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.
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.
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.