The latest U.S. nuclear showdown doesn't involve any foreign enemy. Instead, it pits President Barack Obama against his Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, and concerns the question of whether America needs a new generation of nuclear warheads. While serving under former President Bush, Gates had repeatedly called for the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program to be put into operation, because the nation's current nukes -- mostly produced in the 1970s and 1980s -- are growing so old that their destructive power may be in question.
"The Reliable Replacement Warhead is not about new capabilities, but about safety, reliability and security," Gates said in a speech in the week before last November's election. And in an article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, released in early December after Gates had been tapped by Obama to stay on at the Pentagon, Gates repeated that refrain. "Even though the days of hair-trigger superpower confrontation are over, as long as other nations possess the bomb and the means to deliver it, the United States must maintain a credible strategic deterrent," he wrote. "Congress needs to do its part by funding the Reliable Replacement Warhead Program -- for safety, for security, and for a more reliable deterrent." The RRW basically trades away explosive force for greater assurance that the new warheads would work predictably in the absence of tests, which the U.S. has refrained from conducting for nearly two decades to help advance non-proliferation goals.