Ever wonder why there is the perception that NNSA and STRATCOM have about as much credibility on stockpile maintenance and modernization issues as a screen door on a submarine? As Jeffrey Lewis and I explain in a recent piece published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, one reason is vacuum tubes.
Last fall, STRATCOM commander General Kevin Chilton sat down with The Wall Street Journal, one of the nation’s most reliable suppliers of nuclear misinformation. The goal of his visit: to convince the paper’s Editors that U.S. nuclear weapons have more in common with ’57 Chevys than they do with, well, nuclear weapons. Chilton pulled out a vacuum tube to illustrate is point.
According to Chilton, “This is the technology that we have . . . today.” He then took out a microchip, explaining to the credulous editorial board that, by withholding funding for the RRW Program, Congress has prevented the nuclear weapons complex from replacing outdated vacuum tubes with modern solid-state electronics.
While few would deny that our nuclear arsenal is aging, Chilton’s account is complete nonsense.
First, vacuum tubes are not used in the physics package of a single nuclear weapon design. In fact, vacuum tubes are currently used in only three modifications of one type of nuclear weapon: the B61. Second, the Energy Department has routinely replaced radars without nuclear testing or redesigning the physics package. Most recently, in 2006, Sandia planned to replace the remaining vacuum tube radars in the B61. However, NNSA canceled these latest ALTs, which would have resulted in the removal of the last vacuum tubes from the U.S. nuclear stockpile, because the U.S. Air Force preferred replacement to life extension.
While we focused our fire on Gen. Chilton in our piece, he is by no means the only culprit in this little charade. NNSA Administrator Tom D’Agostino told a similar story to Congress at a hearing of the Senate Energy and Water Development Subcommittee in April 2007. In making the case for the so-called RRW2 to replace the B61, D’Agostino alluded to vacuum tubes as a key example of the “several aging problems associated with the B-61.”
General Robert Smolen (USAF, Ret.), former Deputy Administrator, Defense Programs, NNSA, has been even more explicit in pointing to vacuum tubes as evidence of the need for the RRW. At a hearing of the House Strategic Forces Subcommittee in March 2008, Smolen argued:
“…we have a B-61 built in the 1960s. We’re in the process of trying to refurbish that….We still have a lot of non-nuclear components that are tubes that we’re concerned about….[A]s the stockpile continues to age, if we are faced with continually doing life extension programs, and if some of the materials we need to do that are unavailable and we have to remanufacture new ones, then we continue to build on the uncertainty which may sometime in the future have the lab directors question whether or not, in light of all the changes, they would be able to certify those weapons.” (emphasis mine).
Of course, the Wall Street Journal could care less that they’ve been played for fools. Chilton’s story fits squarely within their long-standing editorial position: the U.S. nuclear arsenal is on the verge of collapse. Congress, however, is not likely to be so forgiving.
If Gen. Chilton and other nuclear weapon hawks hope to convince Congress, the American public, and the rest of the world of the merits of their cause, they’d be wise not to make arguments that have absolutely nothing to do with the modernization debate. Harping on about an obscure nonnuclear component that is not contained in the physics package of any of our nuclear weapons and continues to function reliably will make it more, not less, difficult for NNSA to rebuild its broken bond with Congress and make its case for strengthening the U.S. nuclear infrastructure.