Shortly before I left for the holidays, Congressional Appropriators provided “no funds for the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW)” pending “a new strategic nuclear deterrent mission assessment for the 21st century.” The bottom line — no new warheads without a new posture — appears to command bipartisan support among the appropriators.
The RRW is, for all intents and purposes, dead.
Administrator Tom D’Agostino and the rest of NNSA have to be asking themselves: Now what?
Our friend John Fleck points to one answer in the Albuquerque Journal, noting similarities between a 1990 paper and D’Agostino’s remarks on 18 December:
In January 1990, as the Soviet Union collapsed, a pair of defense industry consultants wrote a paper outlining a new approach to meeting military needs in the post-Cold War world.
Rather than a pipeline constantly churning out new weapons, Ted Gold and Rich Wagner wrote, the United States should develop the industrial research and manufacturing capability to build weapons if needed.
We do not need a huge arsenal, they argued. Instead, we could deter future enemies merely by showing that we have the capability to build new weapons when we need them. The essay was titled “Long Shadows and Virtual Swords.”
Fast-forward to Dec. 18.
In a Washington, D.C., news conference, the man in charge of the U.S. nuclear weapons design and manufacturing process seemed to be echoing Gold and Wagner.
“Because our nuclear weapons stockpile is decreasing, the United States’ future deterrent cannot be based on the old Cold War model of the number of weapons,” said Thomas D’Agostino, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration. “Rather, it must be based on the capability to respond to any national security situation, and make weapons only if necessary.”
I created a text version of the Gold and Wagner paper because I can’t find it anyway on-line. (It probably has more than a couple of typos from the OCR recognition software — feel free to e-mail corrections.)
I really think this is the only argument that NNSA has going for nuclear weapons programs, including whatever stockpile work will come after RRW. I never got around to flagging the idea, even after Joe Martz made a pretty decent case to the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Jim Sterngold. Martz, speaking to Fleck, aptly argued “My work becomes the deterrent, not so much the products of my work.”
I may just be a sucker for the “virtual swords” thing, having got my start in Washington working for Mike “Virtual Nuclear Arsenals” Mazarr. But it seems to me that, at some point, we need a bipartisan consensus on what the labs are supposed to do in post-arms race world. And that requires a vision of what it is that nuclear weapons do in that world.
Now, don’t get me wrong — a “virtual swords” concept should not be an excuse to fund an infrastructure better sized to a nuclear weapons stockpile of 10,000 than 1,000 (see the Modern Pit Facility). And my politics are not those of Gold and Wagner. But I can see how prudent investments in our defense industrial base, most importantly the people, can provide a hedge that enables deep reductions in our bloated nuclear stockpile that could safely number in the hundreds, rather than thousands, of weapons.
I would argue that NNSA officials failed to secure Congressional support for a variety of multi-billion dollar initiatives — including funding for the Modern Pit Facility, Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator and Reliable Replacement Warhead — precisely because these programs were conceived, articulated and implemented as part of a stockpile that looks liked a smaller version of the Cold War stockpile, instead of a stockpile based on the reality that much of the deterrent benefit from our nuclear stockpile is existential in nature.
It seems to me that fact — that the deterrent benefit accrues through the weapons existence and is robust across disparities in the technical details — forms to core of my answer to Cheryl Rofer’s excellent challenge to bloggers to articulate a new nuclear posture.