The Magazine

New Nukes!

On nuclear modernization GOP senators should swing for the fences.

Jun 7, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 36 • By JOHN NOONAN
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After just a year in office, President Obama has announced sweeping changes in the U.S. nuclear deterrent arsenal—one that has kept America secure for decades. In April the president signed the START follow-on treaty with Moscow, which provides for additional cuts to nuclear forces already reduced by President Bush. Nuclear disarmament is a noble enough goal, but it may come with a hidden price. America’s nuclear warheads are decaying, and President Obama, in his eagerness to pursue an ideological vision of a nuclear-free world, has resisted maintaining and modernizing our force.

New Nukes!

The need for modernization is pressing. Though most of the details about America’s warhead stockpiles are highly classified, there are a few key points well known to close observers. Most of our nuclear warheads are 20-30 years old. The last weapon was constructed in 1991 and the last test detonation of a bomb occurred in 1992. The average age of an operational bomb is slightly over 30 years old, meaning many of our deployed warheads were built before President Reagan took office. Scientists who specialize in warhead construction and sustainment are aging and retiring at an alarming rate. By 2008, over half the nuclear specialists at our national laboratories were over the age of 50, and very few of those under 50 have the technical know-how to produce and sustain functional weapons. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates estimated that within a few years, roughly three-fourths of our nuclear technicians will be at retirement age. The National Nuclear Security Administration, a Department of Energy subagency responsible for the security and health of our stockpile, has lost over a quarter of its workforce since the end of the Cold War. Components in our warheads are aging just as fast. We no longer possess the capacity or ability to construct certain parts required in our bomb designs.

Nuclear weapons are different from conventional munitions, which can sometimes detonate decades after they roll off the assembly lines. Nukes have a limited shelf life, and are constructed using parts that decay and corrode. Warheads must be constantly maintained and serviced to be considered credible. But along with the exodus of critical lab technicians, so went the industry that supported our national laboratories with key bomb-making components. Older weapons are now cannibalized to service the active force.

Our nuclear delivery systems, which fortunately do not expire as readily as their payloads, are nonetheless in a state of decay. The B-52, the backbone of our strategic bomber force, is so old that the last airframe rolled off the assembly line during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Our Minuteman III ICBMs are products of the Nixon administration, and the Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine was designed and initially constructed during the same period. And while Obama’s new Nuclear Posture Review​—​a Defense Department crafted contextual framework for America’s nuclear strategy—called for the preservation of our nuclear triad of subs, bombers, and missiles, it only committed to a replacement for the Ohio-class submarine. 

Nuclear deterrence is predicated on two main assumptions. The first is that any given nation’s atomic forces are capable. That means bombs go off when they are supposed to—and don’t go off when they’re not supposed to—that fuses detonate the weapons at the proper altitude, that missiles hit their aim points with reliable accuracy, that the command and control infrastructure that authorizes nuclear launch is robust and survivable, and so on. The second is that nuclear forces are perceived by our adversaries as credible. If we test ten ICBMs and all ten fail, our fragile deterrence equation deteriorates, shaken by the suspicion that our missiles don’t work. America’s nuclear infrastructure, weapons, and command-and-control functions operate with high reliability and effectiveness. But recent satisfactory performance does not mean the future of our strategic arsenal is guaranteed. The United States, as it happens, is the only major nuclear power (a list that includes both Russia and China) not currently modernizing its nuclear capabilities.

In fairness to the Obama administration, some progress on modernization has been made. The administration has bumped up funding of the National Laboratories by 10 percent to support the so-called life extension programs (LEP), which is one of the ways our nuclear weapons are kept operationally certified. Each LEP “option” is designed to modify a warhead in such a way that it overcomes natural decay, thus extending its viability. Weapons are modified by the national labs, one of the reasons properly funding intellectual hubs like Sandia and Los Alamos is so important. 

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