Monday, November 22, 2010

What Does Jon Kyl Want?

It's really hard to say. He's gotten an additional $10 billion for the nuclear weapons complex, then another additional $4.1 billion. There is only so much that any organization, even the nuclear weapons complex can spend usefully.

There are two ways to look at this. One engages rationality, the other politics. The Republicans have committed to wrecking government so that the voters will vote out those who have been in office during the wrecking, primarily Democrats. Collateral damage to the country's economy, military power, or world standing is irrelevant to this intellectually bankrupt strategy. So dodge and weave to prevent passage of a treaty necessary to improving relations with Russia while taking measures to control nuclear weapons. Preventing passage of that treaty will make for a more unsettled international situation and a basis (to the extent that Republican talking points need a basis) for arguing in 2012 that President Obama's policies have made the country worse off. That's the political analysis.

If we assume some rationality and care for the future of the country on Kyl's part, it may be that he truly believes that one aspect of US strength on the world scene is holding more and better nuclear weapons than other countries. It may also be that he feels that the nuclear complex needs to be upgraded in order to maintain this position. Thus the demands for more and more funding. But the second demand, followed by refusal to consider ratifying the New START treaty anyway, raises some questions.

The word modernization has been central to the argument from rationality. Many of the buildings in the nuclear weapons complex date back to the 1950s and 1960s. If we are to continue holding nuclear weapons, which will be the case for any reasonable scenario, those buildings must be updated or replaced. Even in the extreme case of eliminating all nuclear weapons immediately, facilities will be needed for disassembly and dealing with the dangerous materials contained in those weapons. So it is hard to argue with modernization, although questions may be raised about the number and character of the facilities. Kyl's demands have largely focused on dollars, without much detail as to how those dollars will be spent.

There is another meaning that was attached to the word modernization, particularly during the Bush administration. That referred to the nuclear warheads themselves. It comes through quite clearly in an op-ed today, although it has been lurking ambiguously in other phrases that have been used during the negotiations between the administration and the Republicans.
Republican senators led by Jon Kyl of Arizona are holding up the treaty to force the Pentagon to increase spending on the modernization of nuclear weapons and associated delivery systems.

Their demand comes despite the more than $180 billion already committed to modernization over the next decade and assurances from retired military commanders and former secretaries of defense that the treaty wouldn’t undermine America’s nuclear deterrent.

The trouble is that spending more money on nuclear modernization would undercut a key purpose of the treaty, which is to demonstrate to the world that the two countries are reducing their reliance on nuclear weapons — and thus strengthen our leverage against states like Iran and North Korea, which seek to enter the nuclear club. Ratification, in short, creates a platform for partisan grandstanding wholly at odds with the treaty itself. [emphasis mine]
So far, the administration's wording on modernization seems to be aimed at modernization of the nuclear weapons complex. But maybe it is modernization of the weapons themselves that Kyl wants.

The nuclear weapons we have now were built during the Cold War. They are designed to destroy cities in an exchange with the Soviet Union. They are periodically refurbished, with perishable parts replaced. They are usable, but not necessarily suited to today's conflicts, which would require smaller weapons. New, smaller weapons could also be built in such a way as to require less maintenance and to be, as far as such can be said of nuclear weapons, greener in the materials they use. They would also be safer to handle. During the Bush years, the Los Alamos and Livermore weapons design laboratories competed for designing such a weapon, the Reliable Replacement Warhead or RRW.

The plan was dropped when it became clear that the funding would not be forthcoming from Congress because building a new generation of nuclear weapons would provoke a new round of a now-global arms race that would include China and would give new justifications to the Indians and Pakistanis who want to build up their nuclear arsenals.

But I have to wonder whether Kyl's real purpose is to resurrect the RRW. Doing that would undercut the purpose of New START, so it would be consistent with the Republicans' political goals. Of course, he can't say it straight out, because that would give away the game. Or perhaps his latest demurral is one more move in an attempt to get the administration to back an RRW. Then he could blame the administration for losing a treaty with the Russians, too.

Update: A little birdy tells me that a little birdy told him that the Republican leadership told Kyl to kill or delay the treaty. That's consistent with the political theory.

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