May 25, 2008
Of the Journal
Managers at Sandia and Los Alamos national labs often talk about “the customer.” It has always seemed an odd word to me, more appropriate to some guy walking in the door at Target than the people in the military who might some day have to use the nuclear weapons the labs design.
But insofar as “the customer” is the management-speak in use, it seems appropriate to ask what the customer wants. And in that regard, the news for the labs lately is not entirely good.
Foreign Policy magazine recently conducted a survey of more than 3,400 active and retired military leaders. They have a host of concerns regarding the current state of the U.S. military, and the things that need to be done to prepare it for the threats we face as a nation in the 21st century.
A need for new nuclear weapons was about as far down the list as it is possible to get without disappearing entirely from their vision of our military future. Only 2 percent of those surveyed thought “bring(ing) a new generation of nuclear weapons online” should be one of the nation's top defense priorities — far behind the need for “more robust diplomatic tools,” among many needs singled out.
This is a problem for the labs and the National Nuclear Security Administration, the federal agency that directs their nuclear weapons work. They have hitched their future plans to the “Reliable Replacement Warhead.” RRW is the vanguard of a new generation of nukes they want to build to replace our old and, they say, outmoded Cold War arsenal.
But the Foreign Policy survey suggests the customer may not want RRW.
To be fair, one of the customers who matters the most, U.S. Strategic Command, while not willing to buy RRW outright, at least seems interested in putting the design on layaway. Finishing up current paper studies of the RRW design will help guide decisions to be made next year about the long-term future of our nuclear deterrent, Gen. Kevin Chilton, commander of Stratcom, told the House Armed Services Committee in February.
Chilton's comments seem to have been an attempt to quiet concerns that RRW was being sold by the labs and the National Nuclear Security Administration to a customer not all that interested in buying.
But like many things in the federal government right now, “next year” is a long way away, with a bright line dividing “before Jan. 20” from “after Jan. 20.” Election years create a sort of limbo as federal officials alternatively sprint as fast as they can trying to get things locked into place, or idle away the final years of the departing administration, realizing that whatever they do today could be easily undone on Jan. 21.
Which makes the question of the views of the three remaining major-party presidential candidates all the more important. One of them, combined with the next Congress, will make the decisions that will matter on RRW and the future of nuclear weapons.
In that regard, arms control scholar Jeffrey Lewis of the New America Foundation notes that all three have, in one form or another, endorsed a reduced reliance on nuclear weapons and a move toward eventual nuclear disarmament “in one form or another.”
“We should work to reduce nuclear arsenals all around the world, starting with our own,” John McCain said in a March speech outlining his foreign policy platform.
Lewis, who has done a detailed analysis of the three candidates' statements on the issue, notes that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have made similar comments.
On RRW, Clinton's views are clear. “I oppose the Bush administration's plans for the Reliable Replacement Warhead,” she said in answer to a questionnaire from the Council for a Livable World, an arms control group.
Obama has parsed his words more carefully. “America must not rush to produce a new generation of nuclear warheads,” he wrote in a policy essay published last year in Foreign Affairs magazine. Leaving the door open to continued studies, he told the Council for a Livable World, “I do not support a premature decision to produce the RRW.” For Obama, apparently, the option of continued design studies remains on the table.
McCain did not answer the questionnaire, and his campaign declined to comment on his views about RRW.
Regardless of campaign pronouncements, in nuclear weapons policy, and especially the Byzantine world of lab budgets, the devil is in the details. And as Lewis notes, presidential campaigns are not the places where one learns such details.
“Candidates are, by nature, generalists,” Lewis wrote in a recent analysis of the candidates' nuclear weapons statements done for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. “They can also be quite cautious on issues that are not central to their interests or their image. Although nuclear weapons issues are incredibly important, they are also technical, abstract and excite very few interest groups.”
That means we are unlikely to see presidential candidates speak about nuclear weapons issues with sufficient specificity to answer lingering uncertainties over the future of the nuclear weapons enterprise.
But if you're trying to read the signals here, all of this suggests that the next customer-in-chief is not likely to be an eager nuclear weapons buyer.
Read science writer John Fleck's blog at abqjournal.com. E-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org