The United States has not built a new nuclear warhead in more than 20 years. We have not tested in more than 17. Several programs to keep our existing arsenal in reliable working order have been cancelled, put on hold, or are in jeopardy on the Hill. Worse, the “nuclear weapons complex”—the network of labs and the science and engineering schools that feed them—is underfunded and (some insiders argue) demoralized. Worse still, the longer we go without testing, and the smaller our arsenal gets, the more essential it is to be sure that what we have left will surely work. Enormous Cold War stockpiles provided enough redundancy to remove all doubt from the mind of an adversary. Anticipated cuts, scheduled decommissionings and ongoing dismantlement may soon put us in a position where this is no longer true.
Unless we do something to ensure the reliability of the remaining stockpile. There are a handful of ideas on how to do that, ranging from building a new(ish) warhead design using existing fissile material and some existing parts down to “refurbishment” (the replacement of individual parts when those parts reach the point of anticipated degradation).
For many years, the U.S. has followed the latter approach, under the rubric of the “Life Extension Program” (LEP). A recent study from the Department of Energy—conducted by senior scientists—concluded that simply continuing with this approach was good enough. Other Defense experts (including Secretary Gates himself) have disagreed in the past, but given the present administration’s strong commitment to arms control, it would appear that anything more ambitious than refurbishment is off the table for now.
Which makes staying the course with this program, and funding it adequately, especially important. That means, among other things, steeling ourselves for the rhetorical defense when, at the various arms control conferences scheduled for this year, other countries criticize refurbishment as hawkish, destabilizing, and “pro-nuke.” It also means convincing doves in Congress to pony up the necessary cash.
The endorsement of Kissinger, Nunn, Perry, and Shultz for the LEP and for robust funding for the nuclear weapons complex is therefore welcome and notable. No one could accuse any of these men of Strangelovian affection for nuclear weapons. They have more than earned their arms control bona fides. Just as it takes a certain courage for serious men to endorse the seemingly fanciful goal of a nuclear free world, so does it take courage to temper that endorsement with a caution about nuclear security in the world as it is—and will remain for the foreseeable future. They got plenty of hosannas from the left for the former. They are sure to get some brickbats for the latter.
Let’s hope that a president who was eager to claim their mantle for his Prague speech is just as eager to heed their advice on this crucial question.