Reducing role of nukes does not threaten U.S. security, say experts

08:47, April 08, 2010      

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As America's new nuclear strategy makes headlines across the world, pundits, politicians and scientists in the United States have been debating whether reducing the role of nuclear weapons in deterring a non-nuclear attack serves national security interests.

"If there was a biological attack, which killed over a million Americans, is this president really saying we would not retaliate? " former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich asked Tuesday night on Fox News.

The Nuclear Posture Review is "going to make America and the world less safe," U.S. Representative for New York's 3rd District and the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, Peter King, told the New York Post. "And the thought that an American president would tell countries that if they attack us with chemical or biological weapons they don't have to fear a nuclear response makes no sense at all."

But the notion that the U.S. would refuse to retaliate with conventional weapons after a biological, chemical or cyber attack is "nonsensical," Lisbeth Gronlund, a senior scientist and co- director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Xinhua on Wednesday.

"The Nuclear Posture Review made it pretty clear we have many other means at our disposal," she said. "The U.S. by far has the most powerful conventional forces on the planet. I don't think that if any nation decided to launch a chemical or biological weapon, we would look the other way."

The 50-page Nuclear Posture Review published on Tuesday declared that the United States will continue to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks and warned that if the United States or its allies were attacked with chemical or biological weapons, or a crippling cyberattack, most countries would "face the prospect of a devastating conventional military response."

U.S. President Barack Obama told the New York Times on Monday that conventional threats could be deterred with "a series of graded options," meaning a combination of old and new conventional weapons.

"I'm going to preserve all the tools that are necessary in order to make sure that the American people are safe and secure," he said in the Oval Office.

By pledging that the United States will not use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear weapon state that is a signatory in good standing of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the review is essentially narrowing the conditions under which the United States would use atomic weapons.

While certain sects of the American population have condemned the review's negative security assurances, saying it will make the U.S. vulnerable to, and even encourage, attacks on home soil, others applaud the move, saying it reduces a long tradition of ambiguity in American nuclear policy.

"The review is a positive document in terms of trying to lay out more restricted circumstances in which the U.S. could use nuclear weapons," Jenifer Mackby, a security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Xinhua.

The congressionally-mandated review "puts the U.S. on a slightly new road, pulls back a little on the possibility of nuclear weapons and emphasizes the issue of non-proliferation and terrorism," she said.

Meanwhile, for countries that are seen to be violating the nuclear non-proliferation regime, atomic weapons will remain a retaliatory option. Both Iran and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), which the review calls "outliers," were notably exempt from Obama's pledge not to use nuclear weapons.

Some American publications ran with the review's reservation, printing headlines like, "Obama Threatens Iran with Nukes." But Jonathan Granoff, president of the Global Security Institute, a Washington D.C. organization focused on nuclear arms control, cautioned against reading them as a new threat.

"The Nuclear Posture Review does not add any new threat to North Korea or Iran, it simply does not reward their recalcitrance in affirmatively cooperating with the non-proliferation and disarmament regime and all of its benefits," he told Xinhua. " Neither North Korea nor Iran pose the kind of threat to anyone today that would require a nuclear response that would outweigh the benefits of deterrence."

The review, which will influence the American position during next week's nuclear security summit in Washington D.C. and the nonproliferation review conference in May, generally seems to be viewed as a solid first step towards advancing Obama's vision of a nuclear-free world.

"There are enough good aspects in the review, it should be perceived pretty well," Hal Feiveson, a senior research scientist and co-director of Princeton's Program on Science and Global Security told Xinhua. "It's a step in the right visionary direction."



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