Reliable Replacement Warhead: Does the United States Need a New Breed of Nuclear Weapon?
RICHARD L. GARWIN,
IBM FELLOW EMERITUS,
THE WATSON RESEARCH CENTER
THE STRATEGIC SECURITY PROJECT,
THE FEDERATION OF AMERICAN SCIENTISTS
ROBERT W. NELSON,
THE UNION OF CONCERNED SCIENTISTS
DARYL G. KIMBALL,
ARMS CONTROL ASSOCIATION
APRIL 25, 2006
Federal News Service
DARYL G. KIMBALL: Ladies and gentlemen, if you could please find your seats, we'll begin our program. I'm Daryl Kimball. I'm the executive director of the Arms Control Association, and I want to welcome you to the Henry L. Stimson Center. We're using this facility for the first time. It's a new office for the Stimson Center. We hope you didn't get lost finding your way here. There may be a few other people coming in a little late because we're at a location that we typically don't use for our events. We have many members and friends of the Arms Control Association here, but for those of you who are not familiar with us, we're a non-profit, non-partisan research and public education organization. We're devoted to work regarding the threats posed by nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, and practical strategies to deal with those weapons dangers, and we publish the journal Arms Control Today.
This afternoon's session is but the latest of our ongoing efforts to encourage critical thinking and practical solutions about how to stymie global arms competition, nuclear arms competition in particular, and how to reduce the saliency of nuclear weapons. The Arms Control Association and many of our other colleague organizations have sought to strengthen the norm against nuclear testing to stop the development of new nuclear weapons for new military missions. And just as a backdrop for today's session on the Reliable Replacement Warhead program and whether the United States needs a new breed of nuclear weapons, let me just recount for you some of the recent developments that led to the initiation of this program.
As you are aware, there has been a debate over the last four years in Congress about the Bush administration's research and development proposal for the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP), as well as a proposal for research called the Advanced Concepts Initiative, which was, in part, intended to pursue new warheads with new capabilities designed to destroy chemical and biological targets. Now, due to the efforts of several members of Congress, Congress rejected those proposals, the RNEP program in particular, and the Bush administration proposed a new effort to develop a new family of so-called reliable replacement warheads: RRW. You'll hear that acronym over and again this afternoon.
The purpose, according to the [Department of Energy's] National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), is to sustain existing nuclear weapons capabilities at lower cost and without nuclear test explosions. Now, at first glance the program goals might seem appealing, but we-the Arms Control Association, other organizations, and experts-were skeptical and last year we called on Congress to take a harder look at the assumptions used to justify RRW. We suggested that RRW isn't necessary if the existing Stockpile Stewardship program to maintain the safety and reliability of the existing arsenal is working. We noted that if new RRW designs introduce new, untested concepts, it could increase doubts about the reliability, not decrease doubts about the reliability, of the enduring nuclear stockpile. We cautioned that RRW could, perhaps in future years, become a backdoor means to create new warheads with new military capabilities that the Bush administration continues to assert are needed for the United States national defense in the future. And of course, if the United States were to resume nuclear testing or to pursue new weapons for new missions, we believe that this could lead other states to pursue countermeasures and lead to increased nuclear competition and a decrease in global security.
So last year what Congress decided to do was to approve funding for the program, but it established in law a set of parameters to help ensure - and I'll quote here briefly from the Energy and Water Appropriations Act for fiscal year 2006. They stipulated that "Any design work done under the RRW program must stay within the military requirements of the existing deployed stockpile and any new weapon design must stay within the design parameters validated by past nuclear tests." So here we are a year after the RRW program was proposed. The weapons laboratories and the National Nuclear Security Administration have clearly expanded their vision for the program. And as outlined in recent congressional testimony and in an interim report to Congress, the NNSA states that it not only wants to build a replacement for the W-76 warhead, which is on submarine-launched ballistic missiles, by 2012, but it wants to replace each of the several types of warheads in the existing arsenal over the course of the next three decades with RRW warheads. The NNSA's interim report also asserts, without much explanation, that nuclear weapons lab directors have concerns about the continuing ability of the Stockpile Stewardship program to maintain the existing stockpile. It also suggests that new features should be introduced into RRW warheads, such as those relating to safety characteristics or use control.
Finally, officials at the National Nuclear Security Administration argue that RRW is "an enabler" for building a new and modernized nuclear weapons production complex. So as each of our speakers will explain in the next few minutes, we think there remains ample reason to continue to be wary and skeptical about the program. I also would argue that in the next year Congress needs to further clarify and limit the program to avoid mission creep. If program justifications continue to be inadequate, Congress should not hesitate to cut funding for RRW. Early next month the congressional committees that have jurisdiction are going to mark up their respective bills that relate to RRW, and later this year the NNSA is scheduled to select a candidate design for the first RRW weapon.
So with that, let me introduce our panelists. Each of them will speak for a few minutes and then we're going to take your questions.
First we have Richard Garwin, who is an IBM fellow emeritus at the Watson Research Center. Dr. Garwin has a long and extremely distinguished résumé and decades of experience dealing with nuclear weapons design and nuclear policy issues. He's going to describe possible technical options for RRW design, what types of changes could be done, which should not be done, and what the implications are for possible nuclear testing. Dr. Ivan Oelrich is vice president of the Strategic Security Project at the Federation of American Scientists. He is going to address why Congress has sought to restrict the RRW program, specifically with respect to changes that could lead to new military capabilities in the arsenal. Finally, Dr. Rob Nelson, who is a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, is going to discuss the status of current efforts to maintain the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile under the current Stockpile Stewardship program, and why, in his view, the RRW program is unnecessary. And Rob also has written an excellent article in this month's issue of Arms Control Today.
RICHARD L. GARWIN: Thank you. I have a lot of papers on my website, which is not listed here, but it is http://www.FAS.org/rlg/, and once you get there you'll find a number of background papers, including a 2001 paper "Maintaining Nuclear Weapons Safe and Reliable under a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty", which discusses this subject.
