Andy GrottoSenator Kyl’s Straw Men

Congress has mandated that the next administration complete a Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) by early 2010. Senators McCain and Obama have both indicated support for nuclear reductions consistent with sustaining deterrence, and there is growing bipartisan support for a serious reexamination of U.S. nuclear weapons policy along these lines.

But many conservatives are not on board. The George C. Marshall Policy Institute just released the transcript of a recent talk on nuclear weapons policy by Senator Jon Kyl, a staunch conservative and the second-highest ranking Republican in the Senate. The Arizona senator’s remarks provide a good window into the five main rhetorical strategies and arguments that hardliner conservatives are likely deploy in the 2009-2010 debate over the NPR and NPT Review Conference.

Discredit calls for nuclear reductions by associating them with unilateral nuclear disarmament. In his remarks, Senator Kyl immediately pivots from noting the bipartisan call for nuclear reductions by secretaries Perry, Shultz, Kissinger and Senator Nunn in the now-famous WSJ op-eds to castigating a so-called “nuclear freeze” movement that supposedly recommends a course where “the U.S. alone is disarmed.” Actually, the main message of the nuclear freeze movement (which was active in the 1980s) was (take a wild guess) to freeze nuclear arsenals, i.e. stop building new nukes, and not unilateral disarmament. More fundamentally, Senator Kyl is arguing against a straw man: there is not a single serious U.S. leader or respected expert from either side of the political spectrum advocating for unilateral disarmament.

Mischaracterize the primary diplomatic objective of nuclear reductions as seeking to influence Iran and North Korea. Senator Kyl ridicules the notion that nuclear reductions by the United States would have any impact on the nuclear ambitions of rogue states, saying “of course” they would not. But convincing Iran and North Korea to forgo nuclear weapons is not the animating diplomatic goal of nuclear reductions. Rather, it is to address concerns among non-aligned countries that the United States is not living up to to its NPT Article VI nuclear disarmament obligations. “By fulfilling our commitment to make progress toward nuclear disarmament,” concludes a policy task force co-chaired by former secretaries Perry and Albright, “we give ourselves much greater leverage to persuade other countries to take the firm steps we consider necessary to prevent terrorists and additional countries from acquiring nuclear weapons.”

Suggest that America is getting left behind in a new arms race. Senator Kyl laments that “other states are modernizing their nuclear weapons and the United States is not.” Actually, these states are mostly playing catch-up—and they have a long way to go. Russia, for instance, keeps most of its SSBN fleet in port, where they are sitting ducks. Moreover, the United States is modernizing its strategic arsenal, for example, by deploying the more accurate Trident II D-5 missile to the SSBN fleet, improving the avionics on B-2 bombers so they can fly under radar, and putting the high-yield warheads and advanced reentry vehicles from dismantled MX missiles on Minuteman ICBMs while improving Minuteman’s guidance system. In any event, America’s existing nuclear arsenal—to say nothing of its overwhelming conventional superiority—is more than sufficient to deter Russia (let alone China or Iran) and reassure U.S. allies that America remains committed to their security.

Selectively interpret technical data on warhead reliability. Senator Kyl chides Congress for not funding the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW), suggesting that “each time we discover a problem in our legacy weapons…we have changed the weapon beyond its original design, in many cases because the components aren’t even available any more, they are so old-fashioned.” One gets the impression that our nukes are junkers patched together with duct tape and chewing gum. Yet each year since 1997, the secretaries of defense and energy have certified the arsenal as safe and reliable. As to a possible future need for an RRW or a new facility for manufacturing large numbers of plutonium pits, there is no need to commit now: an NNSA study found that the majority of plutonium pits for most nuclear weapons have minimum lifetimes of at least 85 years, roughly twice as long as originally expected.

Offer optimistic cost projections for new nuclear weapons facilities. Senator Kyl suggests that “with as little as $300 million we could begin the construction of facilities like the Chemistry and Metallurgy Facility Replacement Project (CMRR).” What is important to recognize, however, is that this is merely a down payment on a $2 billion project. Moreover, completing this facility will cost at least 2-3 times as much as DOE originally promised, according to DOE’s FY 2009 budget request:

The CMRR CD-1 was approved on June 17, 2005 with a preliminary cost range of $745,000,000 – $975,000,000.


