Congress has mandated that the next administration complete a Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) by early 2010. Senators McCain and Obama have both indicated support for nuclear reductions consistent with sustaining deterrence, and there is growing bipartisan support for a serious reexamination of U.S. nuclear weapons policy along these lines.

But many conservatives are not on board. The George C. Marshall Policy Institute just released the transcript of a recent talk on nuclear weapons policy by Senator Jon Kyl, a staunch conservative and the second-highest ranking Republican in the Senate. The Arizona senator’s remarks provide a good window into the five main rhetorical strategies and arguments that hardliner conservatives are likely deploy in the 2009-2010 debate over the NPR and NPT Review Conference.

Discredit calls for nuclear reductions by associating them with unilateral nuclear disarmament. In his remarks, Senator Kyl immediately pivots from noting the bipartisan call for nuclear reductions by secretaries Perry, Shultz, Kissinger and Senator Nunn in the now-famous WSJ op-eds to castigating a so-called “nuclear freeze” movement that supposedly recommends a course where “the U.S. alone is disarmed.” Actually, the main message of the nuclear freeze movement (which was active in the 1980s) was (take a wild guess) to freeze nuclear arsenals, i.e. stop building new nukes, and not unilateral disarmament. More fundamentally, Senator Kyl is arguing against a straw man: there is not a single serious U.S. leader or respected expert from either side of the political spectrum advocating for unilateral disarmament.

Mischaracterize the primary diplomatic objective of nuclear reductions as seeking to influence Iran and North Korea. Senator Kyl ridicules the notion that nuclear reductions by the United States would have any impact on the nuclear ambitions of rogue states, saying “of course” they would not. But convincing Iran and North Korea to forgo nuclear weapons is not the animating diplomatic goal of nuclear reductions. Rather, it is to address concerns among non-aligned countries that the United States is not living up to to its NPT Article VI nuclear disarmament obligations. “By fulfilling our commitment to make progress toward nuclear disarmament,” concludes a policy task force co-chaired by former secretaries Perry and Albright, “we give ourselves much greater leverage to persuade other countries to take the firm steps we consider necessary to prevent terrorists and additional countries from acquiring nuclear weapons.”

Suggest that America is getting left behind in a new arms race. Senator Kyl laments that “other states are modernizing their nuclear weapons and the United States is not.” Actually, these states are mostly playing catch-up—and they have a long way to go. Russia, for instance, keeps most of its SSBN fleet in port, where they are sitting ducks. Moreover, the United States is modernizing its strategic arsenal, for example, by deploying the more accurate Trident II D-5 missile to the SSBN fleet, improving the avionics on B-2 bombers so they can fly under radar, and putting the high-yield warheads and advanced reentry vehicles from dismantled MX missiles on Minuteman ICBMs while improving Minuteman’s guidance system. In any event, America’s existing nuclear arsenal—to say nothing of its overwhelming conventional superiority—is more than sufficient to deter Russia (let alone China or Iran) and reassure U.S. allies that America remains committed to their security.

Selectively interpret technical data on warhead reliability. Senator Kyl chides Congress for not funding the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW), suggesting that “each time we discover a problem in our legacy weapons…we have changed the weapon beyond its original design, in many cases because the components aren’t even available any more, they are so old-fashioned.” One gets the impression that our nukes are junkers patched together with duct tape and chewing gum. Yet each year since 1997, the secretaries of defense and energy have certified the arsenal as safe and reliable. As to a possible future need for an RRW or a new facility for manufacturing large numbers of plutonium pits, there is no need to commit now: an NNSA study found that the majority of plutonium pits for most nuclear weapons have minimum lifetimes of at least 85 years, roughly twice as long as originally expected.

Offer optimistic cost projections for new nuclear weapons facilities. Senator Kyl suggests that “with as little as $300 million we could begin the construction of facilities like the Chemistry and Metallurgy Facility Replacement Project (CMRR).” What is important to recognize, however, is that this is merely a down payment on a $2 billion project. Moreover, completing this facility will cost at least 2-3 times as much as DOE originally promised, according to DOE’s FY 2009 budget request:

The CMRR CD-1 was approved on June 17, 2005 with a preliminary cost range of $745,000,000 – $975,000,000.

[snip]

Based on continued examination of the project and recent, industry-wide experience related to the increases in the cost of construction of comparable facilities, the estimate for construction of the Nuclear Facility at CMRR is now viewed to be significantly higher. Initial estimates place the revised TPC above $2,000,000,000.

Who’s to say costs won’t escalate further?

Let’s be clear: for long as the United States possesses nuclear weapons, it must continue to maintain an appropriate nuclear weapons complex to ensure that the arsenal is safe and reliable. But meeting this need does not require American taxpayers to write DOE a blank check for constructing large new nuclear weapons manufacturing facilities decades before they might possibly be needed.