Nuclear Déjà Vu At Carnegie

By Ivan Oelrich and Hans M. Kristensen

Only one week before Barack Obama is expected to win the presidential election, Defense Secretary Robert Gates made one last pitch for the Bush administration’s nuclear policy during a speech Tuesday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

What is the opposite of visionary?  Whatever, that’s the word that best describes Mr. Gates’s speech.  Had it been delivered in the mid-1990s it would not have sounded out of place. The theme was that the world is the way the world is and, not only is there little to be done about changing the world, our response pretty much has to be more of the same.

Granted, Gates’s job is to implement nuclear policy not change it but, at a time when Russia is rattling its nuclear sabers, China is modernizing its forces, some regional states either have already acquired or are pursuing nuclear weapons, and yet inspired visions of a world free of nuclear weapons are entering the political mainstream, we had hoped for some new ideas. Rather than articulating ways to turn things around, Gates’ core message seemed to be to “hedge” and hunker down for the long haul. And, while his arguments are clearer than most, this speech is yet another example of faulty logic and sloppy definitions justifying unjustifiable nuclear weapons.

They Do It So We Must Do It Too

Reductions cannot go on forever, Secretary Gates argues because there is still a mission for nuclear weapons. Using language from the Clinton Administration, he says we can reduce our arsenal but we must also “hedge” against unexpected threats. He said, “Rising and resurgent powers, rogue nations pursuing nuclear weapons, proliferation of international terrorism, all demand that we preserve this hedge. There is no way to ignore efforts by rogue states such as North Korea and Iran to develop and deploy nuclear weapons or Russian or Chinese strategic modernization programs.”

While the potential threats he lists are real and must be addressed, how do nuclear weapons address these threats? And even if there were some nuclear component to our responses, the nature of those responses would be so varied that lumping these threats together muddles the issue. A nuclear response to international terrorism? Even if, for example, al Qaeda used a nuclear weapon to attack an American city, what target would we strike back at with a nuclear weapon? The implicit argument of symmetry is unsustainable. Just as we don’t respond to roadside bombs with our own roadside bombs, nor would we respond to chemical attack with chemical weapons or biological attack with biological weapons. We might respond to nuclear attack with nuclear weapons but we should not allow this to be an unstated assumption. The reason rogue nations, let’s say Iran and North Korea, are developing nuclear weapons is not to counter our nuclear weapons but as a counter to our overwhelming conventional capability. They certainly are not making the mistake of implicitly assuming symmetry.

The near universal logical sleight of hand is to make some argument for nuclear weapons, let’s say we need them because North Korea has them, and then, when people nod in agreement that we need nuclear weapons, let slip in the assumption that this implies we need the nuclear arsenal the administration wants. Not so fast. If North Korea has one, perhaps we need two, but that does not mean we need two thousand.

It helps to clarify the typically foggy nuke-think if we remove Russia and China from the picture and ask whether the United States could justify anything near its currently planned nuclear arsenal only to deter and defeat rogue states and terrorists. Of course not. And perhaps we don’t need nuclear weapons for regional scenarios at all, given our overwhelming conventional capabilities. So those odds and ends are thrown into the pot just to scare, not to explain, and not because there is any well thought out strategy for how nuclear weapons are going to stop a terrorist attack on an American city, or why it be an appropriate response to a regional state that doesn’t have the capability to threaten the survival of the United States.

Russia is a very different case: Russian long-range nuclear forces are the only things in the world today that could destroy us as a nation and society, just as we could destroy them. While relations with Russia are not friendly, no conceivable difference between the United States and Russia justifies this mutual hostage relationship. This pointless threat to our very existence persists because of a failure of imagination typified by this speech. In this case, it is the nuclear weapons that are creating the threat, not protecting us from it.

That Ole Warhead Production Fever

Whatever the supposed justification of nuclear weapons, the primary purpose of the Secretary’s speech seemed to be to promote the Reliable Replacement Warhead or RRW but again, his argument rests on hidden (and unjustified) assumptions and, at times, misstatements of fact. The basic premise is that, without testing, we are slowly but certainly losing confidence in the reliability of our nuclear arsenal. He said, “With every adjustment, we move farther away from the original design that was successfully tested when the weapons was first fielded.”

