START and the Resurrection of the Reliable Replacement Warhead

The Reliable Replacement Warhead is a really bad idea that never seems to go away.  Congress has wisely condemned it, and it was explicitly rejected in the nation’s latest Nuclear Posture Review, but now the RRW has popped up again, artificially linked to the New Start arms control treaty, in a couple of opeds, one in the New York Times by former UN ambassador John Bolton, and another in the Wall Street Journal by R. James Woolsey, former arms control negotiator and Director of the CIA.  Bolton writes, “Congress should pass a new law financing the testing and development of new warhead designs before approving New Start,” and Woolsey chimes in,

…the administration needs to commit to replacing and modernizing our aging nuclear infrastructure as well as the bombers, submarines and ballistic missiles – and the warheads on them – that provide our ultimate guarantee of national security. The Senate’s resolution of ratification should, for example, require the president to commit to specific modernization plans so we can be sure these programs will have his full support. The administration has particularly resisted warhead modernization, beginning with its Nuclear Posture Review last year. This led 10 former directors of the nation’s nuclear weapons labs to write to the secretaries of Defense and Energy urging them to revisit that misguided policy. The secretaries should commit to doing so.

In fact, one hopes they have enough sense not to follow that advice.  What Bolton and Woolsey are referring to when they speak of “modernizing” weapons isn’t the continued refurbishment of old weapons, or the adding of new conventional packaging around them, as in the case of the B61-11, to make them more effective for earth penetration or some other specific mission.  They are speaking of a new design of the nuclear device itself.  At the moment, the RRW is the only player in that game.

Going ahead with the RRW would be self-destructive at a number of levels.  In the first place, it’s unnecessary.  There is no reason to doubt the safety and reliability of the existing weapons in our arsenal, nor our ability to maintain them into the indefinite future.  A reason given for building the RRW is that low yield versions could be designed that would be “more effective deterrents,” because enemies would consider it a lot more likely that we would actually use such a weapon against them, as opposed to our existing high yield weapons.  The problem with that logic is that they would be right.  Given the alacrity with which we went to war in Iraq, it is not hard to imagine that we would be sorely tempted to use a mini-nuke to take out, say, a buried and/or hardened enemy bunker suspected of containing WMD’s.  Any US first use of nuclear weapons, for whatever reason, and regardless of the chances of “collateral damage,” would be a disastrous mistake.  It would let the nuclear genie out of the bottle once again, serving as a perfect pretense for the use of nuclear weapons by others, and particularly by terrorists against us.  Those who think the Maginot line of nuclear detectors we are installing at our ports, or the imaginary difficulty of mastering the necessary technology, will protect us from such an eventuality, are gravely mistaken. 

The building of a new weapon design would also provide a fine excuse for others to modernize their own arsenals.  It is hard to imagine how this could work to the advantage of the United States.  Our nuclear technology is mature, and it would simply give the lesser nuclear powers a chance to catch up with us.  More importantly, it would almost inevitably imply a return to nuclear testing, thereby negating a tremendous advantage we now hold over every other nuclear power, namely, our above ground experimental (AGEX) capability.  In the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the Z pulsed power machine at Sandia, the DAHRT radiographic test facility at Los Alamos, and a host of other experimental facilities, we possess an ability to study the physics that occurs in conditions near those in nuclear detonations that no other country comes close to matching.  It would be utterly pointless to throw that advantage away in order to build a new nuclear weapon we don’t need.

It does not surprise me that 10 former directors of the nation’s nuclear weapons laboratories signed a letter calling on the Secretaries of Energy and Defense to revisit our RRW policy.  It would certainly serve the interests of the nuclear weapons laboratories.  It is much easier to attract talented physicists to an active testing program than to serve as custodians of an aging stockpile, and new designs would mean new money, and the removal of any perceived existential threats to one or more of the existing labs on the basis of their redundancy.  The problem is that it would not serve the interests of the country. 

Let the RRW stay buried.  The nuclear genie will return soon enough as it is.

4 thoughts on “START and the Resurrection of the Reliable Replacement Warhead”

  1. Good blog!

    You write:

    “There is no reason to doubt the safety and reliability of the existing weapons in our arsenal, nor our ability to maintain them into the indefinite future.”

    How does this square with concerns by some designers that data used to perform periodic testing of the current inventory may become more prone to errors as we move further away from the period in which the dataset was created (ending in c. 1992)?

    I also wonder about the weapons that existed in that time period and are they appropriate for this day and age given their design in and for a Cold War era.

  2. It should come as no surprise that designers want to resume testing. For them it means job security and work that’s a lot more exciting than serving as custodians for aging nuclear weapons.

    If we are “more prone to errors” as we move away from the era of testing, so are our potential enemies. The difference between us and them is our immensely superior ability to generate the “data used to perform periodic testing” thanks to the existence of facilities like the NIF and Z that enable us to approach and study the physical conditions existing in nuclear weapons far more closely than any competitor, and our highly advanced ability to conduct subcritical tests with surrogate materials at the Nevada Test Site and elsewhere. By resuming testing, we would simply be throwing that huge advantage out the window.

    The idea that the weapons currently in our arsenal are not entirely adequate for any possible mission I have heard mentioned to date is a red herring used to justify building the RRW, another darling of the labs and the designers for the reasons stated above.

  3. The obvious anwser is to provide a loiter capability launch the missile when things get tense, and have it orbit over the ocean somewhere out of the range of hostile fighters. If it’s time for nukey goodness, send the go order, otherwise have the missile ditch in a designated area of shallow water. Then, send in the Navy to salvage the warheads. Very carefully.

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