Page van der LindenModernization and New START

The entrance to TA-55 at LANL, where all the Pu work is done.

A couple of weeks ago, word got around that Senator Kyl was taking a group of fellow Republican Senators on a field trip to visit LANL and Sandia National Labs as part of their decision-making process regarding whether or not to vote for New START.  Sen. Corker held an event for the press when he visited Y-12 for the same purpose, the New Mexico trip was more or less closed to the press, though Roger Snodgrass of the Santa Fe New Mexican did manage to get Democratic Sen. Bingaman to say a few things about their trip. (“A lot of good questions were asked and answered during the briefings.”)

Presumably, the Senators wanted to find out what’s going on at the labs regarding stockpile stewardship, surveillance, and all things related to that magical word, “modernization”. John Fleck of the Albuquerque Journal and I batted around ideas; John said that the ancient Chemical and Metallurgy Research facility, with its leaky pipes and other problems, would have been the first place he’d have taken the delegation, if he were the lab director. (For more on the proposed CMR Replacement project, read John’s excellent column here.)

Anyway, what they saw and discussed is a bit of a mystery. All we know is that Sen. Kyl returned to D.C. and held a press conference, saying that he wants $10 billion more, on top of all the other modernization funding, but failed to specify how he came up with that figure or what he wants it for.

Where I’m going with all of this is something that I’ve been thinking about for a while, especially as a relative newbie to all things arms-control-wonky: “modernization” means different things depending on who you’re talking to, and I really wanted to pin it down.

If you’re Sen. Kyl, you probably think of stockpile modernization as new warheads, or even new nuclear tests, as he’s indicated in multiple op-ed pieces in the Wall Street Journal. There are policy analysts in the D.C. scene who feel that “new nukes” really are the only way to modernize the stockpile; for a well-written argument to this effect, read John Noonan in the Weekly Standard.

However, if you’re the NNSA, the DoD, or Congress, you’re probably more aware of the reality of the political consequences of making new warheads; the failure of Congress to fund the RRW is a good example of the outcome of that proposal.

Finally, if you’re sitting in the Oval Office, and you really want a world with zero nuclear weapons, and even gave a big speech about it in Prague, right now you’re realizing, as you said in your speech, that zero nukes are a long, long, long way off. You’re probably also realizing that “modernization” is a big, grey area, that it isn’t just throwing money at the labs or just making new warheads, but something in between.

I went into this in the context of New START in a whole lot more detail in a piece I published over at Foreign Policy. Give it a read, and let me know what you think.


  1. bobbymike (History)


    Good article, I don’t agree I am more in the Kyle camp of new nukes and testing (plus lots of research into advanced nuclear weapons concepts to avoid strategic technological surprise) but your article was open and pretty fair minded towards the opposition. Too often on this site there is a tendency to impugn the motives of opponents of arms control as “playing politics”. There is a “your position is not even valid” meme.

    I will say unequivocally the the desire to continue to reduce the nuclear weapons arsenals of the US and Russia is a completely valid policy position….that I disagree with. The US strategic arsenal has been reduced over 80%, it is time for us to end the “two party talks” (Russia/US) and create a global dialogue. IMHO there is no reason to go below SORT levels until we have a commitment from the likes of N. Korea and Iran to end their programs. Also, I think it is time to bring China, Pakistan, India, France and Britain to the negotiating table.

    • Derek (History)

      “IMHO there is no reason to go below SORT levels until we have a commitment from the likes of N. Korea and Iran to end their programs.”

      There was a commitment from North Korea, and still is from Iran that they won’t develop nuclear weapons. But refusing to disarm is contrary to the NWS’ Article VI commitment and attributes undue utility to acquiring (or maintaining) nuclear weapons. Given the 1995 and 2000 Review Conference outcome documents and subsequent (lack of) action, why should the NNWS trust commitments from the NWS? Such a refusal also sends precisely the wrong message to those countries who can either assist or subvert international sanctions efforts. At this rate, we still can’t even develop an assurance that the NWS won’t attack the NNWS with nukes. That’s been helpful.

      “Also, I think it is time to bring China, Pakistan, India, France and Britain to the negotiating table.”