Based on continued examination of the project and recent, industry-wide experience related to the increases in the cost of construction of comparable facilities, the estimate for construction of the Nuclear Facility at CMRR is now viewed to be significantly higher. Initial estimates place the revised TPC above $2,000,000,000.

Who’s to say costs won’t escalate further?

Let’s be clear: for long as the United States possesses nuclear weapons, it must continue to maintain an appropriate nuclear weapons complex to ensure that the arsenal is safe and reliable. But meeting this need does not require American taxpayers to write DOE a blank check for constructing large new nuclear weapons manufacturing facilities decades before they might possibly be needed.


  1. yousaf (History)

    comments/questions for senator Kyl:

    1. the current weapons are 98% reliable with high confidence

    2. the reliability is controlled (dominated) by the non-nuclear components.

    3. what would the proposed reliability be for the new RRWs? 99.999%? how would you check that? by nuclear explosive testing?

    4. the purpose of nuclear weapons — as written in the new DoE/DoD Gates-Bodman document is: “to: 1) deter acts of aggression involving nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction; 2) help deter, in concert with general-purpose forces, major conventional attacks; and 3) support deterrence by holding at risk key targets that cannot be threatened effectively by non-nuclear weapons. Because of their immense destructive power, nuclear weapons, as recognized in the 2006 National Security Strategy, deter in a way that simply cannot be duplicated by other weapons .”

    5. how would a possible 1% (maximally 2%) increase in reliability of the RRWs measurably impact the psychology of deterrence? (assuming they explode as promised)

    6. What is the military requirement for reliability? How is it set?

    7. Considering that nuclear targeting puts more than weapon on any important target the cumulative probability is essentially 100% of target destruction, no matter if the warhead had 98% or 99.9% initial reliability.

    8. Would not untested new weapons hold less perceived deterrent value than tested legacy weapons?

    9. would not starting RRW make it harder to convince other countries to not start or revivify their own nuclear programs? (see “Upsetting a Delicate Balance”, Dingli Shen, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 2007.)

  2. Gridlock (History)

    “Senator Kyl is arguing against a straw man: there is not a single serious U.S. leader or respected expert from either side of the political spectrum advocating for unilateral disarmament.”

    ‘I am become death, destroyer of worlds’

    Cliche I know, but it would be nice if there were at least one “serious” person out there arguing that, actually, zero nuclear weapons is a good thing, in any global climate.

  3. scud


    1. The fact that US nuclear weapons are reliable now does not mean they will be in 15 years from now. The uncertainties about the behavior of non-nuclear components will substantially increase with time, and LEPs will become more risky.

    2. Agree that, all things equal, multiple targeting does increase the probability of a given result in terms of destruction. But would not it be a good idea to reduce the number of US nuclear weapons? Adopting your logic may imply, as reliability decreases, building MORE nuclear weapons.

    3. The point made in (9.) is irrelevant. What China does in this field is not determined by US nuclear policy (or only marginallly so); it is determined by US policies towards Taiwan, India, Japan, etc., by US BMD programs, and by US conventional superiority. (Dingli is a good analyst. But please do not take at face value everything the People’s Republic’s “official nuclear debaters” say.)

  4. yousaf (History)


    so you are telling be that a U.S. military commander — if it ever came to this — would place exactly one untested RRW on a militarily important target, and that is the way we reduce our stockpile?

    Kindly show me this military commander.

  5. Silent Hunter (History)

    With regards to Russian SSBNs- aren’t these capable of launching from the dock?

  6. J (History)

    Once again, the right wing is reading from the same script. I made the dubious decision to attend a breakfast talk by Frank Gaffney several weeks ago, and he more or less made the same arguments verbatim.

