Gates Sounds Alarm over Nuclear Deterrent

While Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday he is confident that the Air Force is “now moving in the right direction” in revitalizing its nuclear weapons stewardship, he warned that the long-term prognosis for the nation’s nuclear deterrent is “bleak,” due to the lack of an approved new warhead design and an aging and diminishing nuclear workforce. “Let me first say very clearly that our weapons are safe, reliable, and secure,” Gates said in a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. But looking ahead, there are serious challenges, not the least of which is the fact that the US is currently the only declared nuclear power that is neither modernizing its nuclear arsenal nor cultivating the capability to produce a new nuclear warhead, he said. At some future point, Gates said, “it will become impossible” to keep extending the life of the current arsenal, given the testing moratorium that began in 1992. “To be blunt,” Gates said, “there is absolutely no way we can maintain a credible deterrent and reduce the number of weapons in our stockpile without either resorting to testing our stockpile or pursuing a modernization program.” He reiterated the need for the reliable replacement warhead, saying it “deserves urgent attention,” not as a new, more lethal capability, but rather as a safer, more secure, and more reliable design than the aging Cold War warheads in today’s inventory. Like a recently released Defense Science Board report, Gates said producing the RRW would also reinvigorate the US nuclear infrastructure and workforce. By some estimates, the number of nuclear weapons designers and technicians has dropped by one-fourth since the mid 1990s and, within the next several years, three-quarters of the engineers in the national nuclear labs will reach retirement age, he said.