Does the United States really need to build a new nuclear weapon?

September 16, 2007|By Bennett Ramberg

As the Bush administration attempts to beat back the nuclear weapons ambitions of Iran and North Korea, it recently raised the specter that the United States has become perilously close to neutering its own atomic capacity. The alarmist forecast emerges in "National Security and Nuclear Weapons: Maintaining Deterrence in the 21st Century," a July statement by the secretaries of defense, state and energy. According to the secretaries, the "aging" and "hazardous" Cold War stockpile puts at risk "the long-term ability of the United States to sustain its strategy of deterrence [and] meet its security commitments to allies."

The secretaries have called upon Congress this month to fund continued development of a new thermonuclear weapon, the Reliable Replacement Warhead, or RRW. Touted as safe, easy to maintain and regenerate, economical, politically sensible and, by definition, more reliable than the current arsenal, the RRW promotes the nonproliferation treaty's disarmament objective by promising to reduce the number of nuclear spares in the stockpile.

At first blush, the RRW makes sense. But like many sales pitches, this one is too good to be true. The premise - that old nukes make the country less secure - is patently false, and Congress should reject it.

Washington plans to reduce its Cold War inventory of several thousand nuclear weapons to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads by 2012 in compliance with the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty. Without the RRW, will this be an increasingly hollow arsenal, as the administration forecasts? Hardly. Since the Cold War ended, the weapons establishment has aggressively implemented safeguards to ensure the bombs are in working order.

Given the 1992 cessation of nuclear testing and the retirement of nuclear designers with detonation experience, the Clinton administration inaugurated the stockpile stewardship program in 1993 to "ensure the preservation of the core intellectual competencies of the Untied States in nuclear weapons, including weapons design, system integration, manufacturing, security, use control reliability assessment in certification."

Now, tens of billions of dollars later, the Department of Energy has built an impressive laboratory capability that can "virtually" replicate and test the current stockpile to suggest fixes in the event problems emerge.

Mindful that detonation components could wear out with age, scientists evaluated the risks. In 2006, government scientists concluded that the stockpile's plutonium cores will last at least 100 years. Under the Life Extension program, deteriorating nonnuclear components have been found and replaced.

Keep in mind that new nuclear weapons would require nuclear explosive tests. Although engineers intend to craft the RRW based on a once-tested but never deployed 1980s weapon with new plutonium cores and nonnuclear components, the RRW would not be an exact replica.

Why would the secretaries even contemplate such a course when the Department of Energy has a plethora of certified "legacy" weapons in the active and inactive arsenal? Absent compelling evidence that the RRW would offer more than a marginal improvement in safety, security and arsenal regeneration - or that it would reassure allies and better restrain adversaries or promote the nuclear disarmament envisioned in the nonproliferation treaty - the answer appears to lie in the bounty the new weapon would provide to nuclear weapons laboratories.

The end of the Cold War marked a difficult transition for Los Alamos, Livermore and Sandia. The labs pressed for funding what they did best: new weapons design. Proposals emerged for mini-nukes and the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator that could destroy hardened bunkers.

But Congress balked at those notions, and many in Congress remain dubious that a $155 billion, 30-year RRW program would make the country safer. On Aug. 1, the Nuclear Policy and Posture Review Act was introduced in the Senate. Paralleling House proposals, it seeks to scotch the RRW, at least until the president and secretary of defense comprehensively re-evaluate the "role nuclear weapons will play in national security." The reports would guide the next administration.

Considering that under the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, Moscow and Washington - now "former" adversaries - can continue pointing thousands of warheads at each other, such a re-examination is long overdue. The current stockpile is robust, and the time for yet another nuclear weapon has long passed.

Bennett Ramberg served in the State Department's Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs during the administration of George H. W. Bush. His e-mail is bennettramberg@aol.com.

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