Jan 6, 2009

Obama’s Nuclear Challenge

Robert S. Dudney
Editor in Chief, Air Force Magazine

The new commander in chief will find at least four serious threats to the deterrent.

Deterrence—the practice of relying on doomsday weapons to prevent wars—has often been threatened by arms control advocates and other critics. Few, though, ever guessed deterrence might some day be undone by a simple lack of reliable weapons.

Indeed, the Air Force and Navy have in the past fielded 14,000 operational warheads and bombs. A vast nuclear industrial complex churned out 3,000 nuclear charges every year. Thousands of top engineers and physicists regularly produced new designs. Real-world tests advertised the credibility of these weapons.

Today, though, such powers are gone. USAF Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, head of US Strategic Command, told AFA’s Global Warfare Symposium in Los Angeles that they are "many years in the rearview mirror." In a later speech, he said US policy is "leading toward nuclear disarmament."

The upshot, warned Adm. Michael G. Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is uncertainty that invites miscalculation by US foes. "Deterrence then becomes anything but," said Mullen.

For President-elect Barack Obama, set to enter office Jan. 20, this poses a contentious problem. In the Presidential campaign, Obama declared sharp opposition to building new nuclear weapons. However, he also vowed to maintain the US deterrent so long as other nations possessed nuclear arsenals.

The two pledges may be difficult to reconcile. The new commander in chief, as he surveys the nation’s strategic nuclear situation, will find at least four serious threats to the deterrent.

Dwindling numbers.
The US warhead stockpile has undergone a steep decline. Under the so-called Moscow Treaty, signed in 2002, the US committed itself to keeping no more than 2,200 and perhaps as few as 1,700 deployed warheads and bombs. The US plans to achieve this goal in 2010, two years early. When it does, says Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, the stockpile will be 75 percent smaller than its Cold War version. Experts warn that the small size of the force would magnify the danger posed by any unexpected technical problem.

Rising weapon age. US officials insist today’s stockpile is safe and reliable. "The problem," says Gates, "is the long-term prognosis—which I would characterize as bleak." Today’s warheads are old. In the US, no one has designed a totally new weapon since the 1980s. No one has built one since the early 1990s. No one has tested a weapon since 1992. US weapons were designed for a life of about 15 years, but they all have lasted at least 20 years. Now, sensitive parts are eroding. As nuclear material decays, the US database grows increasingly dated. At some point, confidence in their reliability wanes, and safety declines.

Industrial decline. With weapon-making in the doldrums for 20 years, nuclear infrastructure—the capability to sustain nuclear weapons—has all but disappeared. Chilton, speaking to the Wall Street Journal, declared that the US "has no nuclear weapon production capacity" and can only "produce a handful of weapons in a laboratory." In a Sept. 15 speech, Sen. John L. Kyl (R-Ariz.) said the nuclear network’s formerly robust laboratories and plants can refurbish, at best, only about 10 weapons per year and are, in some cases, "simply falling down from age." Kyl says this amounts to a national "emergency."

Lost expertise. In the nuclear field, the US has suffered a serious brain drain, losing most of its veteran weapon designers. National labs and weapons manufacturing facilities have shed thousands of workers. Since the mid-1990s, the National Nuclear Security Administration has lost more than a quarter of its force. Half of its lab scientists exceed the age of 50. Chilton told Congress last spring, "The last nuclear design engineer to participate in the development and testing of a new nuclear weapon is scheduled to retire in the next five years."

While most official concern focuses on warheads, not launch vehicles, Gates also notes DOD has deactivated many of its best weapons—the Peacekeeper ICBM, half of the Minuteman ICBM force, many Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines. Today’s B-52s, mainstays of the bomber force, date to the early 1960s.

The Pentagon’s proposed solution is the so-called Reliable Replacement Warhead, the first new and comprehensive redesign of a nuclear weapon since the Cold War. It is intended to provide a modern, safer warhead for Navy missiles before the end of this decade.

The RRW would actually replace existing warheads, but introduce no new capabilities. It would offer the considerable benefit of reviving at least a critical portion of the weapons complex.

