A report released in Washington on Wednesday recommends strengthened U.S. leadership in global efforts to prevent further nuclear weapons proliferation. However, the Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States says new threats, including potential nuclear terrorism, require a credible deterrent capability.
Created by Congress two years ago to re-evaluate America's long-term strategic posture after the September 11, 2001 al-Qaida terrorist attacks, the commission is generally supportive of arms control objectives announced so far by President Barack Obama.
It says the United States should publicly declare its intention to reduce its reliance on nuclear weapons and pursue a step-by-step approach with Russia to draw down stockpiles using successor talks to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START.
But as it works to reduce the number of nuclear weapons and against nuclear proliferation, the commission says the United States must maintain "an appropriately effective nuclear deterrent force".
William Perry, who served as Defense Secretary during the Clinton administration, and James Schlesinger, who served in that post under Presidents Nixon and Ford, appeared before the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee to detail the findings.
Perry warned of the dangers facing the United States and the world. "There is a danger we are going to have a collapse of the nonproliferation regime. There is a danger that there will be a cascade of proliferation in the world, particularly if Iran succeeds in going nuclear. And both of those will increase substantially the risk of nuclear terrorism. And there is a danger that the nuclear powers in the world will renew their competition," he said.
The commission says the surest way of preventing a nuclear terrorist attack is to deny terrorists access to weapons or fissile materials. Closure or securing of the most vulnerable nuclear sites, it adds, should be a top national priority.
Perry said the 12-member commission reached a surprising degree of consensus on issues, but that it had significant differences on the question of achieving U.S. Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.
In a 51-to-48 largely party line vote a decade ago -- under a Democratic president and a Republican majority Congress -- the treaty fell 19 votes short of a required two-thirds majority necessary for Senate ratification, sparking criticism from Russia, China and several U.S. allies.
On the U.S. nuclear deterrent, Schlesinger said the commission recommends that there be no unilateral reductions by the United States. "Our NATO allies, and most notably the new members of NATO, remain wary of Russia and would eye nervously any sharp reduction of our nuclear forces relative to those of Russia, especially in light of the now greater emphasize by Russia on tactical nuclear weapons," he said.
The commission says the U.S. needs to maintain missile defenses in response to regional and limited long-range threats such as those posed by North Korea and Iran, but that these defenses should avoid giving Russia or China a reason to increase their strategic arsenals that could threaten the United States or its allies.
Representative Ellen Tauscher, who President Obama has nominated as the new U.S. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, praised the focus on nuclear nonproliferation.
But ranking committee Republican John McHugh questioned President Obama's long-term goals of nuclear disarmament. "While the president's long-term vision is laudable, I fear its allure may be a distraction from the near-term nuclear security and proliferation challenges faced by our nation and the international community," he said.
Perry said that despite the dangers facing the world, the commission also seeks to underscore possibilities for a more hopeful future. "That we will be able to contain the proliferation. That we will be able to stymie nuclear terrorism. And that nuclear powers instead of competing in the nuclear field will learn how to cooperate in the nuclear field," he said.
The commission findings closely track those of another recent report by a task force of the independent Council on Foreign Relations, which also recommends that the United States and Russia pursue further nuclear weapons reductions under an extension of the START treaty.
In a statement read for him at the Preparatory Committee for the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference in New York, President Obama said strengthening the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is necessary to deal effectively with the threat of nuclear weapons and nuclear terrorism.