Robert Gates shows nuclear impatience

MOSCOW. (Nikita Petrov for RIA Novosti) - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is all for a resumption of nuclear tests. In a key speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, he said the U.S. could not maintain deterrence, reduce arms or modernize them without tests.

He pledged to set up a special group under James Schlesinger, a former U.S. defense and energy secretary, to draft measures for the direction and supervision of nuclear facilities in the country.

The arguments the Pentagon chief used to justify the resumption of tests are not new and are slightly cunning. He said the country ceased developing nuclear weapons in the 1980s and stopped producing nuclear munitions in the 1990s. With weapons developers and engineers gone, he said, the U.S. suffered a brain drain.

Since the mid-1990s, the National Nuclear Security Administration has lost one-quarter of its staff. Half of the scientists working in nuclear laboratories are older than 50, while young engineers have never engaged in the development of nuclear weapons. What's more, since 1992 the U.S. has conducted no nuclear tests. This, according to Gates, compromises the effectiveness of the weapons required by the American military.

Curiously, Russian nuclear weapons developers use the same words and speak about the same problems. Only the problems are Russia's not America's. Russia, too, conducted its last nuclear tests on Novaya Zemlya in October 1992. Like the United States, it has lost not a quarter but more than half of its nuclear weapon designers. It is also experiencing a shortage of young talent wishing to work in this sector.

The explanation is simple. Nuclear weapons, although remaining a means of deterrence, are no longer the frightening prospect they were during the Cold War. What's more, the large stockpiles accumulated by the U.S. and the Soviet Union in those years, as Gates nostalgically recalls, are no longer needed.

A series of documents signed by Moscow and Washington over the past 20 years bear witness to this simple conclusion. They include the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty of 1987, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START-1) of 1991, the Treaty on Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (START-2), which was signed in 1993 but was never enacted, the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) of 2002, and Russia's and U.S. initiatives on tactical nuclear weapons in the early 1990s ...

They and other agreements have cut nuclear stockpiles considerably. Instead of 10,000 to 12,000 nuclear warheads shared by the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. in the late 1980s, Russia now has 3,100 and the U.S., 4,545. And instead of the 25,000 to 40,000 tactical nuclear munitions of that time, there are now 5,050 in the U.S. and 5,614 in Russia. (These figures are published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, or SIPRI - N.P.).

The overall decrease in inventory is 80% since the Cold War era, and led to the results mentioned by Gates; and this is likely to be repeated by Russian weapons specialists.

But here we have a big difference between Moscow and Washington. In 1996, Russia signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), ratifying it in 2000, while the U.S. rejected the CTBT and signed, ratified and has been observing only the Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water (1963).

Legally, the U.S. has its hands free and may conduct tests under ground, although it has been observing a moratorium since 1992, and here Gates is absolutely right. But naturally it has never stopped developing new types of nuclear weapons, as the American press has repeatedly reported and American scientists and designers are saying. For example, they are developing low-yield battlefield nuclear weapons. Such shells or aviation bombs can be used to penetrate and destroy underground command bunkers and factories producing nuclear arms.

Russia's former Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov also said that the U.S. is doing such research. On July 14, 2004, making a report at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, he said: "We are not indifferent to American programs on the smallest nuclear weapons. Every new type of armament adds new elements to the general picture of global stability. We must take them into account in our military planning."

The only reason such munitions are not yet adopted in the U.S. military and why Gates is insisting on a resumption of nuclear tests is that Congress keeps refusing to allocate money for these purposes, justly believing that the American military has enough nuclear weapons as it is, and that these weapons continue to play their restraining role. Nevertheless, the U.S. military brass still makes their case for securing more money for production.

It is not as simple with nuclear ammunition, as it may seem at first glance. Research and development goes on both in the U.S. and Russia, although no publicity is given to it for understandable reasons. Nevertheless, some details leaked to the press confirm the old truism that science cannot be stopped, in any field, including the development of weapons of deterrence.

On October 22, when conducting its last test at Baikonur, Russia launched an RS-18 Stilet strategic missile (UR-100NUTTKh, or SS-19, its NATO reporting name), causing the media to highlight a new Russian intercontinental ballistic missile, the RS-24, with multiple individually targetable warheads. According to Col. Gen. Nikolai Solovtsov, the commander of Russia's Strategic Missile Forces, it is to enter service in December of next year. The new missile, news agencies report, can carry between 6 and 10 warheads with yields ranging from 150 kilotons to 300 kilotons. Considering that the lowest yield of other Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles already in service is 750 kilotons, it can be concluded that such low-yield warheads are the latest design product of Russian scientists and engineers. A product achieved without full-scale nuclear tests, because such tests are impossible to keep under wraps in principle.

We dare to challenge Robert Gates and say that the U.S. has not ceased developing new nuclear munitions either. Today, with sophisticated computer hardware and software, a so-called subcritical experiment that can check the reliability and safety of storage and operation of a nuclear device, while keeping within CTBT limits, is no problem for highly-developed countries. American scientists know this technology well. By its means they can prove that existing munitions meet their required performance characteristics and can conduct other research and development work. Real-life tests and actual explosions are unnecessary.

But why U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has brought up this subject again is anybody's guess. Perhaps the reason is now that administration is changing in Washington, and the Pentagon chief is anxious to tell a new president that he could be useful.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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