I heard a talk last week by a high-up manager at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, someone who characterizes himself as “not doing policy.” He said that George Bush is committed to serious reductions in nuclear weapons, down to 5000 from the current 10,000. One of the contributors to the most recent Nuclear Posture Review said something similar about a year ago.
The question in many people’s minds seems to be whether that reduction is intended to make the remaining weapons more usable in situations that the US is likely to face in the post-Cold War world.
Dave Schuler pointed out, in a comment to one of my previous posts, that deterrence requires that adversaries be convinced that weapons will be used. From that point of view, nuclear weapons designed specifically for a confrontation in the Middle East or North Korea will be more effective as a deterrent than the current Cold War designs.
I would argue that the Bush administration has convinced the world, through its application of preventive war to Iraq and through its statements of policy, that it is ready to use what it’s got.
For example, Colonel-General Varfolomey Korobushin, first vice president of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences, gave a speech this week, “The Metamorphoses of Strategic Deterrence: It Has not Been Excluded that Intercontinental Missiles Will Once Again Have To Return to Their Silos.” The gist of the speech, reported in Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, is that the new American strategic triad (part of the NPR) may make it necessary for Russia to go back to a more Cold-War like nuclear defense footing. I think Korobusin is reading the triad wrong, but that’s another post. [Article via Johnson’s Russia List e-mail]
At least one general in Russia believes that the Bushies take their nuclear weapons seriously.
Deterring terrorists is another thing and probably won’t ever depend solely (or even mainly) on a nuclear option. I agree with J. in the discussion on the previous post that the US can’t come out and say that an anonymous attack on New York means the destruction of Mecca.
Something that might deter terrorists is the idea that they could be tracked down. Last week’s speaker commented that more methods of tracing nuclear materials back to their place of origin are being developed.
So there is some deterrence left in the old stockpile. It’s not clear that this would be improved by new weapons.
Ease of manufacturing and robustness to aging are the reasons for considering new weapons that are being put forth in congressional hearings. Additionally, the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator has been proposed as the solution to subterranean targets. It’s always going to be heavy on fallout, so anyone considering using an RNEP will have to consider that countries to the east of the target might be a little irritated. In the case of the Middle East, we’re talking about China.
Jeffrey Lewis, at Arms Control Wonk, has been following the budget battles (in chronological order, here, here, and here). The $9 million number would mean $3 million each for Los Alamos, Livermore, and Sandia. That’s about ten people at each lab, exploratory research. However, they are most likely building on work that’s gone before.
Jeffrey also noticed that once again, DoD may be looking to take the nuclear weapons capability away from DOE. The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 explicitly puts nuclear weapons development under civilian control and established the Atomic Energy Commission as manager, reporting to the President. The AEC was absorbed into ERDA and then DOE in the seventies. As Jeffrey notes, Congress has wanted to put nuclear weapons development in DoD before.
It seems likely that the continuing attacks on Los Alamos, over the last five or six years, are designed to accomplish this. The attacks have come from conservative congressmen and senators, who should love the nation’s nuclear design laboratories. It must seem too flaky to them to let nuclear weapons be designed by scientists reporting to the University of California, which has managed Los Alamos and Livermore since their inceptions. Make them salute! Or at least work for profit.
The contract for Los Alamos is up for renewal, and the University of Texas is partnering with Lockheed-Martin, which has managed Sandia National Laboratories. We can cite with concern Lockheed-Martin’s penchant for using English and metric units interchangeably, which resulted in the crash of one of the Mars vehicles, or the upside-down switch installation that resulted in the crash into the Utah desert of the Genesis capsule designed to collect particles from the solar wind.
But the real reason for keeping weapons design under civilian nonprofit control was given at that talk last week: “We tell the truth and give the country options.” Would that continue under a for-profit company? Or the DoD? Would the expectation of additional profits make those arguments for new nukes all that more pressing?