Fort Report: Nuclear Matters

Oct 5, 2018
Fort Report

Right in our neighborhood, in Bellevue, is the United States Strategic Command, also known as USSTRATCOM.  Their mission is to deter strategic attack and, if necessary, deploy strategic forces as the ultimate guarantor of our security and our allies.  It’s a place of highly dedicated, highly specialized professionals, whose grave responsibility is to prepare for war, including nuclear war--in order to deter it.  A long time ago, as a deterrent confidence-building measure, the Russians were invited to view the inner workings of the facility.  Their commander had a hard time believing that he was actually seeing the real command center.

Several decades ago, the world cared deeply about nuclear security and arms control.  Epic negotiations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union took center stage.  The Reagan-Gorbachev summits were imbued with a grandeur and star power that signaled how deeply the world cared about their success.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the issue of broad-based nuclear security has largely disappeared from the world’s attention and the front pages of newspapers.  Yet today the challenge of nuclear proliferation is more serious, nuanced, and complicated.  From rising tensions with Russia, to India and Pakistan border disputes, to North Korea’s decisions and Iran’s potentiality, the threat of a limited nuclear war or--with the rise of global jihad--a radiological dirty bomb attack has increased since the Cold War.  Due to these developments, we are projected to be only two minutes away from midnight, according to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ doomsday clock, the closest we have been to colossal extinction since the height of the Cold War.

In Congress, I created the bipartisan Congressional Nuclear Security Working Group to address these concerns.  As a launching point for further engagement, I recently led a discussion with nuclear experts from the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations, senior government officials, and retired military officers with experience in nuclear policy in complex organizations.  In frank talk, we explored how to better address today’s proliferation challenges through improved coordination of U.S. counter- and non-proliferation efforts.

Here’s the good news.  We’ve been successful in preventing and countering the spread of materials and technologies used to produce nuclear weapons.  These efforts include diplomatic and arms control initiatives out of the State Department, the counter-WMD (weapons of mass destruction) operations of the Defense Department, the non-proliferation endeavors at the Energy Department, and all the quiet work done in dozens of offices and agencies across the government.  Luckily, a certain unity of effort among dedicated professionals has kept us safe.

Here’s the tougher news.  Numerous outside organizations, from independent commissions to the Government Accountability Office, have voiced concern about the level of coordination between these nonproliferation entities and the activities they oversee.  The core question is this: How do we measure success in preventing what did not happen?  Should we do more?  Should we reimagine the threat infrastructure response?

We have recently undertaken a massive effort to modernize and assure the reliability of our nuclear arsenal.  The initiative came out of ongoing considerations by the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Council.  I have proposed a parallel entity called the Nuclear Nonproliferation Council, whose purpose will be to examine what we are doing and give us the highest possible assurance that we are preventing the spread of nuclear weapons technology and materiel.

We must work aggressively to get the possibility of a nuclear event as close to zero as possible.  We have made essential strides towards guaranteeing the reliability of our weapons to ensure deterrence, but we need a corresponding emphasis on preventing new nuclear threats from arising. 

These are not topics any of us want to think about because they are hard and frightening.  Yet the highest purpose of our government is to keep you safe.  To react to a nuclear incident is too late.