The past decade hasn’t exactly been a thriller for the nation’s nuclear weapons designers, physicists, and engineers. The US nuclear weapons complex, after its Cold War exploits, has been bogged down in force reductions and stockpile maintenance. It hasn’t built a new-design nuke since the 1980s. It hasn’t carried out a nuclear test since 1992. Game over, it seemed.
Yet things have begun to change again. The Energy and Defense Departments have embarked on a new campaign to strengthen the US ability to design, fabricate, refurbish, and test a range of nuclear weapons.
The change stems from the Bush Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, made public Jan. 9. The move is part of a larger effort to ensure that planners have maximum flexibility as the number of deployed nuclear weapons declines.
President Bush announced the United States will cut its nuclear forces from 6,000 deployed weapons today to 3,800 by 2007 and between 1,700 and 2,200 by 2012. Officials say improved post-Cold War relations with Moscow make these reductions possible. However, they caution that such plans must be reversible.
This desire to keep options open has spurred decisions to expand DOE’s power to manufacture and test nuclear components, if necessary. Officials said in recent years that DOE’s Science-Based Stockpile Stewardship program has improved the monitoring of weapons and has allowed the United States to adhere to an unofficial test moratorium. However, it is not enough.
“Within the weapons program itself, there are two or three things that are really on top of the list of what we are trying to do,” said Gen. John A. Gordon, USAF (Ret.), who heads DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration. NNSA is responsible for the oversight of the US nuclear weapons complex.
The first of these priorities, he said, was simply to maintain the safety, reliability, and security of the weapons the US fields today. “That is job No. 1,” he said. Unfortunately, he added, the ability to create new components and weapons has begun to atrophy, and thus rehabilitation of the health of the nuclear infrastructure has now become a major priority.
The need to respond to an uncertain future and unknown threat condition is also causing the Pentagon to hedge its bets while reducing nuclear forces. The defense leadership has announced that, as nuclear weapons are taken out of service, they will not necessarily be dismantled. Many will instead be sent into long-term storage, creating a “responsive force” of weapons that could be returned to use much quicker than is possible if new weapons must be manufactured from scratch.
Nuclear planners see a healthy weapons infrastructure and a force of responsive warheads in storage to be important hedges against changing threat environments and technical surprises. For example, today’s relations with Russia are good, but that nation continues to experience unrest and could become a danger. China could emerge as a more aggressive nuclear competitor. Unforeseen problems could emerge in one of the nuclear weapons systems.
Gordon staked out this position in detail in testimony in February to the Senate Armed Services Committee. With a healthy infrastructure, he testified, “A future competitor seeking to gain some nuclear advantage would be forced to conclude that its buildup could not occur more quickly than the US could respond.”
He added that deterrence comes “not only [from] in-being forces, but the demonstrable capabilities of the defense scientific, technical, and manufacturing infrastructure, of which a responsive nuclear weapons infrastructure is a key part–including its ability to sustain and adapt–that provides the United States with the means to respond to new, unexpected, or emerging threats in a timely manner.”
Reaching the desired level of responsiveness will pose a major challenge, Gordon said.
“What I worry about most for the long term is maintaining that infrastructure,” he told reporters last spring. “The decisions made 10 or so years ago, when the [Berlin] Wall came down, were undoubtedly right at the time, but the budget was cut nominally in half, … so the decision was made at the time to throw almost all the money into the science front end of the program,” he said.
The nuclear weapons complex’s physical infrastructure was therefore allowed to decay, said Gordon, “and that problem has come home to roost now with aging facilities, deferred maintenance.” This is becoming more critical as NNSA adds responsiveness to its list of top priorities, he said.
“No advanced warhead concept development is under way,” Gordon reported to the Senate panel, and underinvestment “has increased risks and will limit future options. Currently, we cannot build and certify plutonium ‘pits’ [nuclear weapon cores] and certain secondary components, much less complete warheads.”
He said the goal is to have the wherewithal to fix a “relatively major” problem in the stockpile within a year and to begin initial production of new weapon components within about three years.
DOE has a similar time goal for responding to a possible future call from the President to resume nuclear testing. The lag time today is 24 to 36 months, which DOE officials consider too long. If something were to lower DOE’s confidence in reliability of the W76 warhead–the warhead deployed on Trident submarines–the ability to conduct a test more quickly might be critically important, Gordon testified.