We do? The implication is that we have no other choice, what we could do in 1990 we simply can’t reproduce today, like handing a modern-day native American a hunk of flint and asking him to chip out an arrowhead.  Why should this be?  With a budget of billions of dollars, we can’t duplicate parts that we could make twenty years ago?  We can spend billions on the National Ignition Facility to create the world’s most powerful laser but we can’t reproduce a 1980s O-ring? The problem the Secretary describes is certainly possible and something we have to be alert to but it isn’t inevitable; we can maintain weapons within design margins as long as we want and in the past—pre-RRW—that was precisely the plan. And parts of the weapon that are not the nuclear core of the bomb can be improved and modernized and tested as much as we want.

But Mr. Gates claims that we are slowly and helplessly drifting, “So the information on which we base our annual certification of the stockpile grows increasing dated and incomplete.” This implies the Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP) has failed. We believe the Secretary is wrong. Everyone we have talked to who is familiar with the enormous effort that has gone into the SSP says that our understanding of nuclear weapons today is substantially greater than it was the day after our last nuclear test. Our knowledge of the aging of nuclear warheads is increasing faster than the warheads are aging.  Early uncertainties and concerns about stability, for example, of the plutonium parts of the weapon have been resolved and the parts have been shown to be stable for many decades, if not a century or more. Our computer models are dramatically and significantly more detailed and sophisticated. In fact, one weapon designer has told us that, given a fixed budget, the best investment of your next dollar would never be in a nuclear test but in more inspections, more computer simulations, more replacement of non-nuclear components, more material tests, more frequent tritium replenishment, and so forth.

How Many Times Does Congress Have to Say No?

Every time the Pentagon has proposed a new nuclear warhead since the end of the Cold War, Congress has refused to fund it. Now that the RRW appears to have been whacked, what will the next proposal for a new warhead look like?

Aside from the question of the reliability of current warheads, Mr. Gates argues that we still need an RRW because we need to modernize. The British, French, Russians, and Chinese are modernizing so we must too, obviously. Why? Nuclear weapons are a mature technology. There is no new science in nuclear weapons. They are powerful, efficient explosives. They are intended to blow up things and they have specific missions, which typically involve blowing up specific things.  If they can accomplish these missions, what is the problem? If the technology, even the weapons, is decades, even centuries old, if they work then they work. Nuclear weapons are not fighter planes or tanks or submarines, duking it out on a battlefield with the enemy’s opposite number, so our nuclear weapons should be evaluated with regard to the targets they are expected to destroy, not anyone else’s nuclear weapons. They can destroy the targets. We’re done.

The important factor is not the warhead but the delivery vehicle that is intended to bring the warhead to the target. And the reason the United States is not producing new nuclear weapons while Russia and China do is not because they can and we can’t, or they’re ahead and we’re behind, as the Secretary indicated. Rather, the United States has not been producing new nuclear weapons because it didn’t have to – the existing ones are more than adequate – and because not producing has been seen as much more important to U.S. foreign policy objectives. And if Russian and Chinese warhead production is a problem, why not propose how to influence them to change rather than advocating that we repeat their mistake?

The final argument for the RRW is that the US must maintain a nuclear production industry and the RRW is grist for that mill. But many of the RRW technologies and capabilities were developed by the very SSP that Gates now implies is failing. Six years ago – before they came up with RRW after having failed to get permission to build the Precision Low-Yield Weapon Design (PLYWD) and the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP) – the National Nuclear Security Administration assured Congress: “We believe the life extension programs authorized by the Nuclear Weapons Council for the B61, W80, and the W76 will sufficiently exercise the design, production and certification capabilities of the weapons complex” (emphasis added). That assurance was given after the Foster Panel recommended, “developing new designs of robust, alternative warheads.” Now the claim suddenly is that the life extension programs do not sufficiently exercise the weapons complex. At least get the argument straight.

What’s Around the Corner?

We would be more sympathetic to the production argument if the fundamental minimal needs of the nuclear production industry were better thought out and justified, but what we see is an effort to maintain a slimmed down version of what we have without thinking through what we need. In fact, if maintaining the production industry is the core objective, we would have expected the administration to ask for an RRW design that doesn’t need a complex production industry, one that is extremely simple, perhaps using uranium rather than plutonium, perhaps a clunky design but one sure to work that does not require any sophisticated skills that must be maintained in standby in perpetuity.

We’re concerned that in the end Congress will accept a beefed-up life extension program – they seem to have already found a name for it: Advanced Certification Program – that will relax the restrictions for what modifications can be made to existing warheads in order to incorporate as much as the RRW concept as possible and add new capabilities if necessary. Unless the next president significantly changes the nuclear guidance for what the Pentagon is required to plan for, RRW-like proposals will likely continue to make it harder to create a national consensus on the future role of nuclear weapons. And Barack Obama has not explicitly rejected the RRW, but said he does “not support a premature decision to produce the RRW” and “will not authorize the development of new nuclear weapons and related capabilities.” Enhanced life-extended warheads could fit within such a policy.

