The United States will not develop new nuclear warheads or pursue new military missions or new capabilities for nuclear weapons.
I gather that the President is hoping this will be a big applause line in his speeches. Imagine how much applause he might get if that was what his Nuclear Posture Review actually said!
Oh, I know, it is hard to be so cynical at such a tender age.
The Nuclear Posture Review does rule out “new” weapons, which the text suggests are those that are either (1) not based on previously tested designs or (2) support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities. It is not clear if there is a formal definition, thought I suspect that this one may have been misappropriated.
But that is sort of beside the issue. What everyone really wants to know is this: Is the RRW really truly dead? As in: This warhead is no more. It has ceased to be! It’s expired and gone to meet its maker! This is a late warhead! It’s a stiff! Bereft of life, it rests in peace! Its metabolical processes are of interest only to historians! It’s hopped the twig! It’s shuffled off this mortal coil! It’s run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible!
Is the RRW an ex-warhead?
Um, sort of.
The Nuclear Posture Review states the Administration will consider a full range of Life Extension options: “refurbishment of existing warheads, reuse of nuclear components from different warheads, and replacement of nuclear components.”
Furthermore, the NPR states that the Administration has a “strong preference” for refurbishment or reuse, and would undertake replacement only if “critical Stockpile Management Program
goals could not otherwise be met, and if specifically authorized by the President and approved by Congress.”
How would this language have affected the Bush Administration’s 2006 request for the Reliable Replacement Warhead? Not at all.
As it turns out, the Administration had the good sense to ask the technical community how the RRW would fit under the new 3R’s taxonomy (refurbish, reuse, replace). The design that the Administration ultimately selected, from Livermore, was derived from a previously tested design. The technical community was split as to whether this would be reuse or replacement. (The more venturesome Los Alamos design was replacement.)
As for the “strong preference” and “special Presidential authorization”? Those only apply as the warhead moves into Engineering Development phase — the so-called 6.3 dollars that allow the labs to start bending metal. The pitched battle over RRW was fought over 6.2A money.
It is entirely plausible that the ongoing process of LEPs will include a number of WR1-like warheads.
Now, is this a bad thing?
Actually, no, I think this is probably a reasonable policy to keep open a spectrum of options — if the Obama can avoid the temptation to build replacement warheads.
Much of the challenge in stockpile management is avoiding the trap of simply doing the opposite of what the Bush Administration would have done. The debate about “new” nuclear weapons or “modernizing” the stockpile was largely a proxy either for debates about the role of nuclear weapons or a referendum on whether the Bush Administration could be trusted with sharp objects. (For the record, my answers are “deterring nuclear attacks” and “no.”)
When it comes to actual designs — like WR1 — the Administration ought to make decisions on the technical merits. I thought — and still think — that RRW ought to be disposed of on the very narrow grounds that WR1 was not the most cost effective or technically appropriate option to maintain the capability provided by the W76, rather than on the more sweeping grounds that it was “new” or “modernized” nuclear weapon. It might have needed testing and probably would have cost boatloads of money. That’s reason enough to kill it.
I suspect this is what Administration officials are attempting to convey when they describe RRW as a concept, philosophy or approach. They are attempting to say that they aren’t interested in theoretical debates, but rather intend to make decisions about maintaining capabilities in the stockpile on a narrow technical basis, all the while keeping in mind our broader interests in arms control, disarmament and nonproliferation. That’s basically the right balance. As an ideologically-driven exercise, at least, the RRW is dead. We will no longer design new warheads for the same reason that a dog might lick himself.
On the other hand, words are slippery things. I got a little nervous during the roll out when NNSA Administrator Tom D’Agostino changed the phrase “only if critical Stockpile Management Program goals could not otherwise be met” into the “best way” to maintain the capability.
“Only” is a good policy; “best” tempts us down the path that leads toward untested designs and billions of dollars just to keep our designers happy.
I have argued before that the National Laboratories ought to keep open the option of replacing nuclear weapons components, if only as a last resort. “Last resort” is close to a “strong preference,” though different in one important way. Last resort implies something different about the order in which policymakers consider options. There was a apparently quite a debate about this issue, with one group arguing for sequential studies (if refurbishment fails, then you study replacement.) Another group argued for concurrent studies, with all options on the table at the beginning. The latter group won the debate, meaning that there will always be a temptation for the Labs to chase after the sexy new bomb. Which is why D’Agostino’s mischaracterization of the policy worried me. It reeked of the temptation to chase after next big thing.
So, whether the policy is a good one will depend on how disciplined the Administration is in interpreting this language as it moves forward on LEPs for the B61, as well as the W78/W88. Can they stay focused on the technical issues, while avoiding the political pressure to tinker with the stockpile as a sop to certain hawks? I am cautiously optimistic, but we will see.
Final Grade A-