The Energy Department will work to reduce the preparation time needed to resume tests, dropping it to perhaps 18 months, and has allocated $15 million to begin moving to a more responsive test posture in Fiscal 2003.
Development of complete new warheads takes longer–about five years, Gordon said. “Our goal is to maintain sufficient [Research and Development] and production capability to be able to design, develop, and begin production on the order of five years from a decision to enter full-scale development of a new warhead,” he said. This is consistent with past efforts that created warheads the US has available now.
Gordon also testified that the Nuclear Posture Review validated existing DOE-DOD weapons refurbishment plans, but new demands were being placed on the Energy Department. Creating a “New Triad” of offensive strike capabilities, defenses against missile attack, and responsive infrastructure means the DOE workload will not get any lighter, he said.
J.D. Crouch II, the Pentagon’s assistant secretary of defense for international security policy who announced the findings of the nuclear review in January, said a responsive infrastructure creates long-term flexibility. “When I use that term,” Crouch said, “I’m not strictly talking about the nuclear infrastructure. I’m talking about a responsive defensive infrastructure that can respond in time frames that are not in the sort of 15- to 20-year time frame that we are used to thinking about the development of new systems.”
John Harvey, another senior Energy Department official, asserted that DOE must step up its efforts to meet weapon demands and upgrade some Air Force weapons over the next decade. DOE must be able to act faster to support defense requirements, said the director of policy planning at NNSA.
Harvey said DOE has “a long ways to go to restore some of the capabilities we need later this decade.” This includes refurbishing “elements of our air-delivered systems [and] our cruise missile systems,” he said, including the W80 warhead for the Air Launched Cruise Missile and Advanced Cruise Missile and “some of our air-dropped bombs–the B61 in particular.”
The B61 is a gravity bomb that can be dropped from an F-15, F-16, or F-117 fighter as well as the B-2 bomber. “We will need to establish and recover production capabilities in order to be able to refurbish that element of the stockpile later on this decade,” Harvey said.
Gordon said NNSA seeks to ensure that DOE’s warhead transportation, tritium support, and other requirements are not the “long poles in the tent” when it comes time to convert nuclear warheads to the responsive force on DOD timelines.
Several factors would determine the nature, size, and scope of warheads, Gordon testified. These include progress in re-establishing lost production facilities, response times, and a desire to retain a “subpopulation of nonrefurbished warheads” as a hedge against weapon failures. Meanwhile, officials say, all eight warhead types currently in the active stockpile will be refurbished even as the total number of warheads comes down.
“Perhaps more so than in any previous defense review,” Gordon said, “this concept of a New Triad reflects a broad recognition of the importance of a robust and responsive defense R&D and industrial base in achieving our overall defense strategy.”
Crouch said that repairing the infrastructure “is critical to being able to reduce risk as we bring the operational force down to lower and lower levels of nuclear forces.” The other key step is to increase the number of warheads that could be returned to active service if needed.
“The responsive capability would be able to augment that [active] force,” Crouch explained, “and it essentially will be additional warheads that could be uploaded back onto that force if necessary and, obviously, if the president were to make a decision to do that. And that would take weeks, months, even years to do that, depending upon the system and the character of the threat.”
Such decisions would not be made lightly, he added. “What we’re talking about is a responsive capability that would take, at the very least, weeks–but likely months and even years–to be able to regenerate.” He added that the US would not take such a step except in response to “a major change in the security environment.”
Pentagon officials emphasize that almost all major issues remain undecided.
Maj. Gen. Franklin J. Blaisdell, who was Air Force director of nuclear and counterproliferation operations until late May, said the responsive force would add to the flexibility of the US triad because the military will be able to draw weapons out of storage if the security environment changes.
If Washington decided to embark on a major expansion of the nuclear arsenal, bombers would likely be the quickest vehicle for doing so. Different times would be needed to increase weapons available to bombers, submarines, and ICBMs, but “it takes little time to bring responsive weapons to the bomber force,” Blaisdell said, noting that new weapons could be available for bomber use in a matter of days.
He went on, “It would take some more time–maybe … months”–to increase the warheads available to the submarine force, while it would probably take “a year or so” to alter the ICBM force.