In the end, justifying the nuclear weapons production industry is shaky because the justification for the weapons themselves is shaky, resting on assertion and Cold War momentum – as Gates’ speech illustrated – more than on rigorous assessments of missions and the security of the nation.

The Secretary’s speech was a disappointing missed opportunity.  We are a bit perplexed about why he gave it and gave it now. Perhaps he is putting down a marker for a debate he expects in the next administration and Congress. We welcome that debate because we believe that, with careful attention to definition and no hidden assumptions, the arguments for nuclear weapons fade away.


11 Responses to “Nuclear Déjà Vu At Carnegie”

  1. yousaf October 31, 2008 at 1:56 pm #

    [Edited] On p. 7 of the transcript he says “To be blunt, there is absolutely no way we can maintain a credible deterrent and reduce the number of weapons in our stockpile without either resorting to testing our stockpile or pursuing a modernization program.”

    Besides being false, this amounts to nuclear blackmail: he’s saying that we can only get CTBT if we buy RRW! Wrong — the more sensible path is to ratify the CTBT and forget about RRW. I think we need to be wary of this false linkage.

    In any case, before they start talking of the reliability of the warheads, perhaps the USG ought to get more reliable duct tape for the stockpile: story.

  2. Steve Ward November 3, 2008 at 5:13 am #

    I agree completely. Senator Obama is poised to win the election. So who does Gates think he is? Doesn’t he know that he and his outdated and dangerous ideas about nuclear weapons are about to be swept away by the Coming Change, along with the rest of the Bush administration? The arrogance and audacity that he displays in the face of the inevitable is absolutely appalling. The fact that he is the sitting Secretary of Defense and has a lifetime of experience in these issues is irrelevant, because he knows full well that Change is Coming. And when it does, he and his cynical realism will be irrelevant. The world will no longer be filled with nuclear weapons and fear, but with Hope. In such a world, there will be no place for nuclear weapons. If Secretary Gates had any decency, he would stop giving these foolish speeches and simply wait in his office until President Obama’s replacement arrives.

    Reply: I normally delete comments that are more ideology than debate, but decided to respond to your comment because I think it represents an approach to debating nuclear policy that is both wrong and counterproductive. It’s not about who’s the good guy and who’s the bad guy but what the policy is.

    It is precisely because of Mr. Gates’s experience in these issues that his speech was disappointing, but also why it was not irrelevant. His “realism” – or parts of it – is shared by many insiders (although fewer than before) who will weigh in heavily on the nuclear policy Barack Obama – if elected – will attempt to implement.

    That policy may seem very different from that of the Bush administration, but it is also similar to that of the Clinton administration: “keep our commitment under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty;” try to persuade the Senate to ratify the CTBT (not that Clinton tried to do that); try to get Russian agreement to “take U.S. and Russian ballistic missiles off hair-trigger alert” and “extend essential monitoring and verification provisions of START I;” and “lead a global effort to negotiate a verifiable treaty ending the production of fissile materials for weapons purposes….” Barack Obama’s pledge to “immediately stand down all nuclear forces to be reduced under the Moscow Treaty” sounds good but rings hollow because that is scheduled to happen in 2010 anyway.

    Obama has pledged to reinstate nuclear disarmament as a long-term goal for U.S. policy, something most administrations before George W. Bush have shared. But Obama has also clearly stated that his administration “will not pursue unilateral disarmament. As long as nuclear weapons exist, we’ll retain a strong nuclear deterrent.” Although there are many cuts and changes that could and should be made unilaterally to jump-start the process, the second part of the pledge tends to mean a nuclear posture second to none that perpetuates the importance of nuclear weapons and endless modernization. How to break that cycle?

    On nuclear warhead production, Obama has stated that he does “not support a premature decision to produce the RRW,” a vague pledge that leaves the door open to RRW-like production. He has also stated that he “will not authorize the development of new nuclear weapons and related capabilities,” a better formulation, but one that would continue the wrangling over what constitutes “new.” Under this policy, the United States could resume industrial-scale production of RRW-like warheads as long as they are not entirely “new” warheads with entirely “new” capabilities and provided the production does not increase the size of the arsenal.

