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Updated: April 6, 2010 10:10 IST

U.S. to unveil policy on limiting nuclear arms use

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President Barack Obama briefs reporters at the White House in Washington on March 26, 2010, after phoning Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to discuss the new START treaty. The U.S. will unveil its new nuclear weapons policy review on Tuesday.
AP President Barack Obama briefs reporters at the White House in Washington on March 26, 2010, after phoning Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to discuss the new START treaty. The U.S. will unveil its new nuclear weapons policy review on Tuesday.

The Obama administration is adopting a new policy limiting the circumstances under which the U.S. would use nuclear weapons, keeping with the President’s pledge to give the nuclear arsenal a less prominent role in U.S. defence strategy.

In line with an in-depth review of U.S. nuclear weapons policy, the administration also hopes to persuade Russia to agree to open talks on mutual cuts in nuclear arsenals that go beyond a new arms treaty to be signed this week, U.S. officials said.

The nuclear weapons policy review to be released on Tuesday is the first since 2001. It would not radically change U.S. policy, but officials said it will include language that reflects President Barack Obama’s commitment to move toward a nuclear free world. By narrowing the conditions in which the U.S. might use nuclear arms, Mr. Obama hopes to strengthen U.S. arguments that other countries should either reduce stockpiles of nuclear weapons or forego developing them.

These officials said the administration’s new policy would stop short of renouncing the use of nuclear weapons except in retaliation to atomic attack, as some activists have advocated. But it would describe the weapons’ purpose as “primarily” or “fundamentally” to deter or respond to a nuclear attack.

Officials said the document was expected to move toward a policy that says the “sole purpose” of nuclear weapons is to deter or respond to nuclear attack. That wording would rule out the use of such weapons to respond to an attack by conventional, biological or chemical weapons. Previous U.S. policy was more ambiguous.

In an interview with the New York Times on Monday, Mr. Obama said his administration was explicitly committing not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states that are in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, even if they attacked the United States with biological or chemical weapons. Those threats, he told the newspaper, could be deterred with “a series of graded options” — a combination of old and newly designed conventional weapons.

On Monday evening the White House provided a brief outline of the new nuclear policy, which it said reflects a commitment to renew arms control and work with Russia to reduce nuclear forces while maintaining a stable military balance. It said substantial new U.S. investments in the weapons laboratories and other technological undergirdings of the nuclear arsenal will “facilitate further nuclear reductions,” and extend the life of warheads currently in the nuclear force.

“This is an alternative to developing new nuclear weapons, which we reject,” the White House statement said.

The Obama administration plans to urge Russia to return to the bargaining table following Senate ratification of the new START arms reduction treaty, to be signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Prague on Thursday.

The White House hopes to overcome Russia’s expressed reluctance to move beyond START, especially if it means cutting Moscow’s arsenal of tactical, or short-range nuclear arms.

These so-called theatre nuclear weapons play a key role in Russia’s overall defence strategy and are regarded in Moscow as an important bargaining chip on security issues.

The timing of a planned U.S. push for new, broader arms talks with Russia is uncertain. But officials said the proposal would only come after U.S. and Russian legislative approval of the new START pact, which isn’t expected until the end of this year.

The Russian parliament is almost certain to sign off on any deal negotiated by the Kremlin, but the U.S. Senate’s ratification of the new START treaty is far from a sure thing.

Obama is hosting dozens of world leaders in a nuclear security summit in Washington next week.

One senior administration official said that the U.S. wants another round of talks between the White House and the Kremlin that would include so-called “non-deployed” nuclear weapons — the thousands of warheads on both sides that are held in reserve and not ready for immediate use.

George Perkovich, a nuclear weapons expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the Russians have a strong incentive to limit reserve weaponry because the U.S. could quickly mount its stored warheads back onto missiles.

Russia’s struggling military forces would have a harder time preparing their reserve warheads for use in the event of war.

U.S. officials believe that talks on reducing stockpiled warheads could persuade Russia to negotiate limits on short-range weapons — a category of arms in which the Russians hold a large numerical advantage.

But the call for expanded talks is also linked to a nearer-term goal: constraining the spread of nuclear weapons technology and keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists.

Reducing the short range bombs and stored warheads would involve more intrusive inspections than agreed to in the treaty Obama and Medvedev will sign this week. But officials say that new technologies for verifying and counting warheads could ease concerns on both sides about protecting the secrecy of their weapons designs.

These technologies allow inspectors to verify narrow characteristics of warheads without revealing details of their structure.

Another potential obstacle to expanding the next set of nuclear arms talks is Russia’s strong resistance to U.S. missile defence in Europe.

Moscow sought to include constraints on missile defence in the new START, but U.S. officials say the agreement contains no such limits. The treaty text has not been made public.

Overall, when it comes to further cuts in nuclear arsenals, the Obama administration could face an uphill struggle in any effort to bring Russia back to the bargaining table.

“The Russians seem less than enthusiastic about moving ahead with this,” said Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a foundation that advocates for a nuclear weapon-free world.

Ellen Tauscher, the under secretary of state for arms control, told reporters on March 29 that the administration has a “big agenda” for the next set of nuclear arms talks, and that it includes limiting short-range weapons.

The U.S. has an estimated 200 short-range nuclear weapons in Europe under a NATO agreement, whereas the Russians are believed to have 10 times that many deployed in European Russia.

These weapons are a legacy of the Cold War standoff in divided Europe, and there is now a growing push by Europeans to negotiate away these weapons.

Russia, on the other hand, sees tactical nuclear warheads as a counterweight to the military superiority of NATO.

In its just-completed reassessment of U.S. nuclear weapons policy — known as the Nuclear Posture Review — the administration chose not to commit to reducing its nuclear weapons in Europe. The thinking was that it should be addressed in negotiations with the Russians, several officials said.

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