“As long as others have nuclear weapons, we must maintain some level of these weapons ourselves,” Gates noted in a speech to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. This, he said, “will deter potential adversaries while reassuring over two dozen allies and partners who rely on the U.S. strategic umbrella for their own security.”
The United States soon will have 75 percent fewer nuclear weapons than at the end of the Cold War, he said. But while endorsing more non-nuclear deterrence and response options, Gates said modern-day threats require the country to preserve what former President Clinton called a “lead and hedge strategy.”
“We’ll lead the way in reducing our arsenal, but we must always hedge against the dangerous and unpredictable world,” he said.
“The power of nuclear weapons and their strategic impact is a genie that cannot be put back in the bottle, at least for a very long time,” he said. “While we have a long-term goal of abolishing nuclear weapons once and for all, given the world in which we live, we have to be realistic about that proposition.”
The secretary cited threats posed by rising and resurgent powers, rouge nations pursuing nuclear weapons, proliferation and international terrorism.
“There is no way to ignore efforts by rogue states such as North Korea and Iran to develop and deploy nuclear weapons, or Russian and Chinese strategic modernization programs,” he said. “As long as other nations have or seek nuclear weapons – and can potentially threaten us, our allies and friends – then we must have a deterrent capacity that makes it clear that challenging the United States in the nuclear arena, or with weapons of mass destruction, could result in an overwhelming, catastrophic response.”
The United States continues to keep the number of nuclear states as limited as possible, Gates said, citing “real successes” during the past 45 years through nonproliferation and arms-control efforts. He noted that many countries have opted not to seek nuclear weapons, recognizing that the U.S. nuclear capability protects them.
“Our nuclear umbrella – our extended deterrent – underpins our alliances in Europe and the Pacific and enables our friends, especially those worried about Tehran and Pyongyang, to continue to rely on our nuclear deterrent rather than to develop their own,” he said.
But possessing nuclear weapons means accepting the responsibilities involved, Gates said, citing problems that arose last year over the Air Force’s handling of nuclear weapons and related material.
He cited remedies being put into place:
— A new office within the Air Staff will focus exclusively on nuclear policy and oversight and report directly to the Air Force chief of staff.
— The Air Force’s proposed Global Strike Command would bring all nuclear weapons and material supporting U.S. Strategic Command under one entity.
— The Nuclear Weapons Center at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., has been revitalized and expanded, with clearly understood chains of command to prevent repeats of pass problems.
— The Air Force is undergoing a full review to provide better control of nuclear-related components, and placing them under the Nuclear Weapons Center’s control.
— A new, centralized process within the Air Force will ensure proper handling of nuclear material and provide expanded training for those charged with securing it.
Gates conceded the effort will be “a long-term process,” but said he is confident the Air Force “is now moving in the right direction.” He expressed thanks to the airmen working to return the Air Force’s nuclear mission “to the standards of excellence for which it was known throughout the Cold War.”
Meanwhile, Gates said, he looks forward to recommendations from a task force he formed to review nuclear enterprise oversight.
Gates confirmed that U.S. nuclear weapons are safe, secure and reliable, but said failure to look ahead to the future leaves a “bleak” long-term prognosis. No one has designed a new nuclear weapon in the United States since the 1980s, and veteran nuclear weapons designers and technicians are steadily moving into retirement, with no one following behind.
“The United States is the only declared nuclear power that is neither modernizing its nuclear arsenal nor has the capability to produce a new nuclear warhead,” Gates said. He also expressed concern that the country is not replacing its existing stockpile.
Congress’s refusal to fund a joint Defense Department and Energy Department program to field a safer, more secure warhead leaves the United States lacking, he said.
“The program we propose is not about new capabilities,” he said. “It is about safety, security and reliability. It is about the future credibility of our nuclear deterrent, and it deserves urgent attention.”