    On the question of the role of nuclear weapons, Obama has not said anything about how he sees the role of nuclear weapons toward Russia or China even thought those two countries are likely the two most important drivers for U.S. nuclear policy. The Bush administration said Russia was not an enemy and removed the country as an immediate contingency for nuclear planning. How does Obama plan to move that ball forward, especially considering Russia’s recent nuclear chest-beating? On China, the Clinton administration ordered the military to broaden the list of facilities to be targeted with nuclear weapons, and the Bush administration followed up by deploying the Trident II SLBM in the Pacific, shifting the focus of the SSBN fleet to the Pacific, and forward-deploying B-2 and B-52 bombers to Guam. Does Obama plan to continue that trend or what is his vision for nuclear relations with China?

    On Iran, Obama has wisely said that diplomacy and sanctions should be the primary means to prevent that country from building nuclear weapons, but also repeated that “we should take no option, including military action, off the table….” The formulation “no option” also leaves the option open to use nuclear weapons against Iran, an option that is politically impossible and militarily unnecessary, and which he therefore should and could take off the table with no loss to U.S. national security or ability to act. Whether it is indeed necessary to maintain nuclear strike options against regional states that cannot threaten the existence of the United States is an important question that Obama will have to tackle if he wishes to reduce the role of nuclear weapons and move the world toward disarmament.

    Granted, we’re in an election campaign, and what candidates promise and end up doing as presidents are not necessarily the same. Many people are focused on how low Obama might reduce the number of nuclear weapons; I’m more interested in what the role of the remaining weapons will be. HK

  3. goliath November 5, 2008 at 9:26 pm #

    I found Mr. Gates following reply in a Newsweek interview very amusing. I wonder which are those 30 countries which will be ready to develop nuclear weapons if US reduces its arsenal !!

    “Newsweek: How do you respond to those who say the United States should take the lead against nuclear proliferation by drastically reducing its own arsenal?

    Gates: The reality is that there are probably two dozen, perhaps 30, countries out there that would seriously consider their own nuclear deterrent if they couldn’t rely on ours. And this is something that I think a lot of people overlook in terms of the importance of keeping our own nuclear deterrent modern, keeping it reliable, keeping it safe.”

    Reply: Gates is setting up a strawman. The “extended deterrence” he refers to is often used intermittently by opponents of nuclear disarmament as either the big “boogieman” or the big “nonproliferator,” depending on the circumstances. The “perhaps 30″ countries he’s referring to are:

    NATO (24): Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Czech Republic, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey.
    ANZUS (2): Australia, New Zealand.
    Northeast Asia (2): Japan, South Korea, Taiwan (?).

    Gates’s mistake is that he leaves out that many of these countries actually have policies that favor total nuclear disarmament. They have been waiting for decades for the United States, Russia, France, China, and the United Kingdom to live up to their pledge under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to disarm.

    His suggestion that all of these countries would “seriously consider their own nuclear deterrent” if we didn’t provide one is a stretch even under the most extreme realistic circumstances. Denmark? Iceland? Lithuania? Luxembourg? Portugal? New Zealand? Seriously! Only a few of the 30 are normally considered potential nuclear weapon proliferators: Germany, Japan, and perhaps South Korea. Gates should at least have mentioned that. And even in those countries there would be strong political and cultural constraints working against going nuclear.

    Besides, the theory that those countries might go nuclear assumes they’re threatened by nuclear weapons. But no one is seriously advocating the United States disarms alone but in tandem with the other nuclear weapon states as part of an effort to remove nuclear threats.

    Oh, and Gates could probably also have mentioned that two NATO countries – France and the United Kingdom – actually decided years ago to go nuclear even though the United States had thousands of nuclear weapons deployed to defend NATO. The virtues of extended deterrence are a little more nuanced than Gates and others suggest. HK

  4. loupgarous December 6, 2008 at 12:36 am #

    It’s easy to say “take China and Russia out of the equation,” but the fact is that neither country is going anywhere soon; China’s run by an oligarchy while Russia is run by Vladimir Putin (Medvedev is simply his version of Charlie McCarthy).

    The militaries of both countries have made bald, public threats to strike the US homeland and our allies with nuclear weapons and not been admonished for it by their civilian leadership. This is a very clear indication that our present nuclear arsenal is not over-large for the deterrence mission we confront through no fault of our own.

    In fact, our own nuclear stockpile’s reliability is questionable at best in some cases owing to possible neutron damage to weapon components and build-up of activation products in their primaries. This is not a secret from either Russia or China – they rely on Congress to do much of their work for them, causing our deterrent posture to gradually fade away just as both Russia and China are buidling their own nuclear arsenals up.

