Jul 23, 2008

U.S. General Wants to Retain Nuclear Test Option

Elaine M. Grossman, Global Security Newswire

WASHINGTON — The top U.S. nuclear weapons commander, Gen. Kevin Chilton, warned today that the nation should not rule out the possibility of resuming explosive nuclear testing to ensure the reliability of the U.S. strategic arsenal (see GSN, June 26, 2007).

President Bill Clinton signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996, but the U.S. Senate later rejected the pact, and the United States is now one of just nine nations preventing the treaty from entering into force (see GSN, Sept. 18, 2007). The others include China, Iran and North Korea. The United States last conducted a nuclear test in 1992, after which President George H.W. Bush called for a moratorium.

“I support not wanting to test,” said Chilton, who heads U.S. Strategic Command in Omaha, Neb. However, “I also support the right of the United States to change their mind on this issue, should it become decided that [it] is absolutely essential to secure our safety and security. And the protocol of the convention allows that.”

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama (Ill.) has said he would make ratification of the test ban treaty a priority. His opponent, Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), has pledged to continue the moratorium and take a fresh look at ratification, which he initially opposed in 1999 (see GSN, May 28).

Thanks to a Stockpile Stewardship Program overseen by the National Nuclear Security Agency that monitors the stockpile without explosive tests, Chilton said he can certify today that the U.S. nuclear arsenal is reliable (see GSN, May 19).

However, the Air Force general expressed concern that a time would come when confidence in one or more “families” of weapons in the arsenal would diminish, perhaps due to the discovery of a serious problem. It could be that the prospects for fixing such a problem without explosive testing would be dim, he said.

Nuclear weapons currently fielded are “all well past” their 15-year design lives, Chilton said at a breakfast speech sponsored by the National Defense University Foundation and the National Defense Industrial Association. “They’re not static. When they’re sitting on the shelf, they’re actually little chemistry experiments that are cooking away.”

Gradual degradation of the chemicals inside an atomic weapon can “affect the non-nuclear components that are associated [with] — and are absolutely critical to — the function of the weapon system,” he said.

Thus, Chilton said, “I sense there’s a cliff out there someplace, and I don’t know how close I am to the edge of that cliff.”

“It sounds like he has a little commitment phobia,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. “The treaty does provide for withdrawal if a state determines it’s in its supreme national interest to do so.” He also argued that the United States is bound by the treaty because Clinton signed it, even without full ratification.

The Bush administration has proposed undertaking a program to develop a new nuclear weapon — the Reliable Replacement Warhead — that might offer higher confidence in the absence of underground tests.

However, in the wake of congressional action to deny the Bush administration requests for RRW funds in fiscal year 2009, Chilton stopped short of wedding himself to that program (see GSN, July 10). He did reiterate more broadly his past support for renovating the U.S. arsenal with a new warhead that, like the RRW concept, would offer increased reliability, safety, security and maintainability compared to today’s weapons.

The development of a new warhead with such features, which the administration has said it could field without explosive testing, could ease reliability concerns down the road, Chilton suggested.

Asked if he would support the test ban agreement if Congress offered an “iron-clad” commitment to field the Reliable Replacement Warhead, Chilton stood his ground on the testing issue.

“I’m not a political person in that regard,” the general said. “However, I would never want to trade away our ability to make a decision to have to test, should we decide we need that. I wouldn’t do that as a negotiating [point] for funding support for something that’s as critical for the defense of the United States of America.”

Kimball took issue, though, with the Strategic Command leader’s dire warnings about degradation in the nuclear arsenal.

“I find it highly irresponsible for Gen. Chilton to be making the assertion that one or more types of nuclear weapons in the arsenal are headed for a catastrophic reliability failure,” he told Global Security Newswire. “There is no evidence that has been presented to the Congress in classified or unclassified form that backs up that assertion.”

Instead, Chilton has cited a vague “feeling” of uneasiness to justify a “huge investment” in modernizing the U.S. stockpile, according to the critic.

