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"Forget the Rest" blog

Senator Bingaman, Where Do You Stand?

Key Vote on President's Nuclear Posture Review Looms


By: Greg Mello

On Wednesday, May 8, more or less, the Senate Armed Services Committee, of which Senator Bingaman is a member, must make a serious decision about the future of U.S. nuclear weapons policy.

It is one of those moments when what may seem like a small choice will have big consequences.

The question before Senator Bingaman and the rest of the Committee is basically this: should the United States develop and build new or modified kinds of nuclear weapons, and construct the new factories needed to produce them? Some weapons contractors and life-long nuclear weapons advocates claim that these new kinds of nuclear weapons could more adroitly destroy some of the new targets they think we should attack with nuclear weapons, in the new wars they think we should have.

It is by no means coincidental that the contractors in question will be paid, and paid unsparingly, to develop these weapons.

In fact, these proposed new weapons would not be any more "useful" than the ones we already have. When all the analysis is done - and it has been done, if the senators care to look - the bottom line is this: there are only so many ways to blow up things and people. The so-called "new" designs are just versions of the same old ones, being promoted by many of the same old Cold War hawks, as it turns out. The so-called "robust nuclear earth-penetrating weapon" is not very different, either in design or potential effects, from a weapon the United States fielded for a few years in the 1950s. Everything is about this proposal is "retro."

"Ah yes," the proponents say, "you are basically right. That is exactly why we may need to resume nuclear testing in the future, in order to certify the performance of the really special new weapons that are, if our calculations prove correct, are just a little bit better."


Senators, please pay attention. While nuclear testing is not needed for many nuclear weapon modifications, your endorsement of the idea of new weapons commits you and the nation to a course of action that will be difficult to control.

Just under the surface of the vote this week, still other questions brood, even more momentous. Nuclear weapons are a kind of weapon of mass destruction. Are they legitimate weapons of war? Is planning for their likely use - let's not kid ourselves about this - a net gain in security, or a loss?

And then there is another question: should this country abide by the treaties it has signed and ratified, in particular the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), in which we promised to negotiate nuclear disarmament in return for a binding international norm against nuclear proliferation? Or is searching for the "winning weapon" more important now?

The senators won't vote explicitly on these questions, of course. But if they give a green light to new nuclear weapons and new factories, the answers will be plain enough. Then, once solidified in obligations to contractors and employees - set in concrete, as they say - it will be very hard for anyone to change them.

Getting "buy-in," with modest projects at first, is the strategy within the nuclear strategy that is being proposed. Surely the senators understand this. Or do they?

These proposals would implement a central part of the Bush Administration's "Nuclear Posture Review." This strategy insists on new nuclear weapons capabilities, which is to be integrated with military planning and targeting around the world. For the first time, nuclear weapons would become a part of day-to-day planning for battles against non-nuclear adversaries. These so-called "nuclear strike" capabilities would be integrated with proposed new missile defenses, and both of these with conventional "power projection" forces. To support this "new triad" of military force, it says we need a "revitalized [nuclear weapons production] infrastructure that will provide new capabilities in a timely fashion to meet emerging threats."

Up to now, the senators have been somewhat in the dark, or in denial, about the purpose of the huge infrastructure upgrades they are starting to authorize. Now that the purpose of this "revitalized infrastructure" has been made crystal clear, will they authorize it? Much of the funding is already in place; funding has been growing since 1995. And in the highly-militarized mental environment of post-9/11 Washington, much of it seems beyond debate.

All that's needed now is the authorization to proceed, in whole, or in part. That's where Senator Bingaman and his colleagues come in.

Throughout his career, Senator Bingaman has used his position to support virtually every nuclear weapons project that has been put before him, and then some. On September 25 of last year, only a few days after the 9/11 tragedy, he introduced a floor amendment that aimed at increasing the nuclear weapons budget by a whopping $339 million, $492 million above the Bush request. The bill failed, but it sent the desired signal. The final nuclear weapons budget was close to what Senator Bingaman proposed.

Now the Senator must again choose the level of support he gives to weapons of mass destruction. And this time it is a little different - crucially different. Will he utter a clear policy that provides direction to the labs, which for so long have been providing their own direction? Will he passively endorse new nuclear military capabilities, or will he actively and effectively seek to prohibit them? Will he ask for specific line item control for prototyping and field testing, lest Congress lose control over weapons development altogether? Or will he insert some vague language that seems, on the surface, to satisfy everyone, but which meanwhile allows weapons development to proceed without embarrassing publicity? Senator Bingaman, you have to choose.

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