There also is a very thorough paper by Jonathan Medalia [of the Congressional Research Service], that you will find on the FAS website. This describes the arguments in favor and those against the RRW program, and also the budgetary actions which seem to be reducing efforts for stockpile life extension, which is predictable because there is an RRW program in the wings and people are paid to make it look more appealing. One way to make it look more appealing is to eliminate the alternatives. At the end of Jonathan's paper there is an appendix, "Nuclear Weapons and the Nuclear Weapons Complex."
That sets the general stage on what is a thermal nuclear weapon. All of the weapons that we're talking about have a primary nuclear explosive, which is boosted. It has gas that is put in at the last moment so that the fission explosion is boosted to a higher level and the soft x-rays come out captured by a radiation case, and they are held there so as to implode a secondary that has the fusion fuel. So we're talking about the primary, the secondary, the radiation case, and a lot of parts outside the so-called physics package.
Now, we do have replacement warheads. That's what this life extension program is all about. Rob will talk about this more. Nobody is suggesting that the weapons that we will use to replace the weapons, whose life has not been extended, are unreliable, but you wouldn't want to call this just a new fangled replacement warhead; you call it a reliable replacement warhead, which unfortunately has the implications that the other things are not reliable, but they are.
When you talk to the laboratory directors, which I have done for many years, their concern over the long-term effectiveness of the life-extension program, the Stockpile Stewardship program, is people. They don't have, or they fear they won't have, challenging jobs for people, for weapon designers. They're not advocating testing. But there are no new designs because what we're doing is to maintain the weapons of existing type in the stockpile for decades. The W-87 Life Extension Program makes that weapon survive at least until the year 2030. We've learned a lot; that is, the core of the primary nuclear weapons, according to the laboratories, will now last at least 60 years. And every year, with accelerated aging of plutonium, we get 14 years more of experience. So just wait three years and we'll know whether they will last 100 years or not. But luckily we have a good many decades to do something about it if they won't.
What's likely to happen? Well, because there is all this advertising to make [RRW] look more necessary and more desirable, a number of things may be different from the very conservative approach that we have now of simply maintaining in the stockpile weapons of existing type. For instance, you could have more emphasis on variable yields. If you have a 500-kiloton weapon, which is 40 times the explosive yield of the Hiroshima weapon, you might want to also, for a lesser target, to have a one-kiloton weapon or a five-kiloton weapon. Of course, the fact is that we do have those. Every weapon that we have now has the capability of being fired either with the boosted primary yield, which is in the range of some kilotons, or the unboosted primary yield without putting in the boost gas, which is substantially less. Some of them may not have the little switches that allow you to do that, but they can be put in with absolutely no prospect of unreliability.
It is argued that in the new environment of terrorism, people might capture one of our nuclear weapons and detonate it on the spot, which would be bad, or they might take it away and detonate it where there are even more important targets, such as those in cities. And our current nuclear weapons, although they are proofed against accidental detonation, are not proofed against being stolen and researched for months and months and then used as a nuclear explosive. It's very difficult to imagine how you would make a weapon which is proofed against that. I worked on the first permissive action links in the early 1960s, and Johnny Foster and others had all kinds of wonderful ideas, and now what they will try to do is to improve the current permissive action links, make them buried more in the explosive, but you can always take the pin out and put more explosive around it. There are other ways. When somebody is breaking into your nuclear weapon, you can arrange that it will render itself unusable - not just resistant but unusable, and we need to look to see what can be done with weapons of existing type rather than involve this in the RRW.
The RRW, though, in the tri-lab May 20, 2005 paper Sustaining the Nuclear Enterprise is supposed to be much more than that. It's supposed to lay the basis with a responsive nuclear weapons infrastructure for quickly responding to new needs for new kinds of nuclear weapons. You can bet that the designers will, and in my opinion should, look at designing new types of nuclear weapons. Without an RRW, they won't actually manufacture new nuclear weapons; they will design nuclear weapons, among them those that exist. They will test them by simulation in computers. The Stockpile Stewardship program and the Advanced Strategic Computing Initiative, or whatever it is now called, is what makes an RRW program possible, but it doesn't make it desirable.
My principle fear is that all the technical people, including me, will, at some time, five years from now, agree that the RRW design is sufficiently conservative that it can be put into the stockpile with a high reliability of working when it is called upon to work. But after we have a stockpile with [reliable replacement warheads] replacing a lot of the old tested weapons, how many in Congress does it take, or in the military, to say, "nobody has ever tested this design of nuclear weapon and I will not be responsible for managing the stockpile and assuring that it will work during wartime without at least one test."
So I worry not that it's necessary but that it's almost inevitable that a generation of replacement warheads that are not as identical as possible to the ones that we have in the inventory will sooner or later call forth a politically demanded nuclear test. And that will open the floodgates to the Russians testing and the Chinese testing. The Chinese can make real improvements in their nuclear weaponry with a few tests because they've had only 43 compared with our more than a thousand nuclear tests. Planning ahead, these folks (the Chinese and the Russians) are not going to wait, they will make the same calculation I do; they will prepare to test. We will see them preparing to test. We will not allow them to test first, and so we will have, for absolutely no good reason and much to our security detriment, an outbreak of nuclear testing that will then legitimize the acquisition of nuclear weapons by those people who don't have any.
I'll be glad later to answer questions.
