NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — To hearty applause, four Air Force generals in charge of the United States’ nuclear weapons arsenal proclaimed to a ballroom of their peers last month that their newly reunified command would advocate for a strong and ready stable of nuclear weapons to protect America for decades to come.

One week later, their commander-in-chief took the gavel of a rare summit-level United Nations Security Council meeting and dedicated the gathering to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, a significant step in a highly personal mission that recently helped President Barack Obama win a Nobel Peace Prize.

Now the administration must balance the duality of these two renewed missions: the simultaneous need for the Pentagon to modernize and secure America’s aging nuclear arsenal as the president lays the groundwork to negotiate those nuclear weapons out of existence.

In the next year, the White House will take up several nuclear-related treaties that would ban testing nuclear weapons and further reduce the numbers of warheads in Russia and the U.S., of which there remain thousands.

“Now is the time for fresh views on the role of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said during a speech Wednesday at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “We can’t afford to continue relying on recycled Cold War thinking.”

For now, Obama carries a difficult diplomatic message to the world stage, demanding countries end their own nuclear ambitions while the U.S. is keeping and modernizing its own massive arsenal — and in fact just created the 23,000-person Global Strike Command to oversee it all.

Indeed, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has called for new nuclear weapons designs the military says would be smaller, safer and more efficient for deterrence, eliminating the need for maintaining large numbers of warheads.

“It’s a hard sell when you’re talking to the Iranians or North Koreans or Chinese or others about why they shouldn’t be developing even a tiny number of primitive nuclear weapons,” said Richard K. Betts, director of the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. “That’s going to be the biggest political problem for the civilian leadership in the Obama administration.”

Obama envisioned a nuclear-free world long before he set foot in the Oval Office. He promoted the idea in his Senate campaign speeches and once in Washington was sought after by Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., two of the leading proponents of nuclear nonproliferation.

“Obama had the interest and the focus on this, similar to Senator Lugar’s, that nonproliferation is an existential issue to our country and to the world and requires presidential focus,” said Lugar spokesman Andy Fischer, who traveled to the former Soviet Union on a nuclear site tour with Obama and Lugar in 2005.

Less than three months into his presidency, Obama went to the Cold War’s geographic center to call on world leaders to refocus their attention on nuclear weapons in what is now known as “the Prague speech.”

“So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons,” Obama declared in April.

Anticipating the coming opposition, Obama added, “We will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy and urge others to do the same. Make no mistake: As long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary.”

It is hard to avoid the mixed message.

“This has raised a bit of an issue because the question is sort of: What does ‘reduce role’ mean?,” said Mike Gerson, a deterrence policy adviser to the U.S. Navy, at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington last month. “It’s not quite clear.”

This, Fischer said, is the Catch-22 of nuclear arms reduction.

“The realism is that you cannot do that unilaterally and you cannot do that without having a proper defense of our own nation, and other nations see it the same way. So the point has always been to do as much as you can,” Fischer said.

The White House seems to be trying to live up to that mantra.

In July, the president traveled to Moscow and with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev signed an agreement to cut warheads and missiles by at least 25 percent. Obama called it an “urgent issue.”

That visit was followed by the rare Security Council session, with other milestones and goals on the horizon, including the looming December expiration of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the U.S. and Russia, a nuclear summit planned for next year and plans to finally ratify the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

In nuclear parlance, “modernizing” partially refers to building newer nuclear warheads that Defense Secretary Robert Gates contends would be safer and more reliable, and which would allow the U.S. to reduce further stockpiles of older weapons.

Keynoting the Air Force gathering in a ballroom down the Potomac River from Washington, Gates said: “We have no desire for new capabilities. That’s a red herring. This is about modernizing and keeping safe a capability that everyone acknowledges we will have to have for some considerable period into the future before achieving some of the objectives of significant arms reduction and eventually no nuclear weapons at all.”

But the debate over the need for new warheads is not likely to die. Congress already has essentially spiked a program intended to devise replacement warheads. A report on the topic by the Congressional Research Service published in July cited a decade-old independent study that argued: “There is no such thing as a ‘design life.’ The designers were not asked or permitted to design a nuclear weapon that would go bad after 20 years.”

At the Pentagon, all things nuclear are under review in a departmentwide assessment that will set policy and strategy for the next five to 10 years, due at the end of this year.

Defense leaders say their plan, costing billions per year, is necessary to deter nuclear strikes against the U.S. and maintain an aging arsenal of bombers and missiles.

It’s also a reaction to a series of embarrassing incidents, including an unauthorized 2007 flight of nuclear-armed weapons across the continental U.S., two failed inspections this year and five failed inspections in 2008.

Gates demanded accountability, and in response the Air Force created the new Global Strike Command, a massive effort to reunify 23,000 nuclear-related jobs that during the Clinton administration had been divided among various commands.

“For about 15 years, we told officers, ‘You need to become broader and knowledgeable of “space” and knowledgeable of “nuclear” and competent at all.’ And the reality is, we asked too much. People need to be experts at what they do, and that’s what we’re developing today,” said Maj. Gen. Roger W. Burg, who commands the 20th Air Force, the ICBM fleet and Space Command, at the conference.

Control of intercontinental ballistic missiles will shift under the new command Dec. 1, followed in February by the bombers equipped to carry nuclear weapons. Additionally, the Air Force is “just about finished” with a $6.2 billion effort to extend the life of the nuclear arsenal, Burg said.

Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley has approved an additional $750 million in each of the next five years toward steps such as activating a fourth group of long-range B-51 bombers, staffing 2,500 new uniformed positions including a next generation of scientists and taking inventory of every bolt in the nuclear equipment stream.

In the past year, the Air Force has accounted for about 94 percent of that material, more than 120,000 parts, according to Brig. Gen. Everett H. Thomas, commander of the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. Some of those parts are nearly 40 years old, he said.

With those new measures in full swing, the Air Force’s nuclear command leaders last month assured their rank and file they were ready to carry on their mission full-throated.

Maj. Gen. Floyd L. Carpenter, commander of the 8th Air Force, tasked with delivering nuclear weapons, said everyone was excited up and down his chain of command because the Global Strike Command will be a force “advocating for the nuclear mission.”

“I think the biggest challenge is not in the personnel, it’s not in the aging system. It’s in the commitment to the mission,” said. “That is where our challenge is, making sure that we stay committed to this mission for the next 15 years.”

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