Congress, however, is not sold on the program, largely out of arms control concerns and anti-nuclear sentiment. In Chilton’s view, lawmakers this fall effectively killed the RRW program, refusing to fund a continuing study of its manufacture.

Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic weapons, said the program was in a "holding pattern" until Obama’s officials could review the matter. She said a planned Nuclear Posture Review, the first since 2002, will be expected to settle key questions about whether new warhead work is needed.

This approach overlooks a significant reality, noted by Gates in an Oct. 28 speech to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. He pointed out that of the seven declared nuclear powers in the world, all but one have ambitious programs of nuclear weapon modernization or sustainment. The single holdout: the United States.

Deterrence, a bleak and unloved aspect of modern geopolitics, never will be popular. Nuclear weapons are too dangerous, and the prospect of their use too ugly, for anyone to ever warmly embrace it. It has, however, been successful. It would be a mistake to abandon deterrence until we can replace it with something better.

Even worse would be to lose it through sheer neglect. That danger still seems remote. But it is getting closer.


Anonymous said...

USAF Gen. Kevin P. Chilton... said US policy is "leading toward nuclear disarmament." (News)

I have a solution to this serious problem. Let's induce more layoffs at our NNSA weapons research labs. That should fix it.

Anonymous said...

USAF Gen. Kevin P. Chilton... said US policy is "leading toward nuclear disarmament."

The framers of the constitution made sure that the military was always under civilian control.Once again, we are treated to their remarkable foresight and downright brilliance.

If the general would take the time to review history he would find that the closest this country ever came to nuclear disarmament was during the Reagan administration. The testing moratorium began with Bush #1. Even with full control of both branches of government Bush #2 failed to resume testing nor resume development of new nuclear weapons. Still there exists a conservative misperception that asserts it is a liberal idea to dump nukes. Incredible.

Anonymous said...

The real threat, in my opinion, is that there seems to be a dangerous assumption that reducing our weapons or not having them ready to fire will compel other nations to do likewise. That seems to be a foolish gamble - to make assumptions about unpredictable, unstable or unknown leaders and to leave our nation in a vulnerable position that will be slow or unable to respond to threats.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure they can put a call into Mikey and count on his steady hand, cool scientific perspective, detailed knowledge, America first instinct and...oh, wait, that was Bradbury. Well, they can call Mike and ask him about the commute back and forth to Livermore.

Anonymous said...

Certain politicians appear to want unilateral disarmament of the strategic defenses of the United States. They can't say this overtly, as it would make them look like traitors. Instead, they'll use stealthy covert methods to slowly starve the nuclear weapons complex of future funding. This way there will be no obvious fingerprints if the bluff is called by our enemies.

Anonymous said...

"Certain politicians appear to want unilateral disarmament of the strategic defenses of the United States."

We're about there. Tell me again how many new pits LANL can produce per year?

Frank Young said...

With a decade or so of notice and not too much attention paid to worker safety, don't quote me but I think I'm within an order of magnitude, ten pits.

Anonymous said...

Five to ten pits per year, that's all LANL will likely be producing as we move forward. It will mostly be for show.

Congress has no intentions of letting the US weapons complex thrive. It will be one of the first items thrown onto the chopping block when the budget cuts begin.

Anonymous said...

I suspect the $400 million weapons budget cut for LANL that was held off by the CR this year may be executed by early next year.

The new Administration is going to be looking for some 'show piece' cuts to placate the fiscal conservatives in both parties. The weapons budget may be offered up in response to this political need, since it has had poor support from both parties and the New Mexico delegation has been seriously weakened.

LANS program managers should be working overtime to make sure that any drastic cuts to the weapons budget is mitigated by increases in the other budgets at the lab (i.e., non-proliferation, WFOs, security, energy, etc.). So far, I've seen no real signs that this is happening.

Anonymous said...

LANS/Bechtel only gives lip service to the idea of lab project diversification.

Why should they care? It's not as if lack of project diversification will hurt their 20% executive bonus or LANL's performance score with NNSA.

Besides, project diversification could upset some of the empires that have been so carefully constructed by many upper level managers.