  5. Arthur Borges January 22, 2009 at 4:43 am #

    [Edited] China’s latest defence white paper just reconfirmed a no-first-use policy. And Loupgarous (the French word takes no “s” at the end, by the way), it is generally accepted that China only started its nuclear bomb project after the”bald, public threats” of generals Douglas MacArthur and Curtis E. Lemay, with the latter adding he didn’t see any military targets for them but would “drop a few.”

    Moving on, I understand that somewhere in 2002, Pres. Putin promised Pres. Jiang his Pacific Fleet would help deny USN access to Taiwan in the event of conflict there. From this, I infer that any military initiative against China almost necessarily implies preemptive action against Russia — something Russia must realize.

  6. loupgarous May 17, 2009 at 12:18 am #

    Mr. Borges indulges in the arrogance of lecturing a native speaker of Cajun French on the correct spelling of a word of whose etymology in our dialect of French Borges is obviously ignorant – but let that pass.

    Oligarchies like China say a lot of things. What they do (such as massing several hundred nuclear-capable missiles across the Formosa Straits from Taiwan, adding significantly to the total every year) is more significant. My point was that the strategic deterrence mission of the United States requires nuclear weapons to be maintained in an objectively usable and potent state. This is something which the actions advocated by Messrs. Oelrich and Kristensen won’t allow to happen.

    Nuclear weapons can’t be un-invented. We have to plan for a world in which the number of nuclear-armed states is increasing, not decreasing, and in which the aggregate nuclear threat to the citizens of the United States is not diminishing. Soon enough, non-state actors will have nuclear weapons, and Al-Qaeda or one of their allies could be one of them.

  7. loupgarous October 29, 2010 at 11:01 pm #

    @goliath: Mr. Gates hasn’t set up quite the strawman you suppose he has.

    Our nation’s progressive nuclear disarmament policy (retiring the nuclear Tomahawk cruise missile system and the Peacekeeper ICBM) has effectively retracted the US’s “nuclear umbrella” to the point where Japan, now embroiled in a vitrolic dispute with China over ownership of the Senkaku Islands, MUST now consider whether to use at least part of her massive reserves of plutonium generated by their nuclear power industry to defend herself.

    South Korea has actually done some separation of plutonium, albeit publicly on a small scale, but an economic powerhouse such as Seoul can scarcely be less able to develop nuclear weapons in secret than their impoverished northern cousins can. The time will come when the US Eighth Army will no longer suffice to guard the famously thin line between North and South Korea, and the South Koreans must decide then and there whether to submit to nuclear blackmail from the North, or to develop their own nuclear deterrent.

    The two cases above are actually protoypes of how nuclear proliferation is an inevitable consequence of the worldwide availability of fissile material and the force-multiplying capacity of nuclear arms.

    China has not idly or casually diverted so much of its wealth in copying, then exceeding the capacity of the United States of America to produce not only nuclear weapons, but ones of an advanced nature that use what we considered to be our own proprietary technology (such as oblate spheroid conformation of the primary, a Livermore concept which a Chinese researcher casually announced they had been working with for years at a conference in the 1990s).

    The Chinese’s clear intent is to provide nuclear deterrent cover for progressive military annexation of much of the China Sea, clear out to what they call the “third Island chain” somewhere around Palawan in the Phillippines. They’ve already set up a county government in the Spratly Islands, which are clearly territory claimed by at least nine of their neighbors. I’ve already covered what they are now attempting with Japan with respect to the Senkaku Islands.

    As this energetic expansionism of China proceeds, the “small dragons” of the ASEAN countries have to decide how best to proceed – to accept Chinese hegemony of an extent we have only just begun to visualize, or to acquire their own nuclear deterrents in order to defend their national sovereignty and self – determination.

    Malaysia clearly was involved in setting up production facilities in their own territory for plutonium separation devices in cooperation with A.Q. Khan’s group of free-booting nuclear proliferators. It’s naive to suppose that this happened without consent somewhere in the maze of high government officialdom in Pakistan, so that the drive to create the Islamic Bomb sets up a third clear prototype case for more nuclear proliferation which dovetails nicely with the first two (the threats posed by a specific nuclear-armed neighbor, and by a regional nuclear-armed hegemon which desires to expand massively through territory it has long claimed).

    Three strong motives now exist for the relatively rapid expansion of the “nuclear club” at least some of those countries which goliath has mentioned. While the existing world supply of fissile material is now controllable to some extent, Japan owns all the plutonium they will ever need to match Beijing missile for missile, warhead for warhead.

