The Conventional Arms Control Challenge

Massive ordnance penetrator. Sounds powerful, right? This bomb is also known by its initials: MOP.

About a month ago, Congress gave $68 million to the Boeing Corporation to accelerate the purchase and development of 10-12 "massive ordnance penetrators." The Pentagon says that the MOP bombs are the "weapon of choice" for an "urgent operational need." While not stated, the mostly likely "urgent operational need" is North Korean hardened nuclear facilities or hardened Iranian targets. It is designed to go deeper than any existing bunker-busting weapon, burrowing more than 26 feet into the ground or through concrete before detonating. These 30,000 pound bombs carry 6,000 pounds of high explosives. They are so heavy that they can only be carried by the B-2 or B-52 bomber.

The MOP is not a nuclear weapon. But it replaces a nuclear weapon that Congress was unwilling to fund over the past few years — the robust nuclear earth penetrator. This huge warhead was conceived to burrow deep into enemy lairs and deliver a nuclear wallop.

While that defunding was a success, the new funds going to the MOP bomb sends a troubling message worth listening carefully to — especially against the backdrop of excitement around President Barack Obama’s commitment to nuclear weapons reductions. 

The message is — we do not need nuclear weapons to deliver massive destruction. And some nuclear arms control advocates are comfortable with getting rid of nuclear weapons not because they are destructive but because the taboo against their use is so strong we cannot use them. As we begin to reduce our nuclear capabilities, watch out for a lot of pressure to ramp up conventional weapons procurement.

The Arms Continuum

In April 2009, Obama presented his vision of nuclear disarmament to the world, calling for "a world without nuclear weapons." The president is building on the calls for eliminating the bomb from a growing list of former government officials, led by ex-secretaries of state George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former secretary of defense William Perry, and former Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sam Nunn.  

Other presidents, from John F. Kennedy to Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan, have called for nuclear disarmament. But Obama is diligent in his work on this issue. From recent progress toward a new arms reduction accord with Russia, to his proposal for a global anti-nuclear summit in Washington next year, Obama has put reducing nuclear arsenals high up on his frighteningly crowded agenda.

For this commitment and this aspiration, the Nobel Peace Prize committee has recognized him, and he will accept that prize in December in Oslo.

As we applaud these efforts and wait for them to bear fruit, we must also attend to the intersections between nuclear and conventional weapons. There is a compelling need to see nuclear weapons, major conventional armaments, and small arms along a single continuum: as deadly weapons systems that should be subject to a set of integrated principles aimed at curbing their proliferation, export, and use.

In negotiations over nuclear reductions, the Russians have raised the issue of conventional U.S. capabilities including powerful long-range missiles able to strike anywhere in the world within 60 minutes — the "Prompt Global Strike" capability that the U.S. commanders hope to deploy by 2015. "Some countries, including the United States, are working on non-nuclear strategic weapons. This is a subject of negotiations with our American colleagues," said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Interfax, a Russian wire service. "President Dmitry Medvedev said many times that it was a key problem for Russia. Hopefully, it will be resolved within the framework of the Russian-American treaty (on the reduction of strategic offensive armaments)."

Pakistan’s Capabilities

These intersections are particularly stark, critical, and dangerous in Pakistan. In the 1980s, the United States offered its close Cold War ally the opportunity to purchase 111 F-16 fighter planes. But, in the 1990s, concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programs, the nuclear tests in 1998, and the military coup that brought General Pervez Musharraf to power halted military cooperation. The fighter planes were never transferred. A decade later, as it built a coalition to support the "global war on terror," the Bush administration resumed transfer of F-16s to Islamabad, which now has as many as 50 of the high-tech fighters.

While the Lockheed Martin fighter plane is subject to regulation as a major conventional system, it can also deliver nuclear weapons. This has dangerous implications. Pakistan has at least 89 nuclear weapons and the material to build dozens more. It is not a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

While maintaining that its nuclear arsenal is a deterrent, Pakistan has not ruled out first use of nuclear weapons. Its most likely vehicle for nuclear warhead delivery is its fleet of U.S.-origin F-16 fighter planes. The blurring of the lines between conventional and strategic weapons thus has real and alarming implications, reaching far into the future.

Obama’s Challenge

The Obama administration’s work to reduce nuclear weapons and reduce nuclear dangers has not been complemented by similar diligent work in the area of conventional weapons exports. The United States continues to be the world’s largest exporter of conventional weapons — from F-16 fighter planes and other advanced systems to M-16 rifles, grenades, and other small weapons. Despite (or perhaps because of) a large and growing trade, there is a sobering lack of interest in controlling the trade in these weapons. And what efforts at arms control do exist tend to be ad hoc, episodic, and reactive.

This might be changing. Recently, the administration signaled its willingness to work toward an Arms Trade Treaty, which would be a comprehensive, legally binding instrument establishing common international standards for the import, export, and transfer of conventional arms.

This opens the door to new action on conventional weapons. But the same week that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in New York for meetings on the Arms Trade Treaty, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced that in fiscal year 2009 alone, the U.S. foreign military sales program sold nearly $38 billion in weapons and defense articles. As the head of the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency recently boasted, "We can take pride in the fact that we achieved a new record." Vice Admiral Jeffrey A. Wieringa pointed out in a blog post that not only was the $37.9 billion in weapons sold in 2009 higher than ever before, it was 465% higher than a record low of $8.1 billion in 1998.

Recent arms sales notifications, some of which may be included in the 2009 total and some of which may be counted in next year’s figure, include $134 million in Boeing Chinook helicopters to Morocco, $3.2 billion in Lockheed Martin F-16s to Egypt, and the offer of $7 billion in Boeing F-18 fighter planes to Brazil. Looking ahead, the agency is optimistic, projecting $38.4 billion in foreign military sales for 2010.

So, as we move forward, the best way to curb conventional weapons exports might be to link it with Obama’s nuclear disarmament agenda.

Author: Frida Berrigan

Frida Berrigan is a senior program associate at the New America Foundation's Arms and Security Initiative.