IVAN OELRICH: Daryl has asked me to talk about missions for nuclear weapons. The administration, as Daryl pointed out, sends some mixed signals about new nuclear missions and new nuclear capabilities. It's virtually axiomatic within the arms control community that we should not add any new nuclear missions, and the surrogate for new missions is new warheads, and so we oppose functionally new warheads. The administration realizes that this is at least an important political issue and sometimes says the right things, giving reassurance that regardless of whether the RRW turns out to be a variant of an existing warhead or a new design it will only fulfill existing nuclear missions. Congress seems to agree that this is a constraint, or at least it should be a constraint, but at other times statements from both the Departments of Defense and Energy point out that the legacy arsenal that we've inherited from the Cold War is not the most appropriate one for current conditions. Strategic Command's commander has implied that he no longer has a need for multi-hundred kiloton warheads in the war plan, suggesting that we need smaller, more tailored new weapons. Sometimes these capabilities are set forth in terms of countering WMD threats, typically chemical and biological weapons.
So depending on how you view our current and evolving U.S. nuclear doctrine, the combination of RRW, the Reliable Replacement Warhead, and talk of tailored weapons may or may not cause any additional worry. The development of new doctrine and a plan called global strike, laid out in great detail in a recent FAS report by Hans Kristensen, seems to shift significantly the emphasis toward nuclear preemption, even against non-nuclear-weapon powers. I think this comes about in part because of the profligate use of what I consider this unfortunate term of weapons of mass destruction, which includes at least chemical and biological weapons, as I said. But it's wrong because people realize that WMD is a way of getting the attention of the bureaucracy and of getting budget priorities, and so the definition has expanded, and I've seen briefings in the Pentagon that include cyber attacks and radiological weapons, and even large truck bombs in the definition of WMD.
So by using this overly broad term we conflate nuclear weapons with much less dangerous and devastating weapons. We obscure the fact that nuclear weapons are in a class all to themselves, and we're setting ourselves up to justify preemptive attack against a non-nuclear-weapon power because we think they might be thinking about using chemical weapons, for example. That's why I said before that RRW may cause no additional concern. We have enough to worry about already just with global strike.
In one sense, none of these suggested missions are new missions for nuclear weapons because how could there possibly be any new missions for nuclear weapons? Back in the 1960s and 1970s there were few missions for which nuclear weapons were not considered. Looking back on those years, we see that anything that we could put a nuclear warhead on, we did put a nuclear warhead on. We had nuclear-armed torpedoes and depth charges and nuclear artillery and nuclear anti-aircraft missiles, and even rockets.
One by one, nuclear weapons were displaced from each mission, and it wasn't because of arms control treaties, it wasn't because of political pressure or moral revulsion against nuclear weapons, but because advances in sensors and miniature electronic computers made precision-guided conventional weapons the militarily preferred solution. Nuclear weapons will always be efficient at blowing up large military installations and cities, and their enormous power is required to quickly and reliably destroy certain hard-point targets, for example, missile silos, but nuclear weapons have simply become obsolete for almost all tactical missions. That's why I said that these are not really technically new missions. But now with global strike I think we're seeing some reversal of this long-term trend away from nuclear weapons, and I believe the direction of RRW can't help but be affected by this continuing doctrinal evolution.
One of these new essential missions will be destroying chemical and biological weapons. Whenever this mission, or any other nuclear mission, for that matter, is suggested, I recommend that you just ask for the details. By running through the actual use, from targeting to consequences, you'll find that nuclear weapons are the weapon of choice only under the most contrived circumstances and often require a cooperative enemy. In general, a nuclear attack requires identifying a target with a fixed location that lies in this band where it's challenging enough that conventional weapons are not adequate, but it's not so challenging that even nuclear weapons are thwarted.
Justifying nuclear weapons for attack of chemical and biological weapons, for example, requires that they not be in bunkers or stored on the surface where conventional explosives and incendiary weapons could destroy them, but they're not so deep that they're out of range of the sterilizing effect of a nuclear fireball, which is a surprisingly short range in rock. Nuclear mission are often based on unrealistic tactical assumptions. As Michael Levi pointed out in a recent New York Times op-ed, the immense power of nuclear weapons is required only when the results have to be instantaneous, such as attacking a missile silo because the missile might be launched at any second. But the Iranians are years away from maturing a gas centrifuge plan. Why do we need to make it go away in the blink of an eye? If we decide to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, not something I'm recommending by the way, we could do so over a period of months with conventional weapons. There's no need for the instantaneous effect of nuclear weapons.
Finally, we have to consider consequences. In the short term these will be horrendous. Most of the nuclear missions being discussed require substantial nuclear yields, at least multi-kiloton if not tens of kilotons. We have to put these things in perspective. We have to remember that in definitions used in legislation, a so-called small nuclear weapon is one that's a third of the size of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, or 2,000 times more powerful than the Oklahoma City bomb. Small nuclear weapons are big bombs, so blast and fallout effects will be severe.
The long-term damage will be just as severe. Breaking the six-decade-long taboo against nuclear weapons will legitimize nuclear weapons, of course, and that can only work against the interests of the one nation with the clear-cut global conventional superiority. I believe this long transition away from nuclear missions is the right path and we should not let the RRW divert us from the path. We should not let arguments for new missions push the RRW. We need to step back and ask what the real mission of the RRW might be.
Last fall, I wrote a short piece on the RRW in the form of "if X, then Y" because I didn't really know what the RRW was. I'm still not sure. I don't think the program is very well defined. But as Dr. Garwin pointed out, everything I learned about the RRW suggests that at least part of the justification might be that it's really a means to an end rather than an end in itself. The end, the real mission of the RRW, is to focus a design effort and eventually a build effort as a part of the program to keep a warm standby nuclear production capability. If this is the primary mission, so to speak, of the RRW, then that should be our primary focus. But keeping a substantial nuclear production capability rests on some big assumptions about where we think we should be going with nuclear weapons and their salience and what we want the world's nuclear picture to look like decades in the future.
