By Dianne Feintein and Ellen Tauscher
Originally appeared in the New York Times
PRESIDENT OBAMA spoke last month in Hiroshima about charting a course to a future free of nuclear weapons. He discussed the “persistent effort” necessary to eliminate the threat of nuclear war.
To advance that goal, the president should reconsider the Defense Department’s effort to develop a new nuclear weapon called the Long-Range Standoff Weapon.
The Air Force is set next year to accelerate the development of this new nuclear cruise missile. It would carry an upgraded W-80 nuclear warhead and be able to penetrate the world’s most advanced air-defense systems.
Like our current nuclear cruise missile, the Long-Range Standoff Weapon could strike an adversary’s territory from great distances. But there are compelling reasons not to introduce a cruise missile that could increase the risk of nuclear war.
As former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry and Andy Weber, a former assistant defense secretary, wrote last year, “Cruise missiles are a uniquely destabilizing type of weapon” because “they can be launched without warning and come in both nuclear and conventional variants.” We can reduce the risk of setting off accidental nuclear war by retiring nuclear cruise missiles and instead rely on conventional weapons.
Unfortunately, Congress has shirked its duty to carefully evaluate the need for new nuclear weapons capable of immense destruction. The decision to build the Long-Range Standoff Weapon should be thoroughly and publicly debated.
There are three key questions that remain unanswered.
First, does the military need a new nuclear cruise missile? In other words, are there any enemy targets we can no longer “hold at risk” using existing nuclear and conventional weapons and the platforms used to deliver them? We are aware of no such military necessity.
Next, what role does the military intend this weapon to serve? The Pentagon says it would “provide the president with uniquely flexible options in an extreme crisis.” This suggests a lowering of the threshold for nuclear war, a perilous approach that would endanger not only America but allies that we are pledged to protect, like Japan and South Korea.
Finally, what is the weapon’s cost? The Defense Department and the National Nuclear Security Administration have yet to provide concrete estimates for the program, but the Federation of American Scientists hasreported that it could cost as much as $30 billion.
At a time when the Defense Department is set to modernize every leg of the nuclear triad, investing $30 billion in an unnecessary and dangerous new nuclear weapon is irresponsible.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter needs to address these issues. He should provide Congress with an analysis of alternatives to this missile. In particular, we want to know if the Defense Department has studied whether existing nuclear and conventional weapons are sufficient to strike enemy targets.
He should also certify that the sole objective of the weapon is nuclear deterrence. We want to eliminate any ambiguity that this new missile would be an offensive weapon.
And he should provide a public cost estimate. If taxpayers are expected to foot the bill, the price should not be shrouded in secrecy.
Instead of devoting our limited resources to a new nuclear weapon, President Obama would be wise to follow one of the main conclusions of the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review and reduce the role of our nuclear arsenal by developing advanced conventional weapons capacities.
The Air Force’s Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile and the Navy’s Tomahawk cruise missile both provide conventional alternatives to nuclear cruise missiles. Each can attack enemy targets from tremendous distances without the risk of nuclear escalation.
The United States must lead the way to a nuclear-free world. We may not realize this goal in our lifetime, but we embrace the president’s call for “persistent effort” in that endeavor.