Nov 23, 2008

Sounding the Nuclear Alarm

The U.S. will not have a credible arsenal unless Washington acts soon to replace aging warheads.

By MELANIE KIRKPATRICK, The Wall Street Journal

New York

Gen. Kevin Chilton, a former command astronaut, is no stranger to cutting-edge technology. But these days the man responsible for the command and control of U.S. nuclear forces finds himself talking more often about '57 Chevys than the space shuttle. On a recent visit to The Wall Street Journal he wheeled out the Chevy analogy to describe the nation's aging arsenal of nuclear warheads. The message he's carrying to the Pentagon, Capitol Hill, the press and anyone else who will listen is: Modernize, modernize, modernize.

Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. nuclear weapons program has suffered from neglect. Warheads are old. There's been no new warhead design since the 1980s, and the last time one was tested was 1992, when the U.S. unilaterally stopped testing. Gen. Chilton, who heads U.S. Strategic Command, has been sounding the alarm, as has Defense Secretary Robert Gates. So far few seem to be listening.

The U.S. is alone among the five declared nuclear nations in not modernizing its arsenal. The U.K. and France are both doing so. Ditto China and Russia. "We're the only ones who aren't," Gen. Chilton says. Congress has refused to fund the Department of Energy's Reliable Replacement Warhead program beyond the concept stage and this year it cut funding even for that.

Gen. Chilton stresses that StratCom is "very prepared right now to conduct our nuclear deterrent mission" -- a point he takes pains to repeat more than once. But the words "right now" are carefully chosen too, and the general also conveys a sense of urgency. "We're at a point where we need to make some very hard choices and decisions," he says. These need to be "based on good studies that would tell us how we would modernize this force for the future to incorporate 21st century requirements, which I believe are different than in the Cold War."

"We've done a pretty good job of maintaining our delivery platforms," the general says, by which he means submarines, intercontinental ballistic missiles and intercontinental bombers. But nuclear warheads are a different story. They are Cold War legacies, he says, "designed for about a 15- to 20-year life." That worked fine back when "we had a very robust infrastructure . . . that replenished those families of weapons at regular intervals." Now, however, "they're all older than 20 years . . . . The analogy would be trying to extend the life of your '57 Chevrolet into the 21st century."

Gen. Chilton pulls out a prop to illustrate his point: a glass bulb about two inches high. "This is a component of a B-61" nuclear warhead, he says. It was in "one of our gravity weapons" -- a weapon from the 1950s and '60s that is still in the U.S. arsenal. He pauses to look around the Journal's conference table. "I remember what these things were for. I bet you don't. It's a vacuum tube. My father used to take these out of the television set in the 1950s and '60s down to the local supermarket to test them and replace them."

And here comes the punch line: "This is the technology that we have . . . today." The technology in the weapons the U.S. relies on for its nuclear deterrent dates back to before many of the people in the room were born.

The general then pulls out another prop: a circuit board that he holds in the palm of his hand. "Compare that to this," he says, pointing to the vacuum tube. "That's just a tiny, little chip on this" circuit board. But replacing the vacuum tube with a chip isn't going to happen anytime soon. The Department of Energy can't even study how to do so since Congress has not appropriated the money for its Reliable Replacement Warhead program.

It ought to go without saying, but the general says it anyway: His first priority for nuclear weapons is reliability. "The deterrent isn't useful if it's not believable, and to be believable you got to have tremendous, complete confidence that your stockpile will work. . . . We have that today. Let me be clear: We have that. We've monitored the stockpile, made adjustments as necessary, but, again, we're on the path of sustaining your '57 Chevrolet."

Security is another priority -- especially keeping nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists. This, he says, is another vital reason to modernize weapons that were designed and built in another era.

"In the Cold War you didn't worry about the Soviets coming over here and stealing one of our weapons. They had plenty of their own. . . . But now you worry about these things."

It's possible to design a terrorist-proof nuke, the general says. "We have the capability to design into these weapons today systems that, should they fall into wrong hands -- [should] someone either attempt to detonate them or open them up to take the material out -- that they would become not only nonfunctional, but the material inside would become unusable."

The general stresses the need to "revitalize" the infrastructure for producing nuclear weapons. The U.S. hasn't built a nuclear weapon in more than two decades and the manufacturing infrastructure has disappeared. The U.S. today "has no nuclear weapon production capacity," he says flatly. "We can produce a handful of weapons in a laboratory but we've taken down the manufacturing capability." At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. produced 3,000 weapons a year.

Under the Moscow Treaty, signed in 2002, the U.S. has committed to reducing its strategic nuclear arsenal by two-thirds -- to between 1,700 and 2,200 deployed nuclear weapons from about 10,000 at the height of the Cold War. "Deployed means they're either on top of an ICBM, on top of a submarine, or in a bunker on the base where the aircraft are located," Gen. Chilton says. "We're supposed to be down to those numbers by 2012, but we're on a glide path to actually get down to those numbers by the end of next year."