I said that RRW should not open up new nuclear missions, but I think in the long term we should be more ambitious. Rather than simply avoid new missions, we could design the RRW, if it comes to pass, to actually eliminate old missions. More generally, can we use the RRW as a focus of debate, specifically in Congress, about where we want to be heading with nuclear weapons? Just one specific example to illustrate how these requirements come out from just unquestioned assumptions is that virtually all of the concern about possible need for nuclear testing, the concerns about warhead aging, the need for a special standby weapons manufacture capability, and the need for a reliable replacement warhead-all the current warheads are reliable-come about because of the potential problems with the plutonium in the core of a two-stage thermal nuclear weapon. All of the weapons in the current nuclear stockpile are two-stage thermal nuclear weapons, but who says they have to be? Far simpler uranium bombs would put to rest forever any question about warhead aging and reliability. It's true that the simplest possible gun-assembled uranium bombs might not be one point safe, but who says they have to be stored assembled? We could keep half here and half there and the explosive charge someplace else.
We need plutonium-powered weapons only because we have to have multi-hundred kiloton weapons on constant alert, mounted atop land-based missiles and forward-deployed submarines. Simple uranium weapons with 1/20th the yield can't meet the current mission requirements. But rather than solve the problem of plutonium cores, we need to reexamine the mission requirements. If we limited nuclear weapons to one mission and one mission only-that is, threatening retaliation against military and economic targets of a nuclear power that might attack us with nuclear weapons-then uranium bombs are perfectly adequate for the job. Eventually, we might need new weapons, but we should do that only when we've decided that nuclear weapons are weapons of last resort and they only have this one mission remaining.
ROBERT W. NELSON: Well, I basically have one point to make, and that is that the current nuclear arsenal isn't broken. There is nothing unreliable about it. But the tremendous danger is that Congress, other policymakers, and the public will get the perception that there is something unreliable with our current stockpile and it will probably lead us to fiddle with the existing stockpile and lead us to the road to resume nuclear testing.
The Stockpile Stewardship program that we have today was designed to maintain the U.S. nuclear arsenal in an era without testing. It is working. That's not just me saying that; that's Linton Brooks, the director of the National Nuclear Security Administration. He repeatedly states that the Stockpile Stewardship program is working: "We are absolutely convinced the stockpile is safe and reliable."
Today we have an arsenal of almost 10,000 nuclear warheads based on 60 years of research and development. The U.S. conducted over 1,000 nuclear tests to design and certify these weapons, and we essentially froze that stockpile after the last testing ended in September of 1992.
The U.S. currently maintains its nuclear arsenal through a $6.7 billion Stockpile Stewardship program. As part of the program, each year 11 sample weapons are disassembled, taken apart, and looked at for any signs of aging and corrosion. If there are non-nuclear components that have to be replaced, they will be replaced. Even if eventually some of the nuclear components have to be replaced, we can manufacture them according to their original specifications. But as Dick said, the very name Reliable Replacement Warhead suggests that there is something unreliable about the current stockpile. Statements from the labs or from the NNSA seem to contribute to this perception that there is something wrong. At least they're always very unclear and equivocal. For example, "Over the longer term, we may face concerns about whether accumulated changes in age-affected weapons components, whose replacements might have to be manufactured by changed processes, could lead to inadequate performance margins and reduce confidence in the stockpile." In other words, there's nothing wrong now; we're just speculating that there might be, in the future, some uncertainty in the confidence of the stockpile.
That has led already committees in Congress to be concerned about the current status of the stockpile. In the House Appropriations Committee report accompanying the fiscal year 2006 Energy and Water appropriations bill, it was stated that, "Congressional testimony by NNSA officials is beginning to erode the confidence of the committee that the Science-Based Stockpile Stewardship program is performing as advertised." So, as you can already see, even though there is no public evidence that there is anything wrong with the current stockpile, it's simply the perception that something is not going well that will eventually lead us to resume testing.
At one time there was concern that the plutonium pits at the core of every nuclear weapon might be damaged over time due to the radiation caused by the plutonium in the pit itself. The self-irradiation, in principle, could have damaged the metal lattice that binds the material together, but as Dick mentioned briefly, there are currently so-called accelerated aging experiments going on at Livermore and, I believe, Los Alamos that have, at least in the press, been reported to predict pit lifetimes in excess of 90-plus years. Now, we haven't gotten an official number yet. Those data are supposed to be released at the end of this year, and I hope that the Department of Energy eventually does release an actual number. But, in any case, it appears as though the weapons we have already will last at least another 50 years before there are problems with pit aging. Even if there were problems, we could always manufacture those pits and replace them according to original specifications.
It seems absurd that given that we don't have any problems with the current stockpile-it ain't broke-why are we planning to try to fix it? The RRW program would reorient the primary post-Cold War mission in the U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories from stockpile maintenance to the development of new replacement warhead designs. It seems implausible to me, and both Dick and Ivan have mentioned this, that if we start placing weapons into the stockpile that have never been tested, regardless of what the technical people at the labs and outside the labs say, invariably there will be political pressure by members of Congress, members of the military, to test those weapons, and inevitably then we end up in the cycle where our testing is responded to by both Russia and China.
The main point that I want to make that you should go away with is that there is no evidence, at least in the public domain, that has been put forward to suggest that there is anything wrong with the current U.S. nuclear stockpile. Before we start replacing it, we ought to ask hard questions about what are the fundamental reasons why. So I'll stop there.
KIMBALL: Thank you. I want to thank all the three panelists for their excellent presentations. We've presented you with a lot of information and now it's your turn to ask us some questions, clarifications, so the floor is yours. Raise your hand and identify yourself and tell us who you want to direct your question towards. Have we answered every question possibly imaginable about RRW? Yes, sir?
QUESTION: Ira Shorr, PSR. I would like to ask a question about what you believe - and this could be to anybody on the panel - the strategic and ideological underpinnings of this program might be? We've talked about - some have already spoken of the fact that we need different kinds of nukes, maybe smaller nukes, for different kind of target scenarios, but Dr. Garwin talked about the fact that we could change nuclear weapons without RRW to fit those scenarios if we wanted to. So, aside from the issue of jobs and scientists and keeping scientists fresh, what might be the ideological and strategic underpinnings of those that are sort of moving us in this direction?
