The Wall Street Journal’s Melanie Kirkpatrick traveled to Maclean to interview former Secretary of Defense Dr. James Schlesinger. The result was, well:
For nuclear strategists, Mr. Schlesinger is Yoda, the master of their universe.
I know. Unbelievable. One wonders if STRATCOM Commander Kevin Chilton is jealous now that Dr. Schlesinger appears to be the apple of Melanie’s eye.
Ok, enough with the bad jokes. There’s plenty to take issue with in Kirkpatrick’s and Dr. Schlesinger’s conception of the appropriate role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security policy. But one meme in particular stands out. According to Dr. Schlesinger:
The U.S. is the only major nuclear power that is not modernizing its weapons. “The Russians have a shelf life for their weapons of about 10 years so they are continually replacing” them. The British and the French “stay up to date.” And the Chinese and the Indians “continue to add to their stockpiles.” But in the U.S., Congress won’t even so much as fund R&D for the Reliable Replacement Warhead. [emphasis mine].
Kirkpatrick got a similar response from Gen. Chilton when she interviewed him last November:
The U.S. is alone among the five declared nuclear nations in not modernizing its arsenal. The U.K. and France are both doing so. Ditto China and Russia. “We’re the only ones who aren’t,” Gen. Chilton says. Congress has refused to fund the Department of Energy’s Reliable Replacement Warhead program beyond the concept stage and this year it cut funding even for that.[emphasis mine].
The bipartisan Congressional Strategic Posture Commission also endorsed this basic premise, and it has quickly become one of the key arguments deployed by those who argue that the U.S. needs to build new nuclear weapons and completely reorganize its nuclear infrastructure.
I don’t want to go into too much detail here as I’m working on an article on this issue, but some additional comments are below the jump. Suffice it to say that I do not believe that the publicly available evidence supports the view that U.S. allies and adversaries are adding new nuclear weapons and capabilities while the U.S. is allowing its nuclear forces to atrophy and decline.
What does it mean to say that the U.S. is the only major nuclear power that is not modernizing its weapons? Does it mean that the U.S. is the only major nuclear power that is not designing and building new nuclear weapons? That does not maintain a functioning production infrastructure? That is not upgrading it’s nuclear delivery systems?
The key issue here is how one defines modernization. Neither Gen. Chilton nor Dr. Schlesinger explicitly define what they mean by modernization, but in referencing the RRW, it’s clear that they view modernization as the design and production of new warheads. But if that’s the case, the challenge is defining what constitutes new. Is the claim that Russia and China are producing strategic (and/or non-strategic) warheads based on untested designs? Are they secretly testing new designs in contravention of their testing moratoriums and the CTBT, which they both signed in 1996? If so, where is the evidence to support such claims? If not, what exactly do they mean by modernization?
Beyond the narrow issue of whether it’s true that the U.S. is the only major power that is not modernizing its weapons is the larger, and more important, issue of how and whether this matters. For example, there are ways in which the U.S. would like to see its adversaries modernize, such as by making safety and security improvements to their warheads, while other changes may simply not pose any threat. In my view not only are U.S. nuclear capabilities not lagging behind those of our allies or adversaries, but neither the current Russian nor Chinese modernization programs would increase the threat to the United States already posed by their existing arsenals.