Last week Defense News published an editorial entitled “Build New Nukes,” which, naturally, argued that the U.S. needs to design and build new nuclear weapons in order to maintain its nuclear deterrent. The editorial (sorry for not posting a link; it’s subscription only) made a number of objectionable claims, including:
-“Yet while other members of the nuclear club continue to field newer weapons, America’s arsenal remains stagnant.”
-“The trouble is, these sophisticated weapons lose reliability and predictability as time passes-a worrisome fact given their enormous destructive power.”
-“And since making nuclear weapons is an exacting science without civil parallel, if you’re not making them you’re losing the skills needed to make them. The U.S. Navy discovered this a decade ago, when it set out to refurbish the W76 warheads that top its submarines’ Trident ballistic missiles. Very quickly, engineers realized they’d forgotten key skills to make a critical component, skills that took time and money to relearn.”
-“But failing to develop new U.S. weapons may actually hinder counterproliferation aims. If the countries under America’s nuclear umbrella question its reliability, they make seek nuclear arms of their own.”
To it’s credit, the editors ran a letter to the editor in response by yours truly in this week’s edition. Coupled with Daryl’s excellent piece, “Transform U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy,” the views of the arms control and nonproliferation community are well represented in this week’s Defense News. Below is the text of my letter:
U.S. Nuke Safety
In the editorial in the Aug. 17 issue, “Build New Nukes,” the Editors argue that the U.S. must design and build new nuclear weapons in order to maintain the reliability and credibility of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. However, the evidence marshaled in support of this contention does not do the heavy lifting the Editors think it does.
First, since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has successfully maintained the reliability and credibility of its existing nuclear arsenal through a variety of programs under the rubric of “stockpile stewardship” and “life extension.” No other nuclear power believes that the U.S. is allowing its nuclear deterrent to remain stagnant, and for good reason: the U.S. nuclear stockpile of over 5,000 weapons and its supporting infrastructure remain the most sophisticated and modern on the planet.
Due to stockpile stewardship, we know far more about our nuclear warheads now than we ever have. Thanks to this knowledge, our confidence in the current arsenal is high and likely to increase over time.
Second, a recent GAO report on the W76 life extension program concluded that while maintaining and refurbishing U.S. nuclear weapons is a difficult task, the delays in this particular program had as much if not more to do with poor planning and mismanagement than with a lack of technical expertise.
Finally, nearly all U.S. allies protected by the U.S. nuclear umbrella, including Japan, are also advocates for more robust U.S. leadership on nonproliferation and disarmament. The most important factor in an ally’s confidence in the credibility of the U.S. nuclear umbrella is its confidence in the strength of its political relationship with the United States.
If political relations fray, then the credibility of the U.S. nuclear umbrella will be perceived to be weak, no matter how many new nuclear weapons the United States possesses.
Deputy director of nuclear non-proliferation
Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation