Obama’s Nuclear Challenge

Jan. 1, 2009

Deterrence—the practice of relying on doomsday weapons to prevent wars—has often been threatened by arms control advocates and other critics. Few, though, ever guessed deterrence might some day be undone by a simple lack of reliable weapons.

Indeed, the Air Force and Navy have in the past fielded 14,000 operational warheads and bombs. A vast nuclear industrial complex churned out 3,000 nuclear charges every year. Thousands of top engineers and physicists regularly produced new designs. Real-world tests advertised the credibility of these weapons.

Today, though, such powers are gone. USAF Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, head of US Strategic Command, told AFA’s Global Warfare Symposium in Los Angeles that they are “many years in the rearview mirror.” In a later speech, he said US policy is “leading toward nuclear disarmament.”

The upshot, warned Adm. Michael G. Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is uncertainty that invites miscalculation by US foes. “Deterrence then becomes anything but,” said Mullen.

For President-elect Barack Obama, set to enter office Jan. 20, this poses a contentious problem. In the Presidential campaign, Obama declared sharp opposition to building new nuclear weapons. However, he also vowed to maintain the US deterrent so long as other nations possessed nuclear arsenals.

The two pledges may be difficult to reconcile. The new commander in chief, as he surveys the nation’s strategic nuclear situation, will find at least four serious threats to the deterrent.

• Dwindling numbers. The US warhead stockpile has undergone a steep decline. Under the so-called Moscow Treaty, signed in 2002, the US committed itself to keeping no more than 2,200 and perhaps as few as 1,700 deployed warheads and bombs. The US plans to achieve this goal in 2010, two years early. When it does, says Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, the stockpile will be 75 percent smaller than its Cold War version. Experts warn that the small size of the force would magnify the danger posed by any unexpected technical problem.

• Rising weapon age. US officials insist today’s stockpile is safe and reliable. “The problem,” says Gates, “is the long-term prognosis—which I would characterize as bleak.” Today’s warheads are old. In the US, no one has designed a totally new weapon since the 1980s. No one has built one since the early 1990s. No one has tested a weapon since 1992. US weapons were designed for a life of about 15 years, but they all have lasted at least 20 years. Now, sensitive parts are eroding. As nuclear material decays, the US database grows increasingly dated. At some point, confidence in their reliability wanes, and safety declines.

• Industrial decline. With weapon-making in the doldrums for 20 years, nuclear infrastructure—the capability to sustain nuclear weapons—has all but disappeared. Chilton, speaking to the Wall Street Journal, declared that the US “has no nuclear weapon production capacity” and can only “produce a handful of weapons in a laboratory.” In a Sept. 15 speech, Sen. John L. Kyl (R-Ariz.) said the nuclear network’s formerly robust laboratories and plants can refurbish, at best, only about 10 weapons per year and are, in some cases, “simply falling down from age.” Kyl says this amounts to a national “emergency.”

• Lost expertise. In the nuclear field, the US has suffered a serious brain drain, losing most of its veteran weapon designers. National labs and weapons manufacturing facilities have shed thousands of workers. Since the mid-1990s, the National Nuclear Security Administration has lost more than a quarter of its force. Half of its lab scientists exceed the age of 50. Chilton told Congress last spring, “The last nuclear design engineer to participate in the development and testing of a new nuclear weapon is scheduled to retire in the next five years.”

While most official concern focuses on warheads, not launch vehicles, Gates also notes DOD has deactivated many of its best weapons—the Peacekeeper ICBM, half of the Minuteman ICBM force, many Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines. Today’s B-52s, mainstays of the bomber force, date to the early 1960s.

The Pentagon’s proposed solution is the so-called Reliable Replacement Warhead, the first new and comprehensive redesign of a nuclear weapon since the Cold War. It is intended to provide a modern, safer warhead for Navy missiles before the end of this decade.

The RRW would actually replace existing warheads, but introduce no new capabilities. It would offer the considerable benefit of reviving at least a critical portion of the weapons complex.

Congress, however, is not sold on the program, largely out of arms control concerns and anti-nuclear sentiment. In Chilton’s view, lawmakers this fall effectively killed the RRW program, refusing to fund a continuing study of its manufacture.

Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic weapons, said the program was in a “holding pattern” until Obama’s officials could review the matter. She said a planned Nuclear Posture Review, the first since 2002, will be expected to settle key questions about whether new warhead work is needed.

This approach overlooks a significant reality, noted by Gates in an Oct. 28 speech to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. He pointed out that of the seven declared nuclear powers in the world, all but one have ambitious programs of nuclear weapon modernization or sustainment. The single holdout: the United States.

Deterrence, a bleak and unloved aspect of modern geopolitics, never will be popular. Nuclear weapons are too dangerous, and the prospect of their use too ugly, for anyone to ever warmly embrace it. It has, however, been successful. It would be a mistake to abandon deterrence until we can replace it with something better.

Even worse would be to lose it through sheer neglect. That danger still seems remote. But it is getting closer.