GARWIN: Well, I think there are two questions and one is the creation of the program and the other is support for the program. Creation of the program I mentioned. The laboratory directors really worry where in 20 years they're going to find people who are interested in nuclear weapons. These are jobs in an old industry; you are not allowed to redesign the automobile. This lasts for a long time and they weren't used to that. But we have had the experience with the Stockpile Stewardship program. We've learned a vast amount about these things. The fact that plutonium does not swell because of the decay-induced dislocation and helium is really a very nice surprise. It's a finding from the program and it's something that we now take into account with these long lifetimes.
Now, some folks will support an RRW that is a program of new design, and to exercise the new production capabilities as well. That's what they would like to do. On the other hand, the weapon laboratories have no understanding, in my opinion, of the cost. Is this warranted on the basis of cost in many of the public pronouncements by Linton Brooks and others that the cost of maintaining the Stockpile Stewardship program with life extension is high and continues to increase? No, it doesn't have to increase. We know a lot more about it and we can use that knowledge to reduce the cost. Will [RRW] be cheaper? Well, it depends how many nuclear weapons you have in the stockpile. If you're going to reduce the number by a factor five or 10, then the number that you have to keep up to snuff is reduced by a factor five or 10. But the infrastructure that you have to lay in designing new ones and certifying them doesn't depend on the number of weapons of the given type that you're going to build.
This is all pie in the sky so far. When it comes down to selecting one of the competitive designs and getting a good cost and a comparative cost for the program, it may sort itself out. Now, the program manager's opportunity is to get the decision made before the facts are in, and so that's what you see happening. A lot of people are ideologically in favor of this program because they want something new; because they rely on simplistic arguments like the stockpile was built for the Cold War. It would be a miracle if it were optimum for the present situation. Of course, it's not optimum. But how much more does it cost us than if we were given the optimum stockpile and how much will it cost us to obtain the optimum stockpile, and what difference does it make anyhow?
So it's something new; everybody likes something new. It goes against the current program, which are legacy programs. The more you get rid of that, the better off you are in some people's minds. That's my judgment. I don't know; other people may differ on this.
NELSON: You asked about new military requirements. At the moment, the labs, the NNSA, and Congress, by legislation, requires that the RRW design does not have new military requirements; that is, not have new effects to attack new types of targets. What they do intend to do is to, "relax the military characteristics," and that essentially means allowing the size, the shape, the weight of the actual warhead to be somewhat larger in order to, in their mind, increase the so-called performance margins of the weapon. But there certainly will be cost associated with that. For example, if you start increasing the size and weight of the nuclear effects package inside the warhead, you have to recertify it to fly within its reentry body. So one issue related to cost is how expensive will it be to flight test and possibly recertify the reentry body that goes along with the warhead, and will the Navy and other departments in the Defense Department be willing to spend those funds ultimately if we deploy this weapon?
KIMBALL: Further questions? Yes, sir, in the back.
QUESTION: Yeah, Pete Stockton with POGO. Brooks has said a number of times that a rationale for going ahead with RRW is that there is a problem with the safety and surety of the weapons and that they could be upgraded in RRW. It's our understanding from talking to the people that actually certify the weapons and are involved in the [Lifetime Extension] program that they are upgrading the surety and safety of the weapons currently. So it's unclear to me, you know, what we're going to get from RRW, but tell me about this.
GARWIN: Well, if you look at the actual statements, it's not that there is a problem. It's that we now know how to make things even safer and surer. And then you engage in a dialogue and you say, "well, are they safe enough?," and then they say, "it's never safe enough." But how much does it cost to get that little increment of safety. Does that mean that we're going to eliminate perfectly good weapons that were otherwise being stockpiled with their life extension program already completed until 2030 in order to get this increase in safety and surety? Now, once you have the 10 to the minus 9 probability of accident during the weapon's lifetime, and I could reduce that by a factor of 10-it's never going to happen anyhow-so reducing by a factor 10, and then you get that and you'll say I can reduce it by another factor 10. What are we paying for this very minor improvement?
So that's what's involved and you have to go behind it and say, look, you want us to pay for it; what will be the benefit? What is the expected loss; the probability of loss times the number of deaths or the damage caused on a cost-benefit relationship? Does this pay? Then, if they have an answer to that, you ask them, what is the discounted present value of that? You know, benefits much later, costs upfront. We do that on every other program; we ought to be doing that here too.
KIMBALL: I would just note that one of the first issues that Congress wanted clarification from the Department of Energy and NNSA about-and this is in last year's fiscal 2006 Defense Authorization Act-"is to identify existing warheads recommended for replacement by 2035 with an assessment of the weapons' performance and safety characteristics of the replacement warheads." So this is one of the issues that Congress needs to get to the bottom of. Are these improvements necessary? How marginal are they? And are they ultimately worth the tremendous costs of going through this new kind of program?
QUESTION: Thank you. This question is for Mr. Nelson. You stated that if it turns out that there are serious problems with pits we can always remanufacture them to original specifications. At present I believe that's not exactly true because the original specifications called for wrought plutonium pits and today we only have the capability to build the cast ones. So I guess my question to you is there has been some debate which has not been resolved, as far as I know, for whether the properties of cast and wrought pits are exactly identical. My question to you is, in making that statement, are you coming down on one side or another on that debate? Do you believe that there is no difference, or are you supporting building a modern pit facility that will allow us to build wrought pits?
NELSON: Well, actually I think that I'm going to throw this one to Dick because he's much more of an expert on this than I am.
