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Nuclear Weapons: Back To The Future

Statement of Bush Administration's nuclear weapons strategy calls on science and technology for a new arsenal of warheads to last through the century

by Michael Heylin
August 13, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 33

LAST MONTH, Secretary of Energy Samuel W. Bodman, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice joined to send Congress a summary paper on the Administration's nuclear weapons policy for the 21st century. It is a slim document: three pages.

A reading of the paper suggests that the Administration still has a great deal to do if it expects to convince a nuclear weapons cautious—if not allergic—Congress to go along with what it wants. Perhaps first will be the need for damage control of negative reaction to the paper itself, which can readily be seen as disrespectful of Congress.

Short on insight and analysis, the paper is a blunt demand for prompt congressional support for a program to build a new nuclear weapons infrastructure and replace all currently deployed U.S. nuclear warheads with new warheads—so-called reliable replacement warheads (RRW). It is also a threat, warning that any delay in this program raises the prospect of having to return to underground nuclear testing to certify the currently deployed warheads.

The paper claims that the proposed new nuclear arsenal will serve the cause of nuclear nonproliferation, because U.S. allies won't have to build their own and U.S. enemies will be deterred.

It states that operational nuclear forces "demonstrate to allies and adversaries alike that the U.S. has the necessary means, and the political will, to respond decisively against aggression and the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD)."

The paper is also a statement that the U.S. needs a substantial nuclear weapons arsenal for the foreseeable future. The proposed new weapons would likely last through most of this century.

Firmness and an appropriate balance of clarity and ambiguity in stating defense policy is not to be faulted in principle. But the implied threat of the use of nuclear weapons to prevent or respond to undefined "aggression" or the use of WMD demands the closest scrutiny.

The U.S. Department of Justice's definition of WMD includes chemical weapons, biological weapons, and any weapon "that is designed to release radiation at a level dangerous to human life." It also includes "any explosive or incendiary device: bomb, grenade, rocket, missile, mine, or other device with a charge of more than 4 oz."

All methods of destruction and killing raise concerns. But when planning defense strategy and policy, nuclear weapons, with their unique power to kill instantly and on an unimaginable scale, are the only true WMD. In reality, fiction, and drama, the ultimate terror scenario for the past 60 years has been a nuclear weapon in hostile and irresponsible hands. Even nuclear weapons that don't exist have started a war.

Lumping nuclear weapons into a single weapons category with other killing mechanisms down to hand grenades is not a promising basis for rational thought about the role of nuclear weapons in national defense and worldwide security.

Once again, the U.S. is looking to science and technology for a magic bullet to cope with its defense needs. In the nuclear age, the first call was for the atom bomb to hasten the end of World War II and secure postwar dominance for the U.S. Second, starting in the 1950s, came the Cold War arms race of ever more sophisticated nuclear warheads and delivery systems that went on for 40 years.

In the 1980s came the launch of the U.S. quest for defense against long-range ballistic missiles—something that still does not work operationally. If it did, it would defend against threats that so far are speculative or live in the imagination of defense analysts.

Now the magic bullet is RRW.

THE PAPER claims this warhead will have state-of-the-art security features to prevent unauthorized use that cannot be used on current warheads. It will be safer, more reliable, and less sensitive to incremental aging effects and manufacturing variances. It will apparently also avoid some of the hazardous materials used in older weapons.

And besides, the paper points out, current warheads are getting old and harder and harder to maintain—hence, the possible need for renewed nuclear testing. Incidently, a recent evaluation indicates these warheads, with proper care, will last 80 years or more, about 40 years more than previously assumed.

A further claim in the paper is that the RRW program is "fully consistent with the U.S. obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), including Article VI."

This is true to the extent that NPT puts no limits on size or nature of the nuclear weapons forces of the five original nuclear powers—the U.S., the Soviet Union (now Russia), the U.K., France, and China. These nuclear arsenals are limited only by what the five powers agree to bilaterally or among themselves.

But is the Administration's goal of building an entire arsenal of thousands of new and improved replacement warheads truly in accordance with Article VI, which calls on parties to NPT "to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament"?

The argument made by the paper that the reengineering of the U.S.'s nuclear strike force will serve the cause of nuclear nonproliferation will be a very hard sell to Congress—or to anybody else. Whistlin' Dixie about nonproliferation is just not going to cut it.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.



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