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Obama Breaks With Gates, Cancels Nuke Program

Obama's new budget plan includes a little-noted sea change in U.S. nuclear policy, and a step towards his vision of a denuclearized world. It provides no funding for the Reliable Replacement Warhead program, created to design a new generation of long-lasting nuclear weapons that don't need to be tested. (The military is worried that a nuclear test moratorium in effect since 1992 might endanger the reliability of an aging US arsenal.) But this spring Obama issued a bold call for a world free of nuclear weapons, and part of that vision entails leading by example. That means halting programs that expand the American nuclear stockpile. For the past two budget years the Democratic Congress has refused to fund the Bush-era program. But Obama's budget kills the National Nuclear Security Administration program once and for all.

"My colleagues just stared at that line," says Joe Cirincione, a longtime nonproliferation expert and president of the Ploughshares Fund. "They had never seen anything like that." Killing the program, he said, was "the first programmatic impact of the new [zero nukes] policy. People have said they want to see more than words, this is the very first action."

In the upcoming year, NNSA will participate in the national debate to lay out a vision for our nation’s nuclear security and non-proliferation goals. This vision is based on the reality that nuclear security is not just about warheads and the size of the stockpile. The vision emphasizes that we must increase our focus on nuclear security and transforming the Cold War nuclear weapons complex into a 21st century national security enterprise. We must ensure our evolving strategic posture places the stewardship of our nuclear arsenal, nonproliferation programs, missile defenses, and the international arms control objectives into one comprehensive strategy that protects the American people and our allies.

One particularly interesting angle here: Obama has overruled his secretary of defense, Robert Gates, who has been pushing for months to maintain the warhead program. Last October, Gates warned that

"[t]o be blunt, there is absolutely no way we can maintain a credible deterrent and reduce the number of weapons in our stockpile without resorting to testing our stockpile or pursuing a modernization program."

But even though "modernization" has now been halted, Obama will almost certainly not resume nuclear testing. So one has to presume Gates is not a happy camper on this score. 

--Michael Crowley