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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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Unfortunately, simply throwing money at the labs and calling it modernization is insufficient. President Obama has made it clear that he will not authorize a new nuclear warhead design, thus condemning the stockpile to endless LEP options, which some in the White House believe to be a silver bullet solution to the degrading arsenal. Though life extension does theoretically increase a nuclear weapon’s lifespan, each LEP modification distances a warhead from its original design. Original bomb designs are unique, in that they were properly tested in an underground detonation of the device. Without nuclear testing, there’s no way to determine—with absolute certitude—that a modified warhead will work. Unfortunately, President Obama has also made it clear that there will be no resumption of nuclear tests during his tenure.

There is a middle ground here. A few years back, President Bush authorized development of the Reliable Replacement Warhead, a new bomb design that was simple, cheap to maintain, and—most important—did not depend on nuclear testing to verify dependability. That’s not a pie-in-the-sky concept. The first actual detonation of a uranium gun-barrel atomic device was over Hiroshima. Manhattan Project scientists were so confident in the weapon, colloquially known as “Little Boy,” that they didn’t bother testing it. 

The same confidence reposes in the Reliable Replacement Warhead, which is a far simpler design than our current nuclear inventory. In fact, not only is the design uncomplicated, it’s also weaker. Fortunately, 100 kilotons deters as well as 500 kilotons. Simpler also means easier to maintain, which translates to drastically reduced sustainment costs.

The lifespan of nuclear weapons, even relatively simple ones, cannot be extended indefinitely. Despite the gnashing of teeth from the Oval Office, a new nuclear weapon will have to be designed and ultimately fielded in the near future. If testing is off the table​—as both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have insisted—then the Reliable Replacement Warhead is the best technical solution for ensuring nuclear weapon viability. It is, admittedly, not the best political solution. Disarmament advocates like the Federation of American Scientists and the Ploughshares Fund came out swinging when the Reliable Replacement Warhead was introduced in 2005. Fears of a second Cold War echoed down Washington’s long political corridors, and Congress ultimately killed funding of the warhead before it could be implemented. Lawmakers should have taken a closer look—Russia and China are already up to their necks in nuclear research and development, building new delivery systems as well as toying with new warhead designs. Washington’s right to experiment with new nuclear designs is not proscribed by treaty; objections to nuclear modernization are domestic.

The 41 Republicans in the Senate recently signed a letter to President Obama stating that his prized START follow-on would not be ratified without significant steps toward more effective nuclear modernization. The administration’s response, beefing up national lab funding, was positive but should be recognized as a half-measure. Nuclear deterrence is simply too vital to national security to be done on the cheap, or to be compromised by ideological opposition. 

The signatories of that letter should swing for the fences on stockpile stewardship. Fund and develop the Reliable Replacement Warhead, upgrade bomber and missile fleets long past their prime, restore and revitalize expertise throughout the entire U.S. nuclear enterprise. If our strategic arsenal is to be bound by a constricting treaty, then technical confidence and warhead reliability must be a top national security priority. 

John Noonan is a policy adviser with the Foreign Policy Initiative.

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