It really seems as if the weapon designers at the nation’s three nuclear weapons laboratories, Los Alamos, Livermore, and Sandia, never really believed that nuclear testing would ever end. If so, they were singularly blind to the consequences. Instead of taking the approach apparently adopted by the Russians of designing and testing robust warheads that could simply be scrapped and replaced with newly manufactured ones at the end of their service life, they decided to depend on a constant process of refurbishing old warheads, eliminating the ability to make new ones in the process. When our weapons got too old, they would be repeatedly patched up in so-called Life Extension Programs, or LEPs. Apparently it began to occur to an increasing number of people in the weapons community that maintaining the safety and reliability of the stockpile indefinitely using that approach might be a bit problematic.
The first “solution” to the problem proposed by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the semi-autonomous agency within the Department of Energy (DOE) responsible for maintaining the nuclear stockpile, was the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW). It was to be robust, easy to manufacture, and easy to maintain. It was also a new, untested design. As such, it would have violated the spirit, if not the letter, of Article VI of the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). If it had been built, it would also very likely have forced violation of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which the U.S. has signed, but never ratified. It was claimed that the RRW could be built and certified without testing. This was very probably nonsense. There have always been more or less influential voices within NNSA, the Department of Defense (DoD), and the weapons labs, in favor of a return to nuclear testing. That would not have been a good thing then, and I doubt that it will be a good thing at any foreseeable time in the future. In general, I think we should do our best to keep the nuclear genie bottled up as long as possible. Fortunately, Congress agreed and killed the RRW Program.
That didn’t stop the weaponeers. They just tried a new gambit. It’s called the “3+2 Strategy.” There are currently four types of ballistic missile warheads, two bombs, and a cruise missile warhead in the U.S. arsenal. The basic idea of 3+2 would be to reduce this to three “interoperable” ballistic missile warheads and two air delivered weapons (a bomb and a cruise missile), explaining the “3+2.” In the process, the conventional chemical explosives that drive the implosion of the “atomic bomb” stage of the weapons would be replaced by insensitive high explosives (IHE). The result would supposedly be a safer, more secure stockpile that would be easier to maintain. The price tag, in round numbers, would be $60 billion.
I can only hope Congress will be as quick to deep six 3+2 as it was with the RRW. The 3+2 will require tinkering not only with the bits surrounding the nuclear explosive package (NEP), but with the NEP itself. In other words, its just as much a violation of the spirit of Article VI of the NPT as was the RRW. The predictable result of any such changes will be the “sudden realization” by the weapons labs somewhere down the line that they can’t certify the new designs without a return to nuclear testing. There’s a better and, in the long run, probably cheaper way to maintain the stockpile.
In the first place, we need to stop relying on LEPs, and return to manufacturing replacement weapons. The common argument against this is that we have lost the ability to manufacture critical parts of our weapons since the end of testing, and in some cases the facilities and companies that supplied the parts no longer exist. Nonsense! The idea that a country responsible for a quarter of the entire world’s GDP has lost the ability to reproduce the weapons it was once able to design, build and test in a few years is ridiculous. We are told that subtle changes in materials might somehow severely degrade the performance of remanufactured weapons. I doubt it. Regardless, DOE has always known there was a solution to that problem. It’s called the Advanced Hydrodynamic Facility, or AHF.
Basically, the AHF would be a giant accelerator facility capable of producing beams that would be able to image an imploding nuclear weapon pit in three dimensions and at several times during the implosion. Serious studies of such a facility were done as long ago as the mid-90’s, and there is no doubt that it is feasible. In actual experiments, of course, highly enriched uranium and plutonium would be replaced by surrogate materials such as tungsten, but they would still determine with a high degree of confidence whether a given remanufactured primary would work or not. The primary, or “atomic bomb” part of a weapon supplies the energy that sets off the secondary, or thermonuclear part. If the primary, of a weapon works, then there can be little doubt that the secondary will work as well. The AHF would be expensive, which is probably the reason it still hasn’t been built. Given the $60 billion cost of 3+2, that decision may well prove to be penny-wise and pound-foolish.
The whole point of having a nuclear arsenal is its ability to deter enemies from attacking us. Every time people who are supposed to be the experts about such things question the reliability of our stockpile, they detract from its ability to deter. I think a remanufacturing capability along with the AHF is the best way to shut them up, preventing a very bad decision to resume nuclear testing in the process. I suggest we get on with it.