But these already-old weapons aren't going to last forever, and part of the general's job is to prepare for their refurbishing or replacement. "Think about what it's going to take to recapitalize or replace those 2,000 weapons over a period of time. . . . If you could do 10 a year, it takes you 200 years. If you build an infrastructure that would allow you to do 100 a year, then you could envision recapitalizing that over a 20-year-period."

There's also the issue of human capital, which is graying. It's "every bit as important as the aging of the weapon systems," the general says. "The last individual to have worked on an actual nuclear test in this country, the last scientist or engineer, will have retired or passed on in the next five years." The younger generation has no practical experience with designing or building nuclear warheads.

Generals don't talk politics, and the closest Gen. Chilton gets to the subject is to say that he had spoken to no one from either of the campaigns in the recent presidential election. It's a fair bet, though, that Barack Obama's comments on the campaign trail will not have escaped his notice. The president-elect likes to talk about a nuclear-free world and has said, "I will not authorize the development of new nuclear weapons." He has not weighed in on the Reliable Replacement Warhead program.

Gen. Chilton says the modernization of U.S. nuclear weapons is "an important issue for the next administration in their first year." At the very least, he says, the U.S. needs to "go out and do those studies" on design, cost and implementation. As for his own role: "You've got to talk about it. You can't just one day show up and say we have a problem."

Ms. Kirkpatrick is a deputy editor of the Journal's editorial page.

[General Kevin P. Chilton has been added as a keynote speaker at the First Annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit next week in Washington, DC.]


Anonymous said...

Frank, thanks for forwarding my post.

Frank Young said...

Thanks for sending it. I would have missed it.

Anonymous said...

"Security is another priority -- especially keeping nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists. This, he says, is another vital reason to modernize weapons that were designed and built in another era."

I agree and hope we can move past the Reliability argument

Anonymous said...

Nobody is listening in Congress. They plan on walloping LANL's FY10 weapons budget to the tune of about $300 million, maybe even more now that the Democrats have full control of Washington.

Whether we realize it or not, we are unilaterally disarming the strategic defense of this country. 'Nuff said.

Anonymous said...

Hey, don't knock vacuum tubes. Some of the most expensive audio equipment being sold is based on the used of those glowing orbs. Stuff like this Alumrocktech $85,000 monster amp with lethal voltages:

Old Mullard tubes produced back in the mid-50's in the UK now go for about $400 per tube when you can find them:

It's back to the future. Our nukes don't have old parts. They have high demand parts that are "well seasoned". They probably sound terrific when they go BOOM!

Frank Young said...

12:32 PM,
You might enjoy this video on vacuum tube fabrication. I think it's the same guy who used to make the NG parts for Sandia.

Anonymous said...

That tube being used in the B-61 might actually be the best device for the job at hand. There are still some applications in which a vacuum tube serves well. They have better resistant to the detrimental effects of nuclear blast EMI/radiation than modern day semiconductors.

Also, it's important to remember that the B-61 gravity bomb is one of the oldest devices in the US arsenal. The US currently places most of it's reliance on the newer designs: W77, W78, and W88s. It's unlikely the Air Force would ever have to go back to the days of dropping a nuke gravity bomb out a bomb-bay door. We would use MIRV ICBM missiles and cruise missiles to do the job right.

Anonymous said...

Gen. Chilton is engaging in fear mongering. It's cheesy stuff like his '57 Chevy analogy and his vacuum tube stunts that hurt the real and solid arguments for modernizing our US nuclear complex. Does he think the members of Congress are all idiots? Oh, wait a minute... never mind.

Proceed, General!

Anonymous said...

The new Nov. 25, 2008 issue of the Abraham Energy Report -- published by former DOE Secretary Spencer Abraham -- examines a dozen potential candidates being talked about by industry and Washington insiders as Secretary of Energy in the Obama administration. Listed in alphabetical order below:

- Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), Senate Energy Committee Chairman
- Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), House Energy Subcommittee Chairman
- Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas), Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman
- Former Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) and former House Democratic Leader
- Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.)
- Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), House Energy Committee member and co-author of Apollo's Fire: Igniting America's Clean Energy Economy.
- Kathleen McGinty, former Pennsylvania Secretary of Environmental Protection, former Clinton Administration CEQ Chairperson and close advisor to Al Gore
- Ernest Moniz, Director of MIT Energy Initiative and former Clinton Administration Under Secretary of Energy
- Former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), Co-Chair of Ted Turner's Nuclear Threat Initiative
- Gov. Ed Rendell (D-Pa.)
- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R-Calif.)
- Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D-Kan.)

A more detailed summary of each individual is at

Anonymous said...