GARWIN: This was an early question when people at Los Alamos started manufacturing pits there. They had them made at Rocky Flats, but Rocky Flats was shut down and Los Alamos was made to bite the bullet and build new pits at TA-55 for the W-88 nuclear weapon. I was on the visiting committee that looked at this. We have made certifiable pits. They are made by cast and machine process. The decision was made and people have judged that cast and wrought perform equivalently. One can find minor differences in strength, and the more we know about it, the more they are equivalent within the range that you need.
There is not a significant difference in primary yield and you don't need to reopen that question. That decision has been made. Remanufacturing to original specification will allow the substitution of cast plutonium for wrought plutonium so long as the dimensions are correct.
KIMBALL: There was a gentleman back here that had a question.
QUESTION: My name is Michael Glenzer. I'm a reporter with Nuclear Weapons and Materials Monitor. With respect to the cost question, remanufacturing to existing capabilities, part of the cost considerations that have been brought up by NNSA with respect to that is that that requires the maintenance of a vast infrastructure that costs a lot, not only in terms of the physical maintenance but also security maintenance as security requirements increase. Is there a way to decrease those costs without going to an RRW, which is NNSA's case at this point, that it's necessary?
GARWIN: Well, again, that depends on the scale. If you look back at the 1995 era, the early days facing the no-test era, Sandia put out a remanufacturing schedule that assumed that every weapon would be remanufactured exactly 30 years after it was built. So it had enormous peaks, a couple thousand weapons per year. That means you needed a tremendous capital investment in people and facilities to be able to remanufacture at that rate.
Faced with that, any sensible person would have said, let's remanufacture a few years earlier; it can only be better, and we'll spend a lot less on the infrastructure and we'll have to pay the money a little bit earlier, but it's a clear win. Now that we know that we're going to have fewer nuclear weapons, and if people will really decide that we want only 2,000 weapons in the stockpile instead of 2,000 operationally deployed strategic weapons, which is a big difference, then we could decide what kind of structure we need. The Los Alamos pit manufacturing is a dozen or so weapons per year. It's not limited by the production rate; it's limited by some other things like little storage facility for the pits that you've made. In my opinion, if they really wanted to do it, they could improve that and make at least one pit a week there. So with green eyeshades, you know, cut down what you don't need.
A lot of decisions in the Department of Energy are made on workload leveling or need for work in this district versus some other. Let's start from a bottom-up approach. We could build new pits where it is cheaper on a one-for-one replacement, and that's what we ought to do. Whether one calls that a responsive infrastructure or whether one calls it simply rebuilding the system because of aging or routine replacement. It makes no difference.
KIMBALL: There is one other issue to consider with respect to cost comparisons, which is that the Department of Energy is suggesting that the life extension programs will continue for 30 or so years while RRW warheads replace the Lifetime Extension programs (LEPs), which means that in my view there is a strong possibility that RRW projects are going to be layered over existing LEP projects. In other words, you're not going to substitute one for the other until several decades down the road.
What that implies is that rather than spending $6.7 billion a year on the current program, you may be spending more than that in future years. The Department of Energy and NNSA have not yet answered Congress's question about that. That's another one of Congress's questions. The interim report that [the Departments of Energy and Defense] delivered in March does not address that issue, and they need to be pressed on that because if that is true, then the RRW program is a net addition to three or so decades rather than a substitution for the current approach. Yes, ma'am?
QUESTION: My name is Stacey from the Threat Reduction Support Center and I have a question for all the panelists, maybe if you're able to answer, how the Russians might react to the RRW program? But first I'd like to look back to what Dr. Garwin had mentioned about the RRW program leading to nuclear testing. Actually, I believe you had said that it's inevitable that it would lead to nuclear testing and then that would also open the floodgates to China and Russia to nuclear testing as well. But it's on the books of Congress isn't it that nuclear testing isn't part of the RRW program-
GARWIN: Well, neither was invading Iraq part of the response, and somehow it happened. (Laughter.)
KIMBALL: So your question is what will be the Russian reaction?
QUESTION: Yes, aside from the nuclear testing; because testing isn't part of the RRW program as the feasibility study is ongoing, and also taking into account that the Russians have an aggressive R&D program themselves.
GARWIN: That's right. The Russians have an active program at their test site. They spend a lot more money there than we spend at ours. They will of course look at this program. They will make their own judgment. They'll look beyond the words. They'll ask what will happen-as much as they can predict in American society-what will happen if the RRW program goes forward and they manufacture never-tested warheads? Particularly, with all of the statements on the record, including mine and weapon laboratories directors and others, that [we] would never put an untested weapon into a stockpile.
Well, these are old statements from 10 years ago and 20 years ago. We will know more, so it may be scientifically justifiable to put an untested weapon into a stockpile. But there will be people still with the old mindset who, after they are faced with this and are told to assume the responsibility to swear that the weapons will perform as required, they'll say, "I can't do that unless they're tested." There also will be others who [will push for testing] for their own reasons or concerns, or simply because they want to get rid of this stricture of a test moratorium; exactly what happened with the ABM Treaty and many other things. People who do not like treaties, who do not like any restraints on our activities will find common cause with people in other countries who don't want restraints on their activities and we will be back in a nuclear testing era.
KIMBALL: I think this person over here. You had a question and I couldn't see you.
QUESTION: Yes, my name is Erika Simpson and I'm an associate professor of international relations at the University of Western Ontario, which is in Canada. I actually work very closely with Senator Douglas Roche, who is the chair of the Middle Powers Initiative, and he's putting together this Article VI Forum, which is collecting together middle powers from all around the world, and they're trying to encourage support of Article VI [of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)], so my question relates to how RRW will affect the perception that people have that the United States is going to continue to rely on nuclear weapons forever. The bargain in the NPT surrounding Article VI was that the United States and other countries would move toward general and complete disarmament. So I wonder what the implications are going to be for the rest of the world if you do go ahead.
KIMBALL: Ivan, do you want to take a stab?