      Really? The inventories of nuclear warheads of both Russia and the US still vastly exceed any other states, as seen in the most recent Global Nuclear Weapons Inventory data, compiled by NRDC and FAS (Robert S. Norris & Hans M. Kristensen, “Global Nuclear Weapons Inventories, 1945– 2010,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 2010, vol. 66, no. 4, pp. 77–83). In order to seriously entice those countries to negotiate reductions, those two need to draw somewhat close to the other states, something still a long way off (especially considering the timeline for New START). Nevertheless, there are concerning trends emphasized by Norris and Kristensen which should be addressed. So perhaps negotiations to address the production of fissile material, or even new weapons is a reasonable aim.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)


      Not all arms control opponents are merely playing politics. Some people are genuinely opposed to arms control itself for strong emotional and/or ideological reasons. However, such people are rarely successful as politicians, and it can’t be the case that all but one Republican Senators are unable to see that “New Start” is a status-quo arms control treaty in the tradition of Nixon’s SALT and Reagan’s START, that its ratification is very much in the US national interest (in that its rejection would be disastrous).

      What bothers me about your comment is that, while many of us (myself certainly included) may be faulted for arguing at times from mere assertion, that’s not nearly as bad as arguing that all opinions are created equal, therefore your opinion deserves as much respect as any other.

      We can at least agree that it is desirable to bring all the world’s nuclear states into negotiation toward the speedy elimination of nuclear weapons. However, as Derek already pointed out, the US and Russia have a long way to go before reaching levels that are even comparable to those of the next largest nuclear arsenal (that of France, I believe). When we’re within a factor of three, say, it might be more credible for the US and Russia to balk at continuing reductions until the others ante up.

    • bobbymike (History)

      So reducing our strategic arsenal by over 80% IS STILL not enough enticement for the other nuclear nations? How close to we have to get before they reduce theirs? Only 10% larger than theirs? 20%? Of course if I was another nation I to would demand the US reduce right to my level and say “there now we are nuclear equals”. Mark you mention “by a factor of three” bigger, but what if they say “not good enough” do we keep going or stop disarming?

      By this logic why not say (if I was Iran) “as long as the US feels the need to have one nuclear weapon we as a sovereign nation also have the right to nuclear weapons.” If fact Iran wants nukes even if the US had none to deter our conventional superiority.

      An FYI, here is a recent Rasmussen poll on nuclear weapons:

      A new Rasmussen poll shows that by a 77–15 percent margin, the public thinks nuclear weapons are “important” (51 percent say very important) to our country’s national security; 57 percent think we should not reduce the number of nuclear weapons in our arsenal (compared to only 27 percent who say we should); and a clear plurality and near-majority (46 percent) think we should not halt the development of new nuclear weapons (versus only 31 percent who say we should, with 24 percent undecided).

      Importantly, by a 55–37 percent margin, Americans in this poll rejected the contention that, if only the United States reduces its nuclear arsenal and development, other nations will follow suit.

    • kme (History)

      If the 80% figure is correct (and I haven’t checked it – but I suspect it is based on operational rather than total weapon count), then all it demonstrates is how manifestly excessive the arsenal used to be, given that it is still 30 times larger than the next biggest one.

  2. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    Like you, Page, I am wondering what Senator Kyl wants that $10B for. IIRC, the lab directors’ testimony on New START was that they’re okay with the budget and the treaty. I’m sure they would accept bigger budgets, but it doesn’t appear that Kyl is working closely with them.

    The very quiet meetings at the labs suggest that their directors want to stay out of it.

    All of which adds up to just more Republican obstructionism, with the $10B pulled out of the air.

    • page (History)

      I think it was entirely arbitrary. I mean, why not choose $20 billion? Or $5 billion? IMO he was trying to say “What you think is enough will never be enough.”

  3. anon (History)

    Cheryl, I don’t think the lab directors want bigger budgets. I think (actually I know) the lab directors want a long term budget commitment; i.e. they don’t just need more money for 2 years, or 5 years, or even 10 years, they want a 25 year commitment to keep funding the complex at higher levels. Kyl recognizes this, and probably doesn’t have a specific program in mind for the extra $10 million. He just wants it put into the bank account now, so that it will be there later when the commitment wears off (which, given this admin’s commitment, could happen under the next Republican Administration.)