11/25/08 3:06 PM

I CS with:

Defense Secretary Gates to Keep Job Under Obama
Gates will hold onto the top Pentagon job at least the first year of the Obama administration.
Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Defense Secretary Robert Gates will keep the top Pentagon job for at least the first year of the Obama administration, FOX News has learned.

There was very strong support for Gates among Democrats, said one Democratic source in the Senate whose boss was intimately involved in bringing Obama and Gates together to see if they were compatible.

Obama´s decision to keep Gates follows speculation, encouraged before the election by Obama´s aides, that Gates would stay on for an interim period.

A registered independent, Gates has served various Republican administrations, President Bush nominated Gates to replace Donald Rumsfeld after the 2006 midterm elections, when the war in Iraq was descending into chaos and became a political liability for Republicans.

Gates will continue to preside over two U.S. wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, that Bush launched as part of the larger war on terror.

There are several issues on which Gates and Obama disagree, including missile defense. Gates supports placing a missile defense system in Europe, but Obama already has suggested that he won´t sign off on it untill the technology has been proven capable.

A formal announcement is expected immediately after the Thanksgiving holiday weekend as part of an unveiling of the new national security team, which is expected to include Sen. Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State; Marine Gen. [ret.] Jim Jones as national security adviser, Admiral [ret.] Dennis Blair as director of national intelligence and Susan Rice as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.


Anonymous said...

Why would there be a vacuum tube in the B-61, that could be replaced by a circuit board? Sounds like B.S.

Anonymous said...

General, I'm sure Mikey has your back. Relax, dude.

Anonymous said...

Gen. Chilton gave a good talk on this subject. The DOD's Chiles Report sounded the alarm about serious staffing problems at the NNSA labs. DOD Sec. Bob Gates recent concerns over US nuclear readiness are also something to seriously ponder.

Regardless of all this, Obama and the Democratic Congress will ignore the experts and make big cuts to the NNSA weapon budgets. It doesn't matter who the next chief is for DOE.

No one left in power is paying attention to these experts and Sen. Dominici, the lab's perennial savior, has left the auditorium.

What once was is almost gone and it's not coming back anytime soon.

Anonymous said...

Obama's Chief of Staff is introduced...

Anonymous said...

Why would there be a vacuum tube in the B-61, that could be replaced by a circuit board? Sounds like B.S.

NOT BS at all. The military can't just
swap out a vacuum tube for a circuit
board just because they feel like it.

The weapons labs have to make the changes.
However, when your Congress forbids the
labs from doing anything - because they
"think" [ term used loosely ] that it
would be an entree to resumption of
nuclear testing - the status quo prevails
and we have vacuum tubes in our B-61s.

Anonymous said...

Regardless of all this, Obama and the Democratic Congress will ignore the experts and make big cuts to the NNSA weapon budgets. It doesn't matter who the next chief is for DOE.

Yes - it's a little like the CEO of an
airline ignoring the airliner mechanics
and the chief of maintenance.

"We don't need to inspect / service / and
replace our aging airliners - we know that they are safe - Boeing certified them as safe when they left the factory a quarter century ago. Why do we need to replace our aging airliners?"

The public would scream bloody murder if an airline CEO said that. They would rightfully question this negligence of the passsenger's safety.

However, what applies to airliners; does not apply to nuclear weapons; even though both are machines.

Anonymous said...

Nice analogy, 8:31 AM. I like that one much better than the '57 Chevy or the Mustang in a garage analogy:

OK, America, time to hop aboard your discount 'NNSA Airways' jet.

Sorry that we didn't have time to clean this filthy jet before your flight. We are pleased to announce that you can purchase water for $50 per bottle and restroom usage is $5 per visit.

We'll arrive at our destination a little late today because of strong headwinds coming from the blowhards out of Washington. In fact, we may not even arrive at all. Parachutes are under your seats.

Enjoy your flight!

Anonymous said...

First and foremost, the US will not have a long-term stockpile unless credible, capable brains are in place to produce, verify and maintain it.

The DOE is doing it's best to destroy the brain trust that makes these possible.

Anonymous said...

"...They probably sound terrific when they go BOOM!..."

Soom they won't go boom; like an old tube, they will just glow.

for a moment

until our adversaries, modern, well-tested warhead impacts

This is a freak show of government incompetence that dwarfs the lack of financial oversight on the banking sector.

Anonymous said...

"....General, I'm sure Mikey has your back. Relax, dude...."

Nah. It's admirals Nanos, D'Agostino, Watkins and Richardson, who are eyeing his backside....

Time for another cowboy, butthead soiree.


Anonymous said...

Tom D'Agostino is no Navy Admiral. He couldn't cut that rank. He's just a former Navy Captain with a BS degree in physical science and not much more.

Only the best and brightest at NNSA!