhead for which, he noted, funding was cut completely this year.

“Let me be clear: The program we propose is not about new capabilities –- suitcase bombs, or bunker busters or tactical nukes,” he said. “It is about safety, security and reliability…and it deserves urgent attention.”

During follow-up questions, he said, “We just have to work harder in trying to make clear to members of Congress that the RRW is not about new capabilities but about safety, reliability and security; and as long as we have a stockpile, we need to have it viable in all those categories.”

It remains to be seen how much weight the Secretary of Defense’s thoughts on the matter of nuclear policy will carry at the end of the current administration. His speech identified unfinished business and carry-over priorities that may well fuel next round of national debate.