The top U.S. military commander in charge of deployed nuclear forces is speaking out against the current state of the nuclear weapons enterprise and advocating for new warheads and the infrastructure and people to produce them. Meanwhile, Congress recently appointed a group of 12 experts to evaluate the appropriate roles for nuclear weapons in future U.S. security policy.
General Kevin Chilton, the head of Strategic Command, is striking a discordant note against a growing chorus supporting the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons, ranging from former Republican Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger to Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.). Chilton Feb. 27 testified to lawmakers that nuclear weapons would be “important for the remainder of this century” and expressed discomfort with the notion of reducing U.S. deployed nuclear forces to levels below the planned 2012 treaty limit of 1,700-2,200 strategic warheads. Russia is imploring the United States to negotiate lower limits, but so far the Bush administration has refused.
To be sure, Chilton said at a Feb. 21 speech at an Air Force Association symposium that “I share the vision of any parent of a day…where there are no nuclear weapons in the world.” But he added, “[F]rankly, I don’t see us achieving that vision in this century.”
Chilton, who assumed command of U.S. strategic forces last October, contends deeper reductions under current circumstances would be risky given his assessment that the United States lacks a sufficient warhead manufacturing base to build more weapons if a new threat emerges or something goes wrong with existing U.S. arms. Indeed, he argued Feb. 21 that existing warheads “are not maintainable” because of the way they were designed to pack the maximum number of warheads on top of a single missile in order to boost explosive power. Still, the U.S. government has annually certified existing warheads as safe and reliable and continues to invest billions in extending their lives without nuclear testing, which the United States ceased in 1992.
Chilton is calling for a sweeping effort to “modernize” the U.S. nuclear stockpile, numbering approximately 5,000 warheads, and reinvigorate the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, including what he described as its “graying workforce.” He argued, “[W]e cannot tolerate that if we are going to provide a nuclear deterrent for the future generations of this country.”
Chilton’s predecessor, General James Cartwright, who is now vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed similar concerns, but Chilton appears to have placed a greater emphasis on them. For instance, Cartwright in 2007 devoted a few paragraphs of his address to the Air Force Association on modernizing U.S. nuclear warheads and production capabilities, while Chilton made it a centerpiece of his 2008 speech. Similarly, Chilton’s prepared testimony to lawmakers devotes much more attention to nuclear weapons than that delivered by Cartwright.
During the Feb. 27 hearing before the strategic forces panel of the House Armed Services Committee, Chilton delivered a more critical assessment of the U.S. weapons production capability than Thomas D’Agostino, the head of the Department of Energy’s semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which manages the nuclear weapons complex. D’Agostino noted the United States can annually produce approximately 10 plutonium pits, the trigger component of warheads. But Chilton stated, “I would argue with Mr. D’Agostino that being able to produce 8 to 10 [pits] a year is a production capability.” NNSA is seeking to increase its output to 30 to 50 pits annually as early as 2012.
Chilton’s message aligns with the Bush administration’s goals to recapitalize the U.S. nuclear weapons complex and revive an initiative, the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program, to explore new warhead designs that supposedly will be easier to build and maintain and less susceptible to accidents or misuse than existing warheads. Congress denied funding for that program last year, but the administration is seeking some $40 million related to it as part of the most recent annual federal budget request. (See ACT, March 2008 .)
Lawmakers refused to appropriate money last year for the NNSA’s RRW program on the basis that the United States should not start developing new warheads without first determining future U.S. nuclear posture and policy. Hence, Congress mandated the Pentagon to conduct a nuclear posture review and created a separate commission to carry out a similar study.
On March 19, lawmakers announced the dozen experts making up the bipartisan commission. Its chairman is William Perry, a former secretary of defense for the Clinton administration, and the vice chairman is James Schlesinger, a former secretary of defense under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Other members include former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), former Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), and Fred Ikle, a former director of the defunct Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. The group is supposed to make their recommendations on “the most appropriate strategic posture and most effective nuclear weapons strategy” to Congress and the president by Dec. 1.