Why the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) is a Bad Idea

The incomparable Instapundit recently linked a TNR article on the demise of the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) Program. According to TNR, ““Obama’s new budget plan includes a little-noted sea change in U.S. nuclear policy, and a step towards his vision of a denuclearized world. It provides no funding for the Reliable Replacement Warhead program, created to design a new generation of long-lasting nuclear weapons that don’t need to be tested. (The military is worried that a nuclear test moratorium in effect since 1992 might endanger the reliability of an aging US arsenal.) But this spring Obama issued a bold call for a world free of nuclear weapons, and part of that vision entails leading by example. . . . Obama’s budget kills the National Nuclear Security Administration program once and for all.” Glenn’s post included the sour rejoinder, “So, a question: If Obama were trying to wreck America as a superpower, what would he be doing differently?” It’s remarkable how few blogs have weighed in on this issue. Miscellaneous specimens of web chatter can be found here, here, here, and here., and the “orthodox” arguments in favor may be found here. I’m anything but sanguine about Obama’s grasp of national security issues. However, for reasons that probably never occurred to the POTUS, I think the redoubtable Glenn is wrong this time.

Here’s why. There has been a strong contingent at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), at the National Weapons Laboratories, and in the military, who are either in favor of a resumption of nuclear testing or have considered such a resumption inevitable since the time that the RRW was but a twinkle in some designer’s eye. Why? One can only speculate. Perhaps it’s because the National Weapons Laboratories want to survive, and it has not failed to occur to those who have the interests of the labs at heart that a return to nuclear testing would substantially enhance their national relevance. It would also help to solve their demographic problem. It’s hard to attract top drawer scientists with the prospect of acting as custodians for an aging stockpile of nuclear weapons. Regardless, it has been a tacit assumption among a good number of folks with connections of one kind or another to the national weapons program that we would resume nuclear testing, and better sooner than later.

Enter the RRW. According to the prevailing narrative, the RRW can be built without the slightest need for a return to testing. This is nonsense. Ten years ago, any designer worth his salt would have reacted with scorn to such a suggestion. Today, they remain mum, not because they are completely confident in the “full physics” nuclear weapons codes that NNSA’s Advanced Simulation and Computing (ASC) program is turning out, but because they don’t want to rock the boat. Believe me, if the RRW were actually built, they would find reasons by the dump truck full to test it. The pressure to do so would become virtually irresistable. However, a return to testing would be a very bad idea for the US.

Why? Our nuclear weapons program is mature, and our mastery of the relevant physics is unsurpassed. Is it reasonable to give the rest of the world a chance to catch up with us? Is it reasonable to abdicate the moral high ground, giving nuclear wannabe’s like Iran a perfect excuse to pursue their nuclear ambitions “full speed ahead?” Is it reasonable to increase the nuclear danger by promoting the resumption of testing by others, and the proliferation of nuclear armed states. I think not.

What would we really gain by building an RRW? Very little! The idea that the weapons in our arsenal must, inevitably, become “unsafe,” or “unreliable” are nonsense. Our weapons are robust, and any enemy assuming the contrary would be making a very unfortunate miscalculation.

In a word, then, the Obama administration has managed to blunder into a good decision on the RRW. Let’s leave it at that and worry about more pressing matters.

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

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