OELRICH: Well, I mean, I can't get the impression that the current administration takes Article VI terribly seriously. And despite all the discussion about RRW, I have to admit, I don't think the program is well defined yet and so we have to be a little bit cautious about it is this and it isn't that because different people [in Congress] have very different ideas about what "it" is as opposed to when you talk to people at NNSA. So presumably all this will eventually get worked out.
But with that caveat. From what I understand from people in the labs and NNSA is that one of the key missions of the RRW is to provide this mechanism for keeping a design capability fresh and keeping a warm standby production capability into the indefinite future. If you look at the sizes they're talking about, that only makes sense if we are going to continue to maintain an arsenal of a few thousand nuclear weapons, not many thousands, and have the ability to rapidly ramp that up in the future in response to some unforeseen, and by me unforeseeable, future event. It sends the message that we are looking into the indefinite future to having a heavy reliance on nuclear weapons.
GARWIN: As Ivan pointed out, a lot of the cases when you would think about using nuclear weapons require extreme assumptions. It has to be too hard for conventional weapons and just easy enough for nuclear weapons. That's when you would use the responsive infrastructure. It would take you several years to make any significant number of nuclear weapons. So now you have to imagine an event where you will have that much time in order to exercise your responsive infrastructure. But the administration is not deaf to the benefits of showing they know about Article VI, and in fact, in some of the speeches you will find justifications for the RRW that will allow us to reduce the number of weapons. That's one of the desired advantages because we will be able to respond more rapidly to a problem if it arises.
I think I'd rather read Max Kampelman's op-ed piece in the New York Times yesterday about the time President Reagan shocked the National Security Council by revealing that he had discussed with Gorbachev the prospect of eliminating U.S. and Soviet nuclear weapons.
KIMBALL: Just to briefly answer your question in a slightly different way. So long as the United States continues to plan to maintain its stockpile for the indefinite future and does not proactively pursue diplomatic strategies that would help lead to the elimination of all nuclear weapons, this kind of activity is going to create concerns among other states. I'm sure that the United States is interested in perpetuating its nuclear arsenal and is not serious about ever doing Article VI. But I'm an American; maybe Canadians can answer the question of how others will react better than I can.
Mr. Ota, please.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. My name is Masa Ota, working for Japanese wire agency Kyodo News. My question is regarding a reentry vehicle. Mr. Nelson touched on this issue cursorily. NNSA said their RRW is going to be larger than the current W-76. So that means it doesn't fit to the United States current reentry vehicle Mk4. So do we need a new kind of a reentry vehicle? Does that mean we need much more money for creating a new delivery system in the future?
Also, another question regarding implication for the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which has not been ratified due to the opposition by this administration and the Congress. If this administration made a decision to go for RRW by the end of this current administration, 2008, even if the Democrats take Congress and the White House, will that preclude the possibility of a future ratification of CTBT? That's my second question. Thank you very much.
NELSON: I can only answer the first question based on what I know from reading unclassified reports and newspaper reports. My understanding is that the W-76 replacement in this current design competition is not required to fit in the Mark 4, which is the reentry body for the W-76 and the current weapon, but in the Mark 5, which is the reentry body for the W-88, the other, I believe, 400-kiloton modern thermonuclear warhead that's in the Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
Now, fitting inside the reentry body doesn't mean that everything is just fine because the size, the distribution of mass in the warhead itself may affect the flight characteristics of the reentry body. You've got to remember that these things are entering the atmosphere at many times the speed of sound. There are instabilities that can develop, and they all have to be tested to make sure that the reentry body can survive its impact, and that's an expensive flight-testing program, and presumably the Navy would have to pay for it. Beyond that, I don't know; it's just my own speculation.
KIMBALL: Presumably, they're going to want to avoid that, but that is not clear at this stage. Mr. Ota, I didn't understand your question on the test ban treaty. If you could just rephrase your question on the test ban treaty.
QUESTION: …Might RRW increase the rationale not to go to CTBT ratification.
NELSON: Part of the reason why the CTBT wasn't ratified in 1999 was because of influential testimony on the part of the lab directors that they couldn't be sure that they could be sure indefinitely under a permanent testing moratorium. You could flip this around and argue that if now claim that you can develop a weapon that has such high performance margins that we don't even have to test it in order to put it in the stockpile, then surely the labs, and other people involved in the program, could endorse a permanent treaty-based comprehensive test ban. I believe that the House Democrats tried that in the FY 2006 legislation, and of course it wasn't taken seriously. This administration has no intention to bring up the CTBT for ratification, but it's certainly a valid question to ask.
KIMBALL: That could be one scenario; that's the glass-half-full scenario. The glass-half-empty scenario would be that the lab directors, if coming up to testify once again on the test ban treaty, were asked, "are you confident that the RRW program will ensure the safety and reliability of the arsenal without testing?", they could very well say, "well, the RRW program is in process. It will not be another 20 years until we replace all the existing warheads with RRW warheads. We're not confident as of yet who would be in the same pickle we were in September and October of 1999."
Fundamentally, I think the point that you take away from our presentations is what Rob was saying, which is that there is no problem with the existing arsenal that should prevent the United States from entering into a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty of unlimited duration. That was the finding of the National Academy of Sciences panel in 2002 and General Shalikashvili's study from 2001. Dick Garwin and others in the audience are very familiar with these subjects. Other questions? Yes, Diane.
QUESTION: Diane Perlman. I'm a political psychologist and I study dynamics of nuclear proliferation. First of all, thank you very much, and what you're all describing in many ways, just to name it, is psychological manipulation and manipulation of perception of a need, and sort of misrepresentation of reality and certain facts to make something look more appealing than what it's not.