    There is also another way to look at Kyl’s inistence on $10 million more. As Page noted, what Kyl really wants is to build new warheads and test them underground (although I’m not sure he wouldn’t also like some atmospheric tests just to show the bad guys we can do it). He knows the odds of getting that are very slim. But there’s a lot of room between the budget increases on the table now and a new warhead and testing program. He’ll just keep asking for more, as long as he has some sense that he can get more, until someone puts his/her foot down and says enough. Its a moving target, he knows it, and he wants it that way.

    Two things for this discussion. Its time someone told Kyl that the bribe works both ways. He won’t vote for the treaty unless he gets his money. But there is absolutely no way the Democrats in Congress will vote for any of the money (they might barely sustain the current level) if there is no treaty. So, his moving target is going to backfire on him. Compromise is not a dirty word.

    Finally, modernization is a meaningless word — it makes more sense to be specific. We need money to modernize the buildings and equipment in the complex. We need money to recruit, engage, and support the people in the complex. And we need money to maintain and sustain the warheads. There’s a different word (or set of words) that works for the different things that need more money.

    • anon2 (History)

      This is exactly right. In more understandable terms, the lab directors are saying they can do the work slated with the amount the Obama administration proposes. However, the funding in the budget is not sufficient for maintaining and sustaining over the long-term the infrastructure (physical and intellectual) required to support the stockpile.

      It’s kind of like paying a contractor to plumb your house. There’s the funding required for the immediate needs – pipe, fittings, etc. Then there’s the question of paying for the truck, tools, training apprentices, etc. The Obama budget is sufficient for pipe and fittings, but not for the truck and tools that will need to be replaced over the long run.

    • page (History)

      Here’s a question, actually. You say:

      The Obama budget is sufficient for pipe and fittings, but not for the truck and tools that will need to be replaced over the long run.

      My question is: on what do you base this conclusion? In other words, can you point us to a very specific set of numbers/data/budget and program projections that lead you to this conclusion? I’m just curious as to how you arrived there.

  4. Cheryl Rofer (History)

    I’m sure the lab directors want some sort of long-term commitment. Why should anything have changed since 1946? And it would indeed be good for research.

    But they, better than anyone else, should know that what one Congress giveth, another taketh away. Unless some things have changed since I was in a national laboratory. Having some funding commitment from one Congress is better than nothing, but only a little better.

    Kyl has to know that testing isn’t going to happen. But he may be putting a marker down for that future Republican administration.

  5. yousaf (History)

    You say: “There are policy analysts in the D.C. scene who feel that “new nukes” really are the only way to modernize the stockpile; for a well-written argument to this effect, read John Noonan in the Weekly Standard….”

    New more “modern” untested designs will be a less credible deterrent than the tested weapons we have. For more on that argument see my piece in the Bulletin, and references therein:

    I highlight some paragraphs:

    “Arguably, though, the most egregious conceptual mistake in Energy and Defense thinking is conflating technical warhead reliability with its deterrent value. Because of the massive destruction potential of a nuclear weapon, an adversary’s deterrence calculus could hardly be different for, say, a 96-percent reliable nuclear weapon versus a 99-percent reliable weapon. In fact, it’s questionable whether it would even be different for a 25-percent reliable weapon versus a 99-percent reliable weapon. Switching perspective to the receiving end of a possible massive nuclear retaliatory attack makes the argument more acute: If a country is facing the prospect of several 300-kiloton U.S. warheads destroying its 25 most populous cities, it hardly matters that perhaps one of the weapons will have a suboptimal yield and doesn’t completely annihilate the twenty-fifth city.”


    “This raises another interesting point: What would be the required reliability level of the proposed new warheads? It could only be different from the current weapons by no more than 2 percent, as the current weapons are 98 percent reliable–assuming, of course, that the new warheads are really more reliable than the current warheads. Can a 2-percent difference in reliability really alter an adversary’s thinking? And, more importantly, in the absence of testing, how are we to determine the baseline reliability of RRWs? As for the military utility of reliability, does a supposed few percentage point increase in reliability matter when considering the overall destructive power of nuclear weapons? No, especially since the overall reliability of the weapon system is dominated by the intercontinental ballistic missile delivery system–of 2,160 test launches, approximately 15 percent resulted in some type of delivery system failure that would have prevented the warhead from reaching its target.”


