WASHINGTON, Mar 22 (IPS) - The announcement earlier this month that the United States will pursue the design and construction of new nuclear weapons has not been warmly embraced by the rest of the world.
In fact, most people outside the country view the move as more evidence of a policy favouring unilateralism and the pursuit of absolute military superiority, according to a report written last December but just released Wednesday on global perceptions of U.S. nuclear policy.
The report, commissioned by the Pentagon's Defence Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), used focus groups and written and oral interviews with participants in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America to assess international feelings toward the plan for a new generation of nuclear warheads.
It found that China and Russia, in particular, are watching the scope of U.S. missile deployments with concern that Washington might be attempting to move away from a deterrence posture through more effective defences.
Under the new Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) programme, older nuclear warheads currently maintained under the Stockpile Stewardship Programme will be replaced by simpler weapons meant to be more reliable, easier to manufacture and more robust than current models. They would reportedly be ready for production by 2012.
The decision to upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal is being opposed by some members of the U.S. Congress, who believe it sends a message that Washington is pursuing first strike capabilities instead of a policy of détente and arms reduction, as was the case during the Cold War.
"The whole name of the reliable replacement warhead is insidious since it suggests the current weapons are not reliable," Stephen Schwartz, editor of the Nonproliferation Review at the Centre for Nonproliferation Studies, told IPS.
The Union of Concerned Scientists says that the plan to update the U.S. nuclear arsenal is unnecessary because the current arsenal's reliability is not degrading. Changing the design of nuclear warheads is expensive and dangerous, the group argues, and political pressure within the United States could lead to the testing of new nuclear weapons before they replace existing weapons.
The new warheads are based on a design that was detonated in underground tests during the 1980s.
Although part of the George W. Bush administration's rationale for the RRW is a need to have a more flexible arsenal to engage and deter so-called "rogue states", such as North Korea and Iran, the DTRA report concludes that Russia and China's future decisions about their nuclear arsenals will be dependent on "their perceptions of U.S. strategic intent, plans, and commitments."
The departure from a policy of nuclear deterrence has also caused concern in Japan and Turkey, where U.S. commitments of extended deterrence are seen as essential security guarantees. The new policies have led both countries to question the credibility of a U.S. nuclear guarantee, says the report.
Focus groups and written responses from U.S. allies and friends "oppose U.S. development of new, tailored, low-yield nuclear weapons as unnecessary, potentially dangerous, politically divisive, and adversely impacting non-proliferation," says the report.
While the DTRA's report is one of the first to address the geo-strategic effect the new weapons will have on non-proliferation and global stability, there are also concerns here that the new weapons will eventually require potentially dangerous testing.
The U.S. Senate has not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which bars nuclear weapons tests, and some fear that the Bush administration's plan to develop new nuclear weapons could seriously undermine the possibility of a Senate ratification of the treaty.
"A number of people have raised the point that even if the scientists are confident the weapon will work, many military leaders will be a bit sceptical and demand actual proof," warned Schwartz.
There are no current plans to test the new weapons, but the development of new warheads does make some countries doubt the United States and other nuclear weapons powers' commitment to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which includes disarmament obligations such as ratification of the CTBT.
The U.S. government, in the past, has implied that the development of more reliable nuclear warheads will allow it to reduce its total number of nuclear warheads and comply with reductions required in the NPT.
"[But] if you're looking at this from the outside (of the U.S.) you'll see the U.S. has 10,000 nuclear weapons and is going to build more," said Schwartz.
The DTRA study concludes that the message from U.S. allies to Washington is "that a greater U.S. readiness to engage on nuclear disarmament issues would pay off in increased support from other third parties in pursuing U.S. non-proliferation objectives."
"Building these new warheads will restart the Cold War cycle of designing and producing new nuclear weapons. Instead, the United States needs a thorough review of its outdated nuclear weapons policy, under which it keeps thousands of warheads on high-alert status. Rather than building new nuclear weapons, the United States should be looking for ways to reduce its reliance on them," said Dr. Robert Nelson, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, in a statement.
On Mar. 18, a panel composed of retired nuclear weapons laboratory directors and former defence and energy department officials also weighed in on the debate, recommending that "any decision to proceed with RRW must be coupled with a transparent administration policy on nuclear weapons, including comments concerning stockpile size, nuclear testing and nonproliferation." The panel's full report is expected next month.