“That is not a sound basis upon which to make far-reaching policy decisions,” Kimball said.

Today, Chilton also countered critics who contend that the development of a new U.S. nuclear warhead could make it harder for Washington to limit the proliferation of atomic weapons around the world.

“We have reduced our deployed weapons from … 10,000 to [Moscow Treaty levels of] 1,700 to 2,200. Did that discourage Iran? Did that discourage North Korea? Did that discourage Pakistan?” Chilton asked. “Countries who want to develop nuclear weapons will do so for their own interests, independent of our activities to sustain our nuclear deterrent.”

Conversely, he said, were the reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal called into question, allies that come under Washington’s “umbrella” deterrent might decide to develop nuclear weapons of their own.

“Do you think if there became any doubt of the reliability or the maintainability or sustainability of the U.S. nuclear deterrent, do you think Japan and South Korea might take a different tack as to whether or not they want to field a nuclear weapon?” Chilton asked. “I think the answer is yes. I think failing to sustain our deterrent and failing to sustain our umbrella will encourage proliferation around the planet.”

Kimball debated Chilton’s assertion on this point, as well, noting that these Washington allies have actually pressed the United States to ratify the test ban treaty.

[View General Kevin P. Chilton's bio here.]

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

“ He also argued that the United States is bound by the treaty because Clinton signed it, even without full ratification."

Wow. So this guy supports the Imperial Presidency? Or he just has not read the Constitution lately?

Anonymous said...

My guess is he feels that way about Clinton, but not Bush. And I doubt very much that the Constitution is anything to him but some old, irrelevant curiosity of history.

Anonymous said...

“Do you think if there became any doubt of the reliability or the maintainability or sustainability of the U.S. nuclear deterrent, do you think Japan and South Korea might take a different tack as to whether or not they want to field a nuclear weapon?” Chilton asked. “I think the answer is yes. I think failing to sustain our deterrent and failing to sustain our umbrella will encourage proliferation around the planet.”


No, I don't. I think they would do as many other Nations do... call us scumbags and insist we protect them from the big bad wolf...just as they do now but without paying their share.

Anonymous said...

Chilton is right. For nearly 20 years, we've conducted the "experiment" of 1)dramatically downsizing our arsenal; 2) halting all production of nuclear weapons; 3) not introducing any new weapons into the stockpile; and 4)closing much of our production complex.

If you ask me, that's a pretty comprehensive set of signals to the rest of the world. By all the arguments of the various activists groups, this should be a huge boon to halting proliferation around the world. So, what happened in these last 20 years, after the unilateral US actions, above? Let's take score...

We saw 3 new nuclear powers openly emerge (India, Pakistan, and North Korea). To be fair, India probably tested and had nukes in the early 70s. We see Iran and Syria developing nukes, with the asistance of the AQK network, thank you Pakistan. And these are just the openly discovered programs, who knows what others are secretly working away (Taiwan, etc.????)

There's more. EVERY other declared nuclear power decided to upgrade its arsenal, including dramatic investments in modernizing the infrastructure in England, France, China, and most notably, Russia. In Russia, we saw the explict development of new nuclear weapons with new military capabilities - boasted about by the Russia President - and the continual upgrade of the Russian arsenal. China undertook a modernization program, including nuclear tests in the mid-90s and upgrades of their ICBM fleet.

On a positive note, we saw Libya give up its nuclear ambitions (though Qadafi himself said he was afraid he "was next" after Saddam in Iraq), we saw South Africa denuclearize (in the early 90s), and several former Soviet republics did return nukes to Russia (but not necessarily all the nuclear materials). How many of these actions were due to US disarmament? Hard to say, but probably very little.

For those that argue that US deployment of RRW would just goad others into proliferation or upgrading their arsenal, are you kidding? Other nations are merrily upgrading away, precisely during this period when we unilaterally halted almost all elements of the US nuclear weapon program.