    And while Australia at present opposes nuclear proliferation into the South Pacific, who can tell what their attitude will be when confronted with Chinese moves into, say, Palawan and Indonesia, or even Papua New Guinea, which are clearly in their sphere of influence.

    The Australians have huge reserves of uranium, a growing uranium mining industry and their work on laser separation of U-235 gives them a potential supply of a fissile which is better than plutonium for some uses. Economic pressures alone may cause Australia to quietly export fissiles to her ASEAN neighbors, especially if this serves to build a counterbalance to Chinese expansionism that the US cannot contain (and we cannot do so indefinitely with our current state of military and naval readiness and our current nuclear arsenal).

    Unfortunately for the hopes of the optimists among the nonproliferation community, Australian Labor Party is hanging on by its teeth, with a fragile coalition that could implode at any time. Then the National Party will take over and Australian policies in a number of areas could change – including nuclear nonproliferation. The Australians have to live in part of the world we do not; their territory is directly in the path of the Chinese territorial expansion.

    If seems ridiculous to posit a wave of nuclear proliferation driven by fights over island chains in the Pacific, contemplate the Falklands War for a few minutes. Then consider what future governments of Islamic states in the region may do either from religious zeal to pursue Islam or practical worry about losing territory or even national sovereignty to Beijing.

    The “unfriendly nuclear neighbor” scenario is metastasizing in places like Myanmar and Syria; it might be slowed by surgical military raids on nuclear facilities or economic pressure, but again, nuclear devices have such a mystique about them for multiplying military force that dissuading all small but reasonably solvent states from getting them is hopeless.

    If nothing else, the case of A.Q.Khan shows how an economically desperate but nuclearly literate nation can fill its coffers by quietly proliferating even partial nuclear weapons capability and delivery systems. This lesson has not been lost on the Pakistanis’ partners in missile and nuclear proliferation work, the North Koreans; nor to their former customers, Iran.

    My point is that the 21st century will possess not a bi-or tri-polar nuclear world, but one with a multiplicity of nuclear tripwires strung across the Persian Gulf, the South China Sea, the Bering Straits, possibly even the Mediterannean (who can say what Moammar Qaddafi will try to buy on the nuclear black market now that he is solvent and a reputable trading partner to the entire world?) and even the Caribbean – since Brazil has both a competent nuclear industry and may have a willing financier for its expansion in militant, prickly Venezuela.

    When the Treaty of Tlateloco was signed, only two Latin American governments had even modest nuclear ambitions. Now Colombia is confronted with a next-door neighbor who can buy anything he wants in the way of nuclear-capable delivery systems from the Russians and considerable contempt for Colombian territorial integrity. They have the money and the will to maintain national self-determination to follow Japan and South Korea into the market for at least a modest nuclear deterrent.

    And if Brazil becomes not only a nuclear weapons power but a proliferator, will Argentina sit still?

    My point is that nuclear proliferation beyond the original signatory Nuclear States of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is a fait accompli. It’s out there, the Nuclear Club is growing. The United States can’t rationally pretend that the nuclear threat to its citizens and allies is contracting or can be contained. It just can’t.

    Disassembling or allowing our national nuclear infrastructure to decay from neglect is not a rational option for America – we need to continue making nuclear weapons and improving them, hopefully to achieve better military results with less collateral damage to nonmilitary targets. So I respectfully disagree with the sentiments of Messrs Kristensen and Oelrich, and some of the other commenters in this thread. Further nuclear disarmament of the United States imperils our common defense and our national welfare.

    Reply: Your comment is certainly up high on the list of worst-case outlook. But other than a presumption that everything that can go bad will go bad, I don’t see much that substantiates why the prediction of the 1960s (of rampant nuclear proliferation and Soviet (substituted with Chinese) expansion) that didn’t happen then will now happen after all. Granted, if and if, but the tripwires you mention were also there during the Cold War and your bottom line argument seems to be that the only thing that prevented it from happening then was a robust U.S. nuclear arsenal. Now, so the logic goes, that arsenal has been reduced and might be reduced further in the future and so therefore proliferation and Chinese expansion will automatically follow.

