Andrew Lichterman

Two recent articles featured criticism from nuclear establishment insiders of the Department of Energy’s plan for a new approach to designing and making nuclear weapons, the “Reliable Replacement Warhead” (RRW) program. The Albuquerque Journal covered a talk by Richard Garwin, a bomb designer and long-time weapons lab consultant, in which Garwin labeled the RRW as “not necessary” because current designs work just fine and can be replaced. See John Fleck, “Bomb Designer Questions U.S. Nuclear Policy,” Albuquerque Journal, March 13, 2006 (subscription required). In the Oakland Tribune, ex-Sandia laboratory weapons program executive Bob Peurifoy also declared the existing stockpile safe and reliable, and said, “This is gigantic hoax on the taxpayer. It is stimulated by the self interest of NNSA and the (weapons) design labs based on the desire to extract ever more money from the taxpayer,” he said. “You think our weapons don’t work? Go stand under one. But don’t take your wife and kids.” Stanford physicist Sydney Drell, a long-time mainstay of government advisory panels on all things nuclear, also endorsed the existing nuclear stockpile, and worried that new designs could lead to a resumption of underground nuclear testing. see Ian Hoffman, “Weapons adviser supports nuke plan, Former lab director fears U.S. nuclear arsenal may see defects,”The Oakland Tribune, March 13, 2006

These articles are OK as far as they go, but what they leave out is more important than what they include. None of the ‘critics’ quoted challenge the assumption that the U.S. should keep nuclear weapons for many decades to come, despite its Non-Proliferation Treaty obligation to negotiate in good faith for the elimination of its nuclear arsenal. Further, none of them address the potential of the RRW effort to produce nuclear weapons with new capabilities, despite the fact that being able to do so is an express purpose of the program. National Nuclear Security Administration chief Linton Brooks recently set forth the vision for the RRW program and its supporting nuclear weapons complex:

In 2030, our Responsive Infrastructure can also produce weapons with different or modified military capabilities as required. The weapons design community that was revitalized by the RRW program can adapt an existing weapon within 18 months and design, develop and begin production of that new design within 3-4 years of a decision to enter engineering development — again, goals that were established in 2004. Thus, if Congress and the President direct, we can respond quickly to changing military requirements. Linton Brooks, Speech to the East Tennessee Economic Council March 3, 2006

Essentially, everybody quoted in these articles is making “lawyer’s arguments” narrowly addressing the palatable title and superficial rationale for the program — making the nuclear stockpile more “reliable.” The new matter here, such as it is, is ex-weapons designers getting frustrated enough to denounce the program as pure pork. Unfortunately, it isn’t– those in power really do have missions in mind for nuclear weapons. Of course, visions for future military technologies encounter far less resistance when they follow money flows already firmly established.

But in any event, no arguments limited to the utility of a weapons system or the means of its development are truly significant in the current political context. There has, for example, been almost four decades of technical critique of missile defenses, making arguments that still largely stand unrefuted. Last time I looked (a couple of days ago while writing a fact sheet for activists about Vandenberg Air Force Base), the government was installing operational mid-course interceptors at Vandenberg and Fort Greeley, Alaska while spending many billions more on every potential BMD technology they can dream up.

Further, the important strategic weapons developments are likely to be in delivery systems and the means to find targets and hit them quickly and accurately. There are little in the way of treaty requirements and less in the way of global norms that limit testing of missiles and other long-range delivery systems by the dominant states. To the extent that there are nuclear warheads with meaningful new capabilities, their development likely will be driven by new delivery system capabilities. Much of this is proceeding quite visibly, yet the “arms control community” remains focused largely on nuclear bombs and warheads (and, to an even greater degree, on “non-proliferation” rather than disarmament). There are some exceptions (see, for example, the excellent new Global Strike report by Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists, and some coverage of these issues by the Center for Defense Information in their project on military space programs). But there has been little visible opposition so far to the purportedly non-nuclear “Global Strike” programs, where much of the work on new delivery systems likely will be occur. Such mainstream opposition as there is has focused largely on technical objections here too, for example the danger that Russia or China might mistake a conventional ICBM launch against a “rogue state” for a nuclear attack. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that many arms controllers have to some degree bought in to the precision conventional long-range strike paradigm (having long been advocating it, at least implicitly, by arguing that increasingly precise and powerful conventional weapons obviate the need for new nuclear capabilities).

What we are likely to get is advances in both conventional and nuclear weapons delivery– which is exactly what the government says it wants, so we should not be surprised. As Strategic Command (StratCom) Commander General James Cartwright told Inside the Pentagon, “It’s more than just precision; I can’t generate enough [conventional explosive] energy for some of these targets to destroy them. So I’m not leading you down a path that I can get rid of nuclear weapons.” And again: “My priority is not reduced yield,” Cartwright told ITP. “It’s to take the accuracy to the point where conventional can substitute for nuclear. That’s my first priority. My second point is: If I can’t get more precise or the energy is just not enough for the conventional explosion [to destroy targets in the nuclear plan], then again we can go to the lower yield discussion.” “U.S. General: Precise Long-Range Missiles May Enable Big Nuclear Cuts,” Inside The Pentagon, April 28, 2005, Pg. 1.

Technical critique alone will at most change the mix of weapons a bit. It is time for those with respectable podiums to be taking visible stands on the big issues– the determination of those now in power in United States to sustain global dominance by endless arms-racing and preventive war, the illegality of U.S. wars and the way that they are fought, the increasing disparity in wealth and power in the U.S. and world wide, the rapid erosion of not only constitutional principles but the rough accommodations and practices that have prevented pure class rule and that threatens to crush the last vestiges of meaningful political participation by ordinary people here. Its not likely to be enough, and its probably too late; but at the very least we have to be able to tell who is on which side in the growing crisis. But in the final analysis, people like the insider “critics” of the RRW– and perhaps, most of the “arms control community” as well– probably would rather sail right to the end of the world with their professional peers aboard the neo-imperial gunboat (while perhaps arguing over tactics).