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.