    My take on it is that the U.S. nuclear arsenal is being reduced because its principle driver – the Soviet nuclear threat – is no more and that its current size is still in excess of what is required for the remaining threats. The other challenges you mention are best addressed by other aspects of national power, an effort that is in full swing. Even the latest Nuclear Posture Review, despite its conclusion to maintain a large nuclear posture on high alert, elevated non-proliferation, arms control, and non-nuclear capabilities to the same level of importance as the nuclear arsenal as means of national power in the 21st century precisely because nuclear weapons are seen as less useful in forwarding and promoting U.S. national and international security goals. The U.S. is not “disassembling or allowing our national nuclear infrastructure to decay from neglect,” but is gradually reducing its Cold War nuclear posture and restructuring its nuclear infrastructure to match this reduced requirement. If the $100 billion plus weapons modernization and the $180 billion plus infrastructure modernization planned for the next two decades is not enough to counter the threats you fear, then it’s hard to imagine – at least for me- the nuclear capabilities that would. HK

  8. loupgarous (Vance P. Frickey) November 11, 2010 at 10:12 pm #

    [Edited] Thanks for your courteous and insightful reply. You make some good points. And I freely admit that among other things, RRW had become a victim of “mission creep” during the Bush administration, with an unrealistically high expectation of making the weapon series diversion-proof.

    However, according to the UN one of my prognostications has come true; North Korea has made the leap from nth nuclear power to active proliferator of nuclear weapons technology (to at least three countries, Iran, Myanmar and Syria)

    It hardly required a crystal ball; like its one time partner in nuclear crime and supplier/customer Pakistan, North Korea has lots of nuclear weapons know-how and little cash, and is motivated to try and turn one into the other. It’s highly probable that the DPRK have conducted still other transactions with other countries and are continuing to do so at the present, if only because they need the money.

    The next logical pattern to emerge will be nuclear cooperation between Iran and Venezuela; Venezuela has everything (or can buy it) BUT nuclear weapons. Iran has a growing nuclear weapons-capable research and fabrication sector, and needs cash. Or the North Koreans could hopscotch Iran and provide the materiel or weapons directly, or some combination of deals could be worked out. The Second Bolivarian Revolution would be much more credible with nuclear clout.

  9. loupgarous (Vance P. Frickey) November 14, 2010 at 8:39 pm #

    There is one case in which the US is indeed, and has for some time, tolerating neglect of our nuclear weapons reliability, and it’s well known – the W76 warhead. It requires at the very least, additional underground testing of deployed warheads to verify their reliability. At worst, the weapon needs redesign to remedy again, well-known defects and weaknesses in its design (such as a beer-can thin, potentially very fragile hohlraum). Without exemptions to the CTBT to remedy these weaknesses, we have a potential cause for deterrence instability, since W76 is one of the warheads in the Trident system.

    Reply: As far as I can see, there is overwhelming evidence that it does not require additional underground testing of deployed warheads to verify their reliability. The science-based stockpile stewardship program has been able to verify the reliability of the weapons in the stockpile for the past 15 years without underground testing (meaning nuclear detonations) and there’s no reason to believe such maintenance will not be able to do so for the next several decades.

    It would be interesting to see your evidence that the government has “tolerated neglect” of the W76, but to me the ongoing W76 life-extension program with its numerous hydro-dynamic experiments, simulations, and component refurbishment that goes along with it demonstrate an extensive effort to ensure the continued reliability of the warhead. Granted, as in all complex engineering programs, there are bound to be challenges, but I don’t see indications that they add up to a degree that requires nuclear testing.

    More important than aging is whether the custodians of the stockpile can avoid the temptation to use life-extension programs to change the tested design by modifying components or adding new features. That, in my assessment, represents a greater risk that somewhere down the line someone will conclude that the modified warhead needs to be tested. HK

  10. loupgarous April 5, 2013 at 7:16 pm #

    RE: HK’s request for “evidence that the government has “tolerated neglect” of the W76 warhead”:

    (quoted from; this web site is compiled by Carey Sublette, an acknowledged researcher on the subject of nuclear weapons):

    “A New York Times article by William Broad (“A Fierce Debate on Atom Bombs From Cold War”) published 3 April 2005, reported the existence of a debate about the reliability of the W76:

    Several factors lie behind the current worries and repair plans. The W-76 is one of the arsenal’s oldest warheads. As warheads age, the risk of internal rusting, material degradation, corrosion, decay and the embrittling of critical parts increases.
    The overhaul to forestall such decay is scheduled to go from 2007 to 2017. In all, it is expected to cost more than $2 billion, say experts who have analyzed federal budget figures.
    Questions also surround the weapon’s basic design. Four knowledgeable critics, three former scientists and one current one at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, which designed the W-76, have recently argued that the weapon is highly unreliable and, if not a complete dud, likely to explode with a force so reduced as to compromise its effectiveness.
    “This is the one we worry about the most,” said Everet H. Beckner, who oversees the arsenal as director of defense programs at the National Nuclear Security Administration.

