Friday, March 30, 2007


Building weapons to reduce weapons

by Jay Davis and Bill Nebo (San Francisco Chronicle, Friday, March 30, 2007)

Having the sense that the national discussion about the new generation of nuclear weapons will go on for some time, we decided as old friends with very different perspectives to see if we could join our knowledge and opinions and come to a common conclusion about the weapon and the program to build it, the Reliable Replacement Warhead.

We hoped that success in this matter would provide a useful guide for others as the dialogue and debate go forward. Programs dealing with weapons that can cause mass casualties and environmental change create moral and political concerns that must be addressed each time we renew them. We contend that our nation should be intentionally and responsibly led into visiting these political and moral concerns at the front end of efforts to renew our nuclear arsenal.

First: What is a reliable replacement warhead?

It is the first weapon to go into the nuclear stockpile in more than 20 years. It is designed to replace existing weapons carried on U.S. ballistic missile submarines and to be safer and more secure, with a much longer service lifetime. It is not a new weapon, in the sense of its military capabilities or of the targets to which it would be assigned. As such, it represents no change in use doctrine or threat. Our current weapons were not designed to last as long as they already have. While the plutonium cores continue to be viable, the non-nuclear components that live for decades in the low-radiation level of the cores weren't designed to last this long. In the past, were these parts to be replaced with modern ones, as one would logically do in rebuilding a car, a nuclear test would have been called for to validate the weapon's performance. Such a test is not possible under the moratorium. The military reaction to questions of reliability is to want large numbers of weapons in reserve, and to have multiple types of weapons, impeding further efforts to reduce the remaining large American and Russian nuclear stockpiles.

Second: Why build a reliable replacement warhead?

Having a more reliable weapon will allow the United States to reduce the size of its arsenal as fewer weapons will be needed to achieve a credible deterrent. The weapon offers the possibility of reducing the size and cost of the nuclear weapons-production complex, while making it more responsive to possible future threats -- that is, after a substantial investment.

On the other hand, the case against reliable replacement warheads is similarly stated: That it would encourage proliferation and, being a new weapon, would somehow lead to new threats of use or a lower threshold to use.

The first is easy to dismiss: Proliferation directed against us is stimulated almost exclusively by our conventional military superiority and by our policies and actions, such as the assertion of the unilateral right to declare pre-emptive war to repel or deter an attack, and to cause regime change in other nations at our whim.

Nuclear proliferation among regional neighbors (e.g., Egypt and Saudi Arabia versus Iran, Japan or Taiwan versus China, South Korea versus North Korea) is little affected by our weapons policies, unless we fail to make guarantees to allies under our nuclear umbrella both clear and credible.

As for the second, the reliable replacement warhead is not a new weapon and has no new utility, something that in fact the military may not like.

We believe that before this program goes forward, the reliable replacement warhead issue requires our nation to have a full and clear discussion of what our nuclear doctrine is. During the Cold War, Americans knew precisely whom our nuclear stockpile was intended to deter. We had a clear vision of the circumstances under which the stockpile was likely to be used and the consequences of such use.

Today, we lack that clear vision. Establishing that vision seems essential to achieving a political consensus that will support a reliable replacement warhead program. In replacing Cold War weapons with new ones, even if their military characteristics are the same, it is very important for us to be clear about their intended use. What are our present threats these weapons would deter and what future threat might they deter?

Additionally, the international dialogue needs to be free of bullying, posturing and threats because such behavior does not lead to the understanding and trust required for verifiable arms control agreements. We need to offer a return to treaty regimes (e.g., the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty) that are conducive to mutual trust.

At the end of the day, nuclear weapons are presidential weapons reserved for dealing with existential threats to the nation, either by deterrence, or in case of the failure of deterrence, by use. Casual discussion of their use by those not holding these sobering responsibilities is not useful in creating the clarity and understanding that this subject demands.

Jay Davis is a retired nuclear physicist who spent more than 30 years at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He was the first director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, having operational responsibility for U.S. arms control inspections. Bill Nebo retired last year after 30 years as the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Livermore. They have had a 20-year long discussion on these issues.

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