  7. scud


    What US military commanders want is irrelevant. (You’re talking nukes. They don’t make the critical policy decisions in this business. What matters is the President’s confidence in “his” deterrent, which is informed by DoE and DoD advice.) But your argument has merits. The question of whether or not a RRW would need to be tested in order to maintain the same level of confidence in the reliability of the US deterrent is a matter of debate. RRW would not necessarily be an entirely new weapon (which indeed would probably need to be tested). According to open sources, the design that won the competition for the RRW-1 is based on a design which was actually tested.

    Finally, if the cost of securing the reliability of the stockpile, ratifying the CTBT, and reducing significantly the size of the US arsenal, was to conduct a small final series of tests – just like the French did in 1995 – well, that might be a good bargain. But I would not favour that option, because I would not want to give the Chinese and the Indians an opportunity to develop better thermonuclear designs.

  8. yousaf (History)


    what ought to brought to the fore is neither the DoD’s opinion of the reliability of the warheads, nor that of the President. What is important is how potential adversaries perceive the reliability “multiplied” by the consequences: does a, say, 95% reliable 330 kt 2-stage boosted weapon have the same perceived deterrent value as a 99.99% reliable 15 kt uranium device? Good research project for the NNSA/DoE/DoD to conduct over the next ~70 years, while the current Pu pits are still just fine.

    The design for the RRW (WR-1) is based closely on the “SKUA-9” warhead, a two-stage boosted weapon tested in the 1970s.

    Is there a military mission for 2-stage boosted weapons? Are we planning a massive first strike nuclear Armageddon against Russia? Why? Because they are now more Capitalistic than us with our nationalized banking industry?

    Want reliability without testing? Uranium weapons — work great every time.

    In the meantime, why is the DoD showing our hand to potential enemies? DoD ought to immediately classify the legacy warhead reliability numbers.

    It is an exteremely good time to do so: we have just told the world that our well-tested legacy weapons are 98% reliable with high confidence, and that the Pu pits will last at least 85, if not at least 100 years. If that doesn’t put the fear of death in any potential enemy for the next ~70 years, then an untested RRW certainly won’t.

  9. Jay Coghlan (History)

    Some notes on Los Alamos’ CMRR Nuclear Facility:

    You state, “The CMRR CD-1 was approved on June 17, 2005 with a preliminary cost range of $745,000,000 – $975,000,000.” For dramatic effect there is a yet lower “total project cost” (TPC) of $600 million when NNSA first officially introduced CMRR to Congress in its FY04 budget request.

    You further state, “… the estimate for construction of the Nuclear Facility at CMRR is now viewed to be significantly higher. Initial estimates place the revised TPC above $2,000,000,000.” Actually, the FY09 Senate Defense Authorization Act report pegged CMRR’s TPC at $2.6 billion, nearly quadruple NNSA’s first estimate even while allowing for inflation.

    However, to be fair, that is stated total project costs, and CMRR is being built in two phases. The first phase, “light labs” and office space, is now under construction. But the total costs for the CMRR Nuclear Facility in NNSA’s FY09 budget request are “TBD,” hence not even yet estimated, much less known.

    Moreover, the CMRR Nuclear Facility is simply not needed. Its main mission will be analytical chemistry and materials characterization of special nuclear materials in direct support of expanded plutonium pit production at LANL’s adjacent Plutonium Facility-4. First, NNSA has stated its intent to postpone a decision on expanding pit production from the currently sanctioned level of 20 pits per year until a new Nuclear Posture Review is completed by the next president. As long as Congress keeps rejecting new nuclear weapons designs under the so-called Reliable Replacement Warhead Program there should be no need to expand pit production, which ultimately was all about RRW production anyway.

    In an October 1, 2008 letter to the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board NNSA Administrator Tom D’Agostino stated that plutonium materials characterization had already been transferred to PF-4 from the old and unsafe CMR Building in an effort to reduce its Security Category I/II operations. Given no need to expand pit production, the old CMR Building’s analytical chemistry, used mainly in quality assurance for ongoing pit production, could be transferred to PF-4 as well. This would help to achieve NNSA’s goal of better SNM consolidation in highly secure areas. CMR’s non-Cat I/II operations, some of which we support (e.g., radioactive waste disposal R&D, IAEA inspector training, support of nonproliferation programs), could be transferred to the CMRR light labs and office space already nearing completion.