Arms Control Complaints
This aspect of the nation’s nuclear planning has drawn fire from arms control advocates who claim putting warheads in storage instead of destroying them will simply encourage Russia, with its questionable security controls, to do the same. This does not enhance US security, they argue.
The future size and composition of the responsive force will depend mostly on evaluations of US nuclear requirements. Also undetermined is exactly how to count warheads removed from active service and sent to storage. This will be the subject of negotiations with Russia, officials say. Although the Administration has stated a desire to stay away from formal, negotiated arms control agreements with the Russians in the future, the US will likely seek access to verify the status of Russian nuclear stockpiles. Russia will want reciprocal access to US facilities.
Blaisdell said it makes sense for DOD to make conservative decisions when changing the configuration of US Intercontinental Ballistic Missile forces. It can take more than a year to reverse ICBM changes once they are done, and USAF is already committed to fully retire its 50 Peacekeeper ICBMs that can carry 10 warheads apiece.
Most Minuteman IIIs carry three warheads while others already have been downloaded to one warhead to meet arms control requirements. It is widely believed the majority of the fleet will eventually move to a single warhead, but officials say not before 2007.
Decisions to download ICBM warheads and either dismantle or store them may be among the last the Pentagon makes during the current round of force reductions.
Because of all the equipment that must go to the field and return to the base for each ICBM, “the rule of thumb [to upload a warhead] is about one a week, about 50 a year, [and] we’ve been doing that for a long time,” Blaisdell said. “It’s just a lot of equipment involved” along with safety and security considerations that make ICBM warhead changes a lengthy process.
Some have speculated that President Bush is preparing to order development of new nuclear weapons, probably beginning with an earth-penetrating warhead. Such a development could be accomplished through modification of an existing weapon, which would not necessarily require a nuclear test explosion. But to ensure viability, US nuclear testing could be sought for the first time in a decade.
Moratorium Stays–For Now
Officials are adamant that, for the time being at least, no one is planning to abandon the test moratorium and no requirement for a new weapon has been stated at all. Officials emphasized that Bush remains committed to the moratorium but wants freedom to resume testing if circumstances change.
Asked how confident he was that the stockpile stewardship program would allow Washington to avoid a resumption of nuclear testing, Gordon said, “That is the open question to be decided.” He went on, “Certainly I would tell you today the weapons are safe. They are reliable and there is nothing that we see in the weapons today that would drive us to a test in the near future. But you asked me to look into the crystal ball. … [T]o say that we would never have to do a test? I can’t do that. On the other hand, I can say, I don’t have a need to test now.”
Crouch also said the Nuclear Posture Review resulted in no change to the Administration’s policy of adhering to a testing moratorium.
Another factor complicating future plans is the role of conventional weapons in traditionally nuclear missions. The Bush Nuclear Posture Review lumps nuclear and certain non-nuclear strike weapons into the same leg of the New Triad.
“As advanced conventional weapons are fielded–along with the intelligence and command-and-control systems to support them–the Air Force will be able to bring down our nuclear forces because we are balancing the full spectrum” of capabilities, Blaisdell said. The United States “will use conventional every opportunity,” he added, and “as we get better and better at conventional strike, we may be able to take down some of the nuclear systems.”
This does not signify a lack of commitment to nuclear capabilities, however. “We will always need nuclear systems as long as there [are] nuclear weapons in the world [because] you never want to be held hostage; that’s part of the deterrence,” he said.
Some are not pleased with this strategy, arguing that placing conventional weapons in the same category as nuclear weapons blurs the distinction between the two and increases the likelihood that nuclear weapons will be used for the first time since World War II. For example, DOD is studying the possibility of creating a “new” nuclear weapon usable against hardened and deeply buried targets, the same mission that significant conventional research is attempting to tackle.
“There is no work … that is focused on an output,” Gordon said. The research that is occurring, he said, is to “find a way to let people explore advanced ideas. It is no more and no less than that. … We have not been given a requirement for design of any kind from the military. We are not going to build any and we are not going to test any. We are very aware of what the congressional requirements are.”
Adam J. Hebert is senior correspondent for InsideDefense.com, an Internet defense information site, and managing editor for Defense Information and Electronics Report, a Washington, D.C.–based defense newsletter. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “The Return of NORAD,” appeared in the February 2002 issue.