    The chief concern regarding the warhead’s design is the extremely light radiation case employed:

    Leaders at Los Alamos wanted the case to be as lightweight as possible, so they envisioned it as extraordinarily thin – in places not much thicker than a beer can (albeit with plastic backing for added strength).
    Its physical integrity was vital. The case had to hang together for microseconds as the exploding atom bomb generated temperatures hotter than the surface of the sun, forcing it to emit radiation that kindled the thermonuclear fire. If the case deformed significantly or shattered prematurely, the weapon would fail, its thermonuclear fuel unlit.
    Although the very small performance margin implicit in this design caused concern when it was first developed the current controversy stems from a reivew of the warhead conducted in 1995-1996. Richard L. Morse, a physicist at Los Alamos until 1976 returned in 1996 to participate in the review.

    Morse, who directed advanced concepts for bomb design as well as a separate group devoted to laser fusion, initiated simulation studies of the W76 and found that the margins were so thin that tiny irregularities in manufacture could lead to turbulence that would disrupt the case causing the weapon to fail.

    Although this issue was dropped at the time, Morse reintroduced it in 2003 during work on the W76-1 life extension modification. Although the subject of a heated March 2004 secret meeting at Los Alamos, no work on this issue is known to have been initiated.”

  11. loupgarous April 5, 2013 at 8:23 pm #

    @goliath: @goliath: You seem to be setting up a strawman of your own.

    A reading of Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark’s “Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons,” the IAEA’s announcements on North Korean nuclear proliferation activities, and the newspapers at the time Secretary Gates spoke of “perhaps 30 countries” interested in acquiring nuclear weapons produces several countries you didn’t name.

    My reading gives me another list of countries which would reasonably be in the market for nuclear weapons (I’m including fairly wealthy states in South Asia and the South Pacific which might be nervous about China’s ambitions to reclaim historic lands out to the “third island chain”):

    1) Japan (which owns 90 tons of plutonium and has an active conflict with China over the Senkaku Islands),
    2) Iran,
    3) South Korea,
    4) Taiwan,
    5) Argentina,
    6) Brazil,
    7) Venezuela,
    8) Kazakhstan,
    9) Bangladesh,
    10) Myanmar,
    11) Syria,
    12) Indonesia (long rumored to be in the market for nuclear arms),
    13) the Philippines,
    14) Australia (a world center of uranium mining and a pioneer in laser separation of uranium-235),
    15) Singapore,
    16) Brunei (per capita, the most highly armed nation on Earth),
    17) Turkey (which has been a coltish member of NATO since Erdogan’s rise to power),
    18) some of the Gulf Arab Emirates (recently promised a “research reactor” by the United States; “research reactors” have been the developing world’s favored route to acquisition of nuclear weapons, with Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea taking it),
    19) Libya (at the time Mr. Gates spoke),
    20) Lebanon (Hezbollah’s pied a terre, which might want to prevent another invasion from either Israel or Syria),
    21) Algeria,
    22) Saudi Arabia (which owns a few squadrons of Chinese IRBMs whose limited accuracy makes them useless WITHOUT nuclear warheads),
    23) Colombia (threatened by neighboring Venezuela),
    24) Oman (which has already weathered one serious attempt at foreign-supported insurrection),
    25) Sri Lanka (a regional ally of Israel which sees an inchoate threat from neighboring nuclear-armed India),
    26) Vietnam (historically interested in nuclear science since the 1970s with several alumni of the Soviet nuclear research center at Dubna, and historically at odds with China),
    27) Malaysia (a former site of one of AQ Khan’s uranium separation centrifuge plants and an economically powerful state endangered by China’s ambitions),
    28) Mongolia (between two nuclear-armed oligarchies, both of which would like to pull it into their sphere of influence, with new oil wealth and an American-educated president),
    29) Egypt (newly controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, whose anthem includes a reference to “meeting in Jerusalem”),
    and perhaps
    30) South Africa (which had nuclear weapons in the past and retains or could rebuild the infrastructure to build them).

    Those are 30 much more plausible potential members of the nuclear club.

    Australia has declared itself opposed to getting nuclear weapons, but a National Party government faced with Chinese expansion into parts of Indonesia or the Philippines might see things differently.

    None of the other nations in the list have strong impediments to nuclear statehood (Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina and Colombia would probably ALL denounce the Treaty of Tlateloco if one of them did). Some of them have very powerful incentives to get nuclear weapons.

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