Commentary

New Warhead Designs

in Program

By Michael Krepon

With the benefit of hindsight and magical thinking, the Nuclear Enterprise and the Arms Control Enterprise should have struck a deal during the George W. Bush Administration: ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in return for production of the Reliable Replacement Warhead.

This revisionist history assumes, of course, that backers of the RRW would have ultimately found it reliable enough to dispense with renewed nuclear testing. And that the Bush Administration’s anti-arms control cohort would have been able to accept the CTBT. In reality, the Arms Control Enterprise and the Nuclear Enterprise were in no mood to bargain. Nor was the Bush Administration – certainly not after being handed a blank check by a revenge-seeking public. This star-crossed administration — elected by a one-vote margin courtesy of the US Supreme Court after a Carl Hiaasen-scripted Florida recount – received its mandate not at the polls, but after failing to connect the dots to prevent the worst-ever attacks on US soil.

The Bush Administration cashed this blank check in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as in dispensing with the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. In stark contrast, Team Bush was hemmed in when pursuing adaptations to existing warhead designs or new ones. The Arms Control Enterprise may be a shadow of its former self, but it can still rouse passions against the specter of renewed nuclear testing and other initiatives that seem too closely associated with nuclear war-fighting. Predictably, the Nuclear Enterprise overreached. Backers wanted not only the RRW, but also a new warhead adaptation to enhance earth penetration against buried, hardened targets. They got neither.

Instead of the RRW, the Obama Administration has continued more roundabout ways to extend the service life of existing warhead designs. This approach is sub-optimal for the Nuclear Enterprise and too costly and extensive for the Arms Control Enterprise, but both can live with it. A modus vivendi of sorts was reached during the Obama Administration: no new warhead designs, and no CTBT ratification. In contrast to other pledges made when running for president in 2008 (think of Gitmo), President Obama has failed to expend real effort to advance the CTBT’s prospects, not even when first elected, when 59 Senators were aligned with the Democratic caucus.

This modus vivendi is now being challenged by those who argue that the US stockpile is still too Cold War-oriented, and not designed sufficiently to control escalation and weapons effects. The fixes sought, echoing debates in the Bush Administration, are new low-yield nuclear warheads and improved counterforce capabilities against hardened, buried targets.

There has always been a tactical nuclear weapons “gap,” and consequently a low-yield “gap” between the US and Soviet/Russian stockpiles. These gaps haven’t adversely affected US nuclear deterrence in the past, but Vladimir Putin has raised new challenges for deterrence, as has Kim Jong Un. So, here we are again, with another groundswell for new nuclear warhead requirements. These calls come in the midst of expensive plans to recapitalize the Triad along with life extension programs for existing warhead designs — including warheads with low-yield targeting options.

A familiar advocate, Kathleen Bailey, has expounded these views in a brief circulated by the National Institute for Public Policy, opining,

“It is possible that stockpile problems could again occur, requiring testing to resolve. Second, testing may be required to shape the nuclear deterrent to better meet the challenges of the changed threat environment…

“Large-yield US nuclear weapons designed during the Cold War to destroy entire cities are less-than- optimal weapons for many of today’s threat scenarios. It is possible that further weapons developments or doctrinal changes by Russia and/or China will necessitate a reevaluation of whether the US should develop new nuclear warheads to bolster the US deterrent.”

Former Lab Director George N. Miller has argued that operators need more multiple, selective yield weapons, as well as a small number of “specialized” warheads. I assume, perhaps incorrectly, that Dr. Miller is referring to earth penetrators. Dr. John S. Foster, the Last Significant Elder of the Nuclear Enterprise, argues that,

“If the government supports the need for selected low yield weapons, work to repeal the policy and process on the prohibition of new nuclear weapons and capabilities, and permit and fund hydronuclear containerized underground nuclear tests less than 1 ton to provide high confidence in the performance at low yield.”

Concerning plutonium-pit production, Dr. Foster recommends that Livermore and Los Alamos compete in the design of modular production and, “when satisfactory performance has been demonstrated, deploy enough modules to produce say 100/yr and then to provide a production hedge, deploy additional modules to provide 500/yr.”

In recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, John Harvey calls attention to

“two looming questions involving stockpile modernization [that] are worthy of debate and discussion: Do we need nuclear warheads with new or different military capabilities? Do we need to retain capabilities to develop and produce such warheads?

“My short answers to these question are, respectively, ‘maybe’ and ‘most assuredly.’ It is timely to review needed military capabilities in light of the evolution of the global security environment including Russia’s actions upsetting the emerging post Cold War international order and increased focus on the challenge of deterring escalation in a conventional conflict between nuclear-armed states. At least three options may be seen as pertinent: Lower yield options for ICBM and SLBM warheads, at least until a viable prompt global conventional strike capability is achieved, and capabilities to hold at risk hardened, underground installations.”

At this hearing, Keith Payne added,

“Russian military officials speak openly of the preemptive employment of nuclear weapons in a conventional war. And according to open Russian sources, Russia has pursued specialized, low yield nuclear weapons to make its first-use threats credible and its weapons locally employable.”

Brad Roberts has written a tightly argued, mostly unflinching book on nuclear requirements, The Case for U.S. Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century (2016). Brad does, however, flinch when it comes to new warhead designs, concluding that,

“The case for the addition of these weapons to the U.S. arsenal hinges on an assessment of whether they add credibility to U.S. threats in the eyes of the adversary… This seems plausible but is not testable.”

As an aside, one could argue that this “not-testable” constraint applies to every warhead and every nuclear weapon delivery capability in every nuclear arsenal. We can’t tell for sure why nuclear deterrence succeeds; knowing why conventional deterrence backed by nuclear weapons fails is more explicable. Either way, it’s a stretch to argue that the particulars of a new warhead designs will tip these scales.

But getting back to Brad’s argument, whatever modicum of additional deterrence a new warhead might provide must, in his view, be weighed against the amount of blowback on the Nuclear Enterprise that can be expected for re-fighting this battle.

Brad also weighs in with a humanitarian consequences consideration for low-yield options, as does Jim Miller and others, including Dr. Foster, who argues for “strictly minimized bloodshed” and to avoid “enduring environmental damage.”

This isn’t exactly what the Humanitarian Pledge Movement has in mind. If the Nuclear Enterprise stays on this course while opposing the CTBT, expect a strong domestic and stronger international backlash.

Michael Krepon is co-founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in Arms Control Wonk, Februray 29, 2016.

Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on email
Choose Your Subscription Topics
* indicates required
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea
South Asian Voices