By Travis Sharp and Kingston Reif
Yesterday GSN’s Elaine Grossman had a huge scoop on the ongoing debate within the Obama administration about what is required to maintain a safe, secure, and reliable nuclear deterrent. According to Grossman’s sources, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, with the support of Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff James Cartwright and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, tried to revive the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program at a National Security Council Principals’ Meeting in early June. Vice President Joe Biden was the only voice of opposition, arguing that designing and building new warheads would undermine the ambitious nonproliferation agenda laid out by the President in Prague.
As Grossman notes, this is hardly “the final word on the warhead-replacement matter.” The issue is clearly being hotly debated in the context of the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). According to one senior Defense Department official consulted by Grossman, “It’s not clear where we’re going to go [on the warhead issue]….We need an effective stockpile [but] we haven’t got a consensus within the administration on what that means. And so I can’t say that, forever, this ‘replacement’ idea is verboten.”
The article is long, but a must read. Below are some of our reactions.
History shows that once a strategic or political need for a defense program is established, the effort becomes extremely difficult to terminate.
Though they may be scaled back or transferred to “technology demonstrator” status, defense programs rarely die.
Take, for another example, the ongoing saga of a new U.S. spy satellite. The original effort, known as Future Imagery Architecture (FIA), was cancelled in 2005 after hemorrhaging $4 billion on what the Times labeled “perhaps the most spectacular and expensive failure in the 50-year history of American spy satellite projects.” After several years operating the legacy production line in the wake of FIA’s collapse, Robert Gates and Dennis Blair announced this spring that work would soon begin on the Next Generation Electro-Optical System, which amounts to “a recovery plan from the FIA collapse.”
The technical and fiscal risks inherent in this approach are legion; nonetheless, once the rationale exists for a program – as it does (legitimately or not) for the RRW and the new spy satellite – the momentum carrying the program forward becomes self-sustaining. Even dormant periods with no activity or funding can be bridged successfully.
Vacuum Tubes!? Seriously!?
That’s the G-rated version of our initial reaction upon reading Grossman’s account of the Principal’s meeting. In supporting Gates’ position, Gen. Cartwright apparently cited vacuum tubes as a reason why the RRW is necessary. As Jeffrey and Kingston have detailed on more than one occasion, vacuum tubes have no place in the modernization debate (vacuum tubes are not used in the physics package of a single nuclear weapon design; they’re currently used in only three modifications of one type of nuclear weapon – the B61; they can be replaced without nuclear testing; they continue to function reliably; etc.).
Even John Harvey, the former head of NNSA’s policy planning staff, thinks the vacuum tube argument is crazy. At the same breakfast discussion on Capitol Hill cited by Grossman where Harvey threw his support behind the “spectrum of options” approach to modernizing the stockpile, he stated that there are many different ways we could address vacuum tubes, but in any case he didn’t have a problem with them. In fact, he said there are some circumstances where they’re preferable to newer semiconductor devices!
Domestic political factors (and vacuum tubes) are dominating what should be a technical debate about how best to maintain the stockpile.
Clinton argued that the RRW might be necessary for “domestic political reasons,” particularly to win support for a START follow-on treaty and the CTBT. Yet such a judgment is premature since the text of the START follow-on treaty does not yet exist and many Senators have not given any thought to the CTBT since the last vote in 1999.
It’s all on the President
As an anonymous RRW opponent cited by Grossman put it, “The president has to have the guts to say no…Almost everyone else is inclined to Clinton-vintage political triangulation.” Those who have read Janne Nolan’s An Elusive Consensus, part of which tells the story of the failed 1993-94 NPR, know that the failure of the President to intervene in support of his agenda will result in an NPR that does not reflect that agenda.