    The bottom line is that CMRR’s Nuclear Facility is simply not needed. Funding for it should be rejected by Congress, just as Congress rejected the Reliable Replacement Warhead (and again the two issues are related). At this point, NNSA and LANL don’t really know what they want the Nuclear Facility for, other than expanded plutonium pit production. As a May 2008 DNFSB report noted, the Nuclear Facility’s currently proposed design calls for a flexible, open floor plan to accommodate “as-yet unknown future missions,” which the Board likened to a “hotel concept.” Why spend billions on CMRR’s Nuclear Facility if it has no clearly articulated mission need?

    Jay Coghlan
    Nuclear Watch New Mexico

  10. Nick Ritchie (History)

    RRW is a political product framed as a prudent risk management strategy and NOT a technological imperative based on definitive, objective scientific assessment.

    It is intimately tied to NNSA’s Complex 2030 restructuring grand plan that was produced after years of pressure by Congress (esp. Rep. Hobson) to come up with a plan, any plan, for the long term purpose, size and composition of the nuclear stockpile and industrial infrastructure before any funds would be appropriated for NPR 01’s new nuclear projects. E.g. Hobson said in 2004 “NNSA needs to take a ‘time-out’ on new initiatives until it completes a review of its weapons complex in relation to security needs, budget constraints, and this new stockpile plan” (Congressional Record, House of Representatives, June 25, 2004).

    Administration officials have repeatedly stated that the LEP approach only might, rather than will, increase uncertainty in warhead safety and reliability, that RRW might reduce costs, might result in warheads that are easier to produce, maintain and certify, and only might allow a substantial reduction in the reserve stockpile. The AAAS 2007 report on RRW said “in the absence of detailed plans on scope, schedule, and costs, however, it is not possible to make judgments on the trade-offs in the weapons and the complex among stockpiles with varying mixes of legacy and LEP weapons and RRWs” (p. 4). There is nothing definitive AT ALL in the case for RRW and much to be wary about.

    And don’t think this is an either/or decision. Even if RRW goes ahead current NNSA plans envisage a stockpile in transition from an all-LEP arsenal to a mixture of RRWs and LEP warheads by 2030. Only then will a decision be on whether to move to an all-RRW stockpile, which may take another decade (see Acting NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino’s testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, March 28, 2007).

  11. scud


    15 kt weapons would not allow you to credibly threaten the centers of power of most adversaries – due to the size or the hardening of many potential targets. But this opens an important issue: what do we need to credibly deter? Some would say that 100 15-kt weapons would be enough, just because nukes scare people. Others would say that some countries are ready to suffer massive damage when stakes are really high. It’s a matter of political judgment.

  12. Jon Wolfsthal (History)

    There is a decent chance that Mitch McConnell will lose his bid for re-election, which means the new minority leader could well be Senator Kyl. How’s that for a fun time?

  13. Ryan Crierie (History)

    Actually, we’ve gone far too long without a nuclear test to verify the reliability of our warheads.

    Nobody on the Arms Controller and Nucleat Test Ban side likes to talk about the W-80-1 failure, which resulted in our entire ALCM stock being limited in it’s deployability for an entire year.

    Long and short was that the ALCM warhead compartment was unheated, which meant that on a long range, high altitude cruise on a B-52’s bomb bay or pylon, the warhead would cold-soak for hours at -40° F. Despite taking this into account during development, and the fact that computer calculations indicated that the primary would work at these low temperatures; when they actually did take a W-80 primary and fire it after cold soaking it; it fizzled; and required redesign and a second test shot to proof it.

    There also have been other stockpile fizzles of other devices, when the computer models said they should fire fully, and it makes me feel awfully nice about our deterrent. Oh well, at least we can still, if all else fails, put down lots of dirty primaries…

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