Should Improving U.S. Nuclear Technology Be Top Priority?

This is a rush transcript from "America's News HQ," December 18, 2008. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

MARTHA MACCALLUM, HOST: Here is a headline tonight — the U.S. arsenal of nuclear weapons is aging and is in need of an update fast. This is according to Pentagon officials after three nuclear missile wings failed their inspection, prompting some fears about vulnerabilities in our defenses.

Now, meanwhile, Congress would not authorize money for this year's upgrade. So how dangerous is this, and how do we make sure that our nuclear arsenal is modern and kept safe? Two pretty big important issues.

Peter Brookes served as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration. He is now a senior fellow of National Security Affairs with the Heritage Foundation. Peter, good to see you. Good evening.


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MACCALLUM: So this is obviously a concern to a lot of people if, indeed, our nuclear arsenal is aging. Is it something that you think, though, is going to be a priority for President-elect Obama, given what he talked about a lot in his campaign?

BROOKES: It should be, Martha, but I do not think it is going to be. I mean, he's even talked about the denuclearization. I mean, this is something we need to be concerned about. A lot of our missiles are ballistic missiles that provide a major strategic deterrent to countries around the world that can reach out and touch us with nuclear weapons, including some of the new ones such as North Korea, Iran, perhaps this year and in coming years.

But we need to have this capability to deter people from taking actions against us, especially weapons of mass destruction. So it's very important. Our missiles — many of our missiles now are 30 or 40 years old, and we have not even done a test since the early 1990s.

MACCALLUM: All right. You know, a lot of folks listen to this and say it sounds like a great idea, but we have — we're giving $700 billion to the financial services industry, probably another $14 billion or $15 billion to the auto industry tomorrow, you know.

Is this a great concern? And do other countries that you point to — Russia, Iran — present enough threat to us to spend even more money to put ourselves further into debt in this arena?

BROOKES: Well, Martha, it might be argued that if you do not have national security, the other things do not matter. And I think this is critically important. Our strategic nuclear forces are as important as our conventional forces. We have to have this deterrent capability to keep the peace.

These forces in airplanes, in missiles, on submarines, have kept the peace for many, many years. And we're living in a different world than it was during the Cold War. But it's still an equally dangerous world. As I just pointed out, North Korea, Iran — I mean, just a year or so ago, the Israelis flattened a nuclear facility in Syria.

Over 12 countries in the Middle East are pursuing nuclear power programs that could go further than that. So I mean, we still live in a very dangerous world. And we cannot ignore our strategic concerns as well.

MACCALLUM: So obviously, President-elect Barack Obama is keeping Robert Gates on as the head of defense. Is this something that you think that Gates feels passionate about, and something that he'll be able to influence Barack Obama over?

BROOKES: Well, he certainly made a case for it. He has relieved several people in the Air Force chain of command over things like this. I would expect we might even see more of that now. I think that's very important to hold people accountable. It shows the secretary is important.

He is going to give his best advice to the president-elect. The question is, will the president-elect embrace it or not? I mean I think that Robert Gates believes — I can't speak for him, but I think he believes that our strategic deterrent is critically important to the security of United States. And I assume that he will say that we need to do what is necessary to make sure these forces are ready.

I mean, Martha, you don't want to — you need to check out the tractor before you have to bring the hay in. You do not want to wait until the day or the snow blur — the day it snows. I mean, these things have to be ready to be used in our national defense.

MACCALLUM: You know, we have had an administration for the past eight years that is considered tough on defense, so why haven't we tested these nuclear warheads in 16 years?

BROOKES: Well, I leave that up to the experts in a sense of whether we need to do an actual test or they could do this with computers. I mean — but a lot of these missiles — I mean, there's even some worry today, Martha, we cannot even produce more nuclear weapons. We don't have the industrial base to do so.

Now, like I said, I will leave it up to the scientists to tell us whether we need to actually do a test, which we can do, or we can do it thorough scientific modeling to tell us if these things are going to work. But yes, you have to (UNINTELLIGIBLE) if these things need to be used, God forbid, they need to be ready. And we do not want our enemies to think that we cannot — that they're not capable of providing the deterrents to their actions that we need.

MACCALLUM: All right. Interesting and important. Peter Brookes, as always, good to see you. Thank you.

BROOKES: Thank you.

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