    “The argument that RRW is needed to recruit and hone the skills of a new cadre of nuclear weaponeers is also disingenuous. For the most part, the design work has already been completed, rendering the remaining part of the RRW program largely an engineering exercise. Plus, “cutting-edge” nuclear weapons are outmoded and unnecessary–a few tens of uranium-based devices in the operational arsenal of any nuclear weapon state would serve deterrence purposes reliably and adequately.

    Contrary to what proponents of untested new warheads assert, the more credible deterrent in the eyes of one’s adversary will always be the tested legacy weapons. On the other hand, if the proposed new warheads are eventually tested, this will make it more difficult to stop other nations from doing the same. Either way, the proposed RRW program to develop new but untested nuclear warheads is detrimental to U.S. security.”

    • page (History)

      I remember reading that when it was published, and going back to read it again more recently. Good thoughts there, especially something that should be obvious, but for some reason it isn’t:

      If a country is facing the prospect of several 300-kiloton U.S. warheads destroying its 25 most populous cities, it hardly matters that perhaps one of the weapons will have a suboptimal yield and doesn’t completely annihilate the twenty-fifth city.”

      Thanks for posting the link. It’s a great argument to revisit, IMO.

  6. George William Herbert (History)

    In the interests of maintaining some healthy paranoia –

    Basing decisions on what to modernize, what to test, etc. purely on a deterrence basis ignores the other missions we have for a nuclear force.

    From a deterrence point of view, nobody is going to risk their country on the presumption that either an untested new US design or an older aging warhead which was extensively tested will fail to destroy their weapons, bases, or cities.

    The real serious justification for stockpile maintenance and upgrades isn’t the “it only yielded 150 kt instead of 300 kt”. It’s the “Oh, oops, that model of warhead didn’t work *at all*”, or, in a scenario where we have a real legitimate need to do a counterforce attack, enough of them fail that we don’t accomplish the mission and then experience a countervalue counterattack against US cities that overwhelms the very limited BMD system…

    It’s an article of faith among a fringe of the arms control folks that this latter mission does not exist. A lot more prefer to minimize it as it’s both ethically and politically odious. But it’s there – it’s real – and it’s important.

    It’s entirely reasonable to acknowledge that and then look at the tradeoffs of new US warheads and new US tests versus diplomatic efforts to halt or roll back WMD proliferation. Acknowledging that mission doesn’t mean falling thoughtlessly into the must-test-again trap. If testing again increases the odds that we’ll have to use a counterforce attack eventually more than the unknowns of not testing justify we shouldn’t, and I think there are few who can make that argument with a straight face (Kyl apparently is one, or at least plays one on TV). But not acknowledging the question and tradeoff, and analyzing it and factoring it in, isn’t helpful.

    We may end up with a future geopolitical crisis so bad that not using nuclear weapons is far worse than using them, be that North Korea nuking Seoul or what. If that comes to pass and the weapons we try to use fail, we certainly aren’t better off. I hope that none of these potential crisies comes to pass, but I can’t look around the world and convince myself that none will.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      Hmmm…. “a fringe of the arms control folks…” Well, how about a poll. Let’s ask the American people what they think about the idea that the US needs to be preparing to launch a nuclear attack on another nuclear-armed nation. Then we’ll see who is on the fringe.

      George, what I would like to know won’t come to pass is a nuclear holocaust (as the detonation of any appreciable fraction of today’s arsenals would be) that destroys civilization. How do you plan on avoiding that one? By returning to the heady days of the 1950s (with maybe a dozen players this time)?

      But I do try not to be paranoid, as it is known (by definition) not to be healthy.

    • FSB (History)

      Who is arguing against some maintenance of the stockpile?

      The argument I saw above is against making NEW UNTESTED nukes and I buy it 100%. There is NO argument to have those.

      btw, to the blog owners == what are the new ways to set-up links and italics etc. in this new version of the blog??

  7. Mark Lincoln (History)

    I thought Senator Kyle was concerned about our budget deficit.

    • FSB (History)

      Only if it means cutting health care and teachers, silly, not nukes!

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