I also want to ask you about Article VI. Linton Brooks says we are keeping it in spades, so there's a way of saying that we're doing something that we're not doing, maybe to get people complacent. I think it's obvious that our long-term, indefinite plans are provoking proliferation, so other countries desire to proliferate, which you've all said. So we increase their desire and then try to stop them from doing what we're provoking. So it's an impossible, untenable situation; psychologically impossible. Are you concerned about Congress being seduced by the manipulation of perceptions? Is anyone addressing it on that level? Also, what are your thoughts about the real motivation for why they're doing this?
KIMBALL: Well, I think, Dick, you addressed the question before about what the motivations were. So what does Congress think about this? Perhaps each of you has some observations about what Congress understands and what some of the concerns are.
My quick assessment is that they are still learning, as many of us are still learning, about what the program is actually supposed to be. To some it sounds appealing. The program is supposed to be cheaper, safer, more reliable. It does everything except toast bagels. It's quite appealing, but I think it will take some time for Congress to get the testimony and get the answers, and when it does, I think that some of the problems that we've been trying to identify will come to light and they are likely to take a much more skeptical look than they have so far. That's my quick assessment. Others may have different views based on their personal experiences and meetings.
GARWIN: I don't know enough about enough people in Congress and staffs and how these things are actually done at the moment to make a judgment, but what I try to do is to present exactly what I know without shading the arguments one way or another. If you have a great, big program, any organization is going to find the arguments in favor, the arguments against, and they will emphasize the ones in favor. That's what they're paid to do, and these people are very good at it and they're paid a lot of money to do it.
I will also try to explain to the Congress that this is a typical activity. That shouldn't be any shock to them because they are intelligent human beings. They will know that. But these are important decisions. They're costly decisions. They have implications for our own security and for international security. So that's what I can do. Maybe my colleagues know more about the Congress.
OELRICH: First, the staffers I talk to on the Hill are a very biased selection because I only talk to people who are willing to talk to me and a lot of people aren't willing to talk to me. People tend to be willing to talk to you if they're sympathetic to your view anyway. But even with that, I think that part of the issue here is that it's very, very difficult for Congress-and staffers on the Hill, which are really on the front lines-to make any kind of technical assessment. Even people who are very cautious about nuclear weapons recognize that this is, at least right now, the way the world is, this is kind of the ultimate backstop for our security. Since oftentimes they make a technical judgment based on credentials, and say this guy is saying one thing, this guy is saying another thing, and this guy seems to be more important than this other guy so he's probably going to believe what the important guy is going to say.
But the other thing is that in this situation where they recognize that there is this really fundamental importance on nuclear weapons, even people who are very skeptical about nuclear weapons will tend to be conservative. If one person is telling them that you need to worry about this and another person is saying, nah, don't worry, they're going to say, well, maybe I should worry about this.
The arguments that we're trying to make here are very, very difficult to sell on the Hill because of that sort of natural conservatism about this fundamental security backstop that nuclear weapons today represent, and the fact that the people on the Hill are just not geared up to make technical evaluations about scientific issues.
QUESTION: Stephen Young with the Union of Concerned Scientists. It's been handed out in various ways, but I wonder if the panel can comment on basically the differences in what the Department of Energy wants and what the Department of Defense wants. My perception is there's big differences that are very important and that's hinted at in lots of ways, but the Pentagon doesn't have a big interest in a more reliable warhead because they already have reliable enough warheads to work-the delivery vehicle is much less reliable for them, so the reliability of the warhead is already so high it doesn't need to be improved that much. They want the ability to make more warheads if need be, and new kinds of warheads for new missions if down the road they decide they want that. The Energy Department's interest is a jobs program and lots of money and more warheads. The Defense Department wants to be able to make more warheads if they need them, and different kinds of warheads down the road possibly. In that sense they might support RRW to an extent, but it's not their priority by any means.
KIMBALL: Would you agree with that assessment, Dick Garwin?
GARWIN: The Department of Defense, that is Strategic Command, the only potential user of nuclear weapons, hasn't asked for new kinds of nuclear weapons. Last year and the year before we had this Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, and that was misguided and oversold and misunderstood to the extent that Linton Brooks apologized to the Congress for not clearing up the confusion sooner; the fact being that deep penetration of nuclear weapons, in that case for enhancing the ground shock, is achieved if the weapon would go to two or three meters' depth before exploding, not to 10, 20, or 100 meters' depth. Once that was cleared up, as it was through outside reports and then a definitive report by the National Academy of Sciences that had a lot of weapon people on the panel, you would think the problem had been solved. But, no, NNSA still wants to continue with a nuclear earth penetrator program. They want to penetrate that two or three meters into granite or reinforced concrete in order to be able to use a lower-yield nuclear warhead with reduced fallout, not because it's suppressed by the underground explosion but because the ground shock is 20 times bigger when it explodes a couple meters underground.
What they have not faced is that if that's what you want to do, then you can fit an existing nuclear weapon with a conventional one-time, high-explosive shaped charge that will make a hole in the reinforced concrete or the granite so that the existing nuclear weapon can go a couple of meters. It's a system whereby there is very little technical flexibility and understanding, and in that case the desire for a nuclear weapon of new performance characteristics would be quenched because you could use existing nuclear weapons and give them this new capability by the mode of employment by having a new nuclear weapon. The same thing is true with going to the primary-only yield, for instance, in case the accuracy of the delivery system against the particular target is good enough.
So Strategic Command has not asked for new kinds of nuclear weapons. They may ask in the future, but they're pretty much realists. They know they won't get an answer right away and the need may pass, or the desire may pass. Take two of these and call me in the morning. (Laughter.)
KIMBALL: Any further questions? I think we've got time for maybe one more. If not, we will conclude. I want to thank everyone for being here. I want to thank all three of our panelists for some excellent presentations. There is more information at the Arms Control Association website, http://www.armscontrol.org. There will be a transcript of today's briefing on our website in a couple of days. I would be remiss if I didn't also mention the fas.org website and the ucsusa.org website, both of which have excellent information on this topic. Thanks again. (Applause.) (END)
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