Get real. Chilton is right. Countries develop and deploy nukes almost exclusively motivated by their own self-interest. US actions have little or nothing to do with this. In fact, it could be argued that Russia saw an opportunity in our neglect of weapons, and decided to intentionally go asymmetric to take advantage. See the Ilkaev interview earlier in this blog as a reference.

Finally, some common sense from a senior US nuclear weapons official.

Anonymous said...

Nuclear nonproliferation as a US policy, as a US practice, and as a field of philosophy, study and technical expertise in the US has totally failed. It is time to recognize that and to move on to the ever more important issue of managing a proliferating world, both politically and militarily if necessary. The speculation is that Israel will soon take out Iran's nuclear capabilities. I sincerely hope it is true, since it must be done, and no one in the west has the guts. Not all nuclear proliferators need be treated this way, but Iran is the test case for the resolve of the civilized world.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, but ole Bill would say r do anything for a piece of pussy

Anonymous said...

Nobody has ever advocated that testing be abandoned as an option. NO ONE. So it is hard to understand what all the hand wringing is about. It was primarily a political decision to halt testing but there was really no compelling technical reason to continue anyway. There still is no compelling reason to continue testing.

Chilton talks about testing as a way to maintain our deterrent. He doesn't know a thing about nuclear weapons.He should focus on the art of war and the let the scientists and engineers worry about the tools he needs to carry out that mission.

Anonymous said...

7/23/08 10:41 PM

You seem like you would be the kind of guy who would enjoy reading Curious George to the president at bed time.

Anonymous said...

"Other nations are merrily upgrading"

So we need to upgrade? Why would that be? Can't wait for the answer.

Anonymous said...

re: merrily upgrading.

The answer is plain. Many activists groups and liberals have argued that the upgrade of our arsenal would have the deleterious effect of provoking other nations to do the same.

The fact that other nations have upgraded ANYWAY refutes this argument on its face.

The motivation for our upgrades is equally clear. Current, cold-war designs are difficult to sustain. Improving safety and security, eliminating hazard materials, and introducing a design which CAN be built by today's complex is compelling and sensible. Add to this the improved margins in new designs (obtained by lessening yield/weight requirements), and you have something which enables a continued test moratorium.

I can't wait to hear your reasoning why we shouldn't take this course of action, the same that EVERY OTHER DECLARED NUCLEAR POWER has done, for very nearly the same reasons stated above.

Anonymous said...

" can't wait to hear your reasoning why we shouldn't take this course of action, the same that EVERY OTHER DECLARED NUCLEAR POWER has done, for very nearly the same reasons stated above.

7/27/08 4:22 PM"

They will never tell you their true reasoning. Some of these posts come from ex-LANL employees who simply hate LANL and the people in it.

Anonymous said...

The argument to upgrade is compelling. The notion that we have nothing more to learn from testing is ludicrous and uninformed. And, obviously there are people who advocate unilaterally abandoning, not just testing as an option, but ALL nukes. Some of those people are in government, so just calling them names is not a real strategy for changing their minds.

Attacking people who hold a differing opinion, rather than responding to their reasons, is childish but not uncommon at LANL. A common reaction when someone leaves the Lab is, "well, they weren't REALLY that good anyway. We don't need them." And the backstabbing proceeds and escalates, taking on a life of its own. It's a variation on the "LANL vs. Livermorons" competition, where Lab and sometimes Division or even Group loyalty is considered synonymous with patriotism. LANL employees acting like children in a sandbox undermines their arguments, and it inspires questions about their professional judgement.

Anonymous said...

10:58 am: "LANL employees acting like children in a sandbox undermines their arguments, and it inspires questions about their professional judgement."

If the "acting" you refer to is as reflected on this blog, then your point is somewhat blunted by the fact that you don't know who these bloggers actually are. It's a pretty large inference to think that the ones who exhibit the attitudes you speak of are all, or even mainly, LANL employees.