After the Reliable Replacement Warhead: What's Next for the U.S. Nuclear Arsenal?

By Jeffrey Lewis

The Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) as envisioned by the Bush administration is effectively dead. This past fall, for the second year in a row, the Democratic Congress zeroed out funding for the RRW program despite Bush administration claims that extending the life of the current warhead types in the U.S. nuclear stockpile would, at some distant point in the future, lead to a sharp uptick in aging-related defects.

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1 comment:

Marko said...

Firstly, a most fascinating discussion on RRW. Pity that I have not yet had the opportunity to look at the print edition. This might temper the import of what I say here, but nonetheless here goes. In the article you make the point that the intent of RRW was not to enhance US military capabilities, although the affect has been to enhance these capabilities. For strategic stability the result is what matters.

Nonetheless this analysis seems to focus too narrowly on the LLNL design for WR1, which was a political compromise. I think the Administration really wanted to go for the LANL design but were “deterred” from doing so because they knew that this would lead to big opposition in Congress given the issue of testing and certification. The “conservative” LLNL WR1 should best be viewed as a bridgehead or a leading armored thrust for second echelon forces down the line, which would provide a more rational basis to judge the whole capabilities issue. This is especially the case given that post WR1 RRWs, in the long-term vision of the Stockpile Transformation Chart, are for next generation delivery vehicles including "possible need for military capabilities." This Chart was available, but then classified.

I think a case thereby could be made for stating that RRW has a strategic rationale (although that would not be its only rationale).

Consider the issue of tailored deterrence. Elaine Bunn (NDU “Strategic Forum” Jan 2007) argues persuasively that tailored deterrence can be divided into 3 parts; tailoring to specific situations/actors, tailoring deterrent messages/communications and tailoring capabilities.

On tailoring capabilities “Some draw attention to the need for clarity regarding what kinds of capabilities— either broadly or narrowly defined—would be needed for tailored deterrence, a question that raises potentially large programmatic (that is, new or modified weapons and platforms) and resource implications. The precise capabilities for any particular adversary and scenario would be tailored by choosing a particular mix among all those available.”

Furthermore, “The NPR recognized that large-scale nuclear attacks in response to some
actions taken by some adversaries are simply not credible. For some, New Triad tailored capabilities is code for new nuclear weapons with niche capabilities— optimized for specific characteristics, such as low yield, earth penetration, reduced residual radiation, or biological agent defeat. Proponents argue that specialized nuclear capabilities are more deterring either because hostile regional powers believe the United States would be “self-deterred” by the relatively large-yield, high-collateral-damage nuclear weapons it has”

Consider these remarks on tailoring capabilities in the context of the 2005 congressional testimony by Linton Brooks who stated that, “The Cold War legacy stockpile may also be the wrong stockpile from a military perspective. The Nuclear Posture Review identified a number of capabilities shortfalls in the existing arsenal that could undermine deterrence in the future. Specifically, the NPR suggested that current explosive yields are too high, that our systems are not capable against hard and deeply buried targets, that they do not lend themselves to reduced collateral damage and that they are unsuited for defeat of biological and chemical munitions. The designs of the past do not make full use of new precision guidance technologies from which our conventional systems have fully benefited, nor are they geared for small-scale strikes or flexibility in command, control and delivery. We do not know when, if ever, we will need to field new capabilities to deal with these shortfalls. Nonetheless, it is vital that we maintain the capability to respond to potential future requirements.”

Despite the limitations on RRW that were enacted by Congress for the Administration RRW is basically another version of the Advanced Concepts Initiative. RRW has a longer history than usually taken for granted. You can see in the DoE “END RUN” documents released by the NRDC that its origins lie in the Clinton Administration, a matter further confirmed by Stephen Younger’s LANL study on 21st century nuclear weapons.

On the issue of reliability I think Alex De Volpi said it best in the 1970s in his “Proliferation, Plutonium and Policy”. In the 70s debate erupted on maintaining the arsenal in the context of a test ban. Those against the CTBT cited the need for testing to maintain weapons reliability yet “various sources suggest that reliability tests are overrated” hence “it appears that the reliability argument is being advanced to provide a cover for possible improvements – that is, more vertical proliferation.” (pp-89-90)

Deja vu?

If so, we must be alert to the danger that whatever comes after RRW (for instance refurbishment) does not end up re-packaging RRW.