Feb 14, 2008
Global Security Newswire
WASHINGTON — A frequent adviser to the U.S. government on nuclear and security issues argued yesterday that the current administration’s push for a next-generation nuclear warhead is unnecessary (see GSN, Feb. 5).
“The United States has the most flexible, the most usable, the most accurate nuclear weapons in the world,” said Richard Garwin, a physicist involved with the original design for the hydrogen bomb and longtime arms control advocate. The Pentagon would be better off sticking with the Cold War-era weapons they have now, he said, both in terms of reliability of the warheads and in terms of cost.
The Bush administration has aggressively pursued, in the face of congressional opposition, a new nuclear warhead design that Energy Department officials have argued would be more secure, more reliable, cheaper, would allow for a reduction in the U.S. stockpile of warheads and would help maintain a retinue of trained weapons designers at U.S. laboratories (see GSN, Dec. 19, 2007).
The design, dubbed the Reliable Replacement Warhead, received none of the nearly $90 million in requested funding this year. For the coming fiscal year, the president’s budget requests $10 million for the program.
Garwin, at one time a member of the JASON panel that advises the executive branch on nuclear weapon-related issues, spoke yesterday as one of the authors of a report suggesting 10 alterations in nuclear weapons policy to be made in the next presidential administration.
The suggestions are part of a slightly modified report from the Federation of American Scientists, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Union of Concerned Scientists originally issued in 2001 in advance of a nuclear posture review from the Bush administration.
“We can be much more confident with the legacy warheads, that they will remain closer to the test pedigree than would the RRW that has never been tested,” Garwin said. The report suggests halting all U.S. programs for developing and deploying new nuclear weapons.
Officials have argued that the existing arsenal will slowly deteriorate despite efforts to replace minor parts as part of the Energy Department’s Stockpile Stewardship program. At some point, it may be necessary to return to explosive testing to affirm the stockpile’s effectiveness, they have argued (see GSN, Nov. 15, 2007).
To avoid the prospect of renewed nuclear testing, the Bush administration has advocated developing the new warhead to replace the older weapons. Officials have assured Congress that the new warhead would not require nuclear testing. For many in Congress a return to nuclear testing as part of the program is considered unacceptable.
Administration officials have also said the RRW would save money in the long run by reducing the maintenance costs of the current arsenal. Garwin said he has yet to see evidence that this is the case.
“Nobody has ever come up with a cost for the RRW program that has any possible benefit from the point of view of cost in part because the RRW would not be here to replace the legacy weapons for a very, very long time,” he said.
He said it could take 40 years or more before the RRW design would replace all the weapons the United States now deploys, a replacement rate of about 50 warheads a year.
“And during all that time you would have to have the ability to take care of the W-76, W-87, the W-88 and all those weapons,” Garwin said.
What had once been the primary argument for replacing the weapons, the effect of aging on plutonium, is no longer relevant in light of recent findings about the way the metal’s changes over time, he said. The Energy Department has estimated that nuclear weapons’ plutonium cores should perform as designed for 85 years, and a separate JASON’s study assessed a 100-year lifespan (see GSN, Nov. 30, 2006).
“Which is a long, long time from now, another 56 years [from now] before the weapons may decay,” Garwin said. Almost all of the problems regarding aging and the current U.S. nuclear warhead designs relate to the non-nuclear parts “that can be replaced whenever it is economically desirable.”
In terms of keeping U.S. weapons designers interested and trained, Garwin suggested having the two design laboratories compete to develop new designs but simply never make them. “If we had an RRW competition every five years or so that would keep the designers up to snuff,” he said.
The other suggestions in the report include:
— Declare the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons to be for deterrence and if necessary respond to the use of nuclear weapons by another nation;
— Reject rapid nuclear-armed missile launch options (see GSN, April 5, 2005);
— Eliminate current U.S. nuclear targeting plans with a plan tailored to individual situations;
— Unilaterally reduce U.S. deployed and reserve warheads to no more than 1,000;
— Retire all U.S. tactical, or battlefield, nuclear weapons (see GSN, Feb. 9, 2005);
— Announce a U.S. commitment to further reduce warheads on a bilateral, negotiated basis;
— Commit to no new nuclear testing and work with the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (see GSN, Sept. 18, 2007);
— Halt further deployment of a ground-based missile defense systems and drop plans for any spaced-based defenses (see GSN, Oct. 12, 2007); and
— Reaffirm a U.S. commitment to complete nuclear disarmament.