Michael KreponNew Warhead Designs

With the benefit of hindsight and magical thinking, the Nuclear Enterprise and the Arms Control Enterprise should have struck a deal during the George W. Bush Administration: ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in return for production of the Reliable Replacement Warhead.

This revisionist history assumes, of course, that backers of the RRW would have ultimately found it reliable enough to dispense with renewed nuclear testing. And that the Bush Administration’s anti-arms control cohort would have been able to accept the CTBT. In reality, the Arms Control Enterprise and the Nuclear Enterprise were in no mood to bargain. Nor was the Bush Administration – certainly not after being handed a blank check by a revenge-seeking public. This star-crossed administration — elected by a one-vote margin courtesy of the US Supreme Court after a Carl Hiaasen-scripted Florida recount – received its mandate not at the polls, but after failing to connect the dots to prevent the worst-ever attacks on US soil.

The Bush Administration cashed this blank check in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as in dispensing with the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. In stark contrast, Team Bush was hemmed in when pursuing adaptations to existing warhead designs or new ones. The Arms Control Enterprise may be a shadow of its former self, but it can still rouse passions against the specter of renewed nuclear testing and other initiatives that seem too closely associated with nuclear war-fighting. Predictably, the Nuclear Enterprise overreached. Backers wanted not only the RRW, but also a new warhead adaptation to enhance earth penetration against buried, hardened targets. They got neither.

Instead of the RRW, the Obama Administration has continued more roundabout ways to extend the service life of existing warhead designs. This approach is sub-optimal for the Nuclear Enterprise and too costly and extensive for the Arms Control Enterprise, but both can live with it. A modus vivendi of sorts was reached during the Obama Administration: no new warhead designs, and no CTBT ratification. In contrast to other pledges made when running for president in 2008 (think of Gitmo), President Obama has failed to expend real effort to advance the CTBT’s prospects, not even when first elected, when 59 Senators were aligned with the Democratic caucus.

This modus vivendi is now being challenged by those who argue that the US stockpile is still too Cold War-oriented, and not designed sufficiently to control escalation and weapons effects. The fixes sought, echoing debates in the Bush Administration, are new low-yield nuclear warheads and improved counterforce capabilities against hardened, buried targets.

There has always been a tactical nuclear weapons “gap,” and consequently a low-yield “gap” between the US and Soviet/Russian stockpiles. These gaps haven’t adversely affected US nuclear deterrence in the past, but Vladimir Putin has raised new challenges for deterrence, as has Kim Jong Un. So, here we are again, with another groundswell for new nuclear warhead requirements. These calls come in the midst of expensive plans to recapitalize the Triad along with life extension programs for existing warhead designs — including warheads with low-yield targeting options.

A familiar advocate, Kathleen Bailey, has expounded these views in a brief circulated by the National Institute for Public Policy, opining,

“It is possible that stockpile problems could again occur, requiring testing to resolve. Second, testing may be required to shape the nuclear deterrent to better meet the challenges of the changed threat environment…

“Large-yield US nuclear weapons designed during the Cold War to destroy entire cities are less-than- optimal weapons for many of today’s threat scenarios. It is possible that further weapons developments or doctrinal changes by Russia and/or China will necessitate a reevaluation of whether the US should develop new nuclear warheads to bolster the US deterrent.”

Former Lab Director George N. Miller has argued that operators need more multiple, selective yield weapons, as well as a small number of “specialized” warheads. I assume, perhaps incorrectly, that Dr. Miller is referring to earth penetrators. Dr. John S. Foster, the Last Significant Elder of the Nuclear Enterprise, argues that,

“If the government supports the need for selected low yield weapons, work to repeal the policy and process on the prohibition of new nuclear weapons and capabilities, and permit and fund hydronuclear containerized underground nuclear tests less than 1 ton to provide high confidence in the performance at low yield.”

Concerning plutonium-pit production, Dr. Foster recommends that Livermore and Los Alamos compete in the design of modular production and, “when satisfactory performance has been demonstrated, deploy enough modules to produce say 100/yr and then to provide a production hedge, deploy additional modules to provide 500/yr.”

In recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, John Harvey calls attention to

“two looming questions involving stockpile modernization [that] are worthy of debate and discussion: Do we need nuclear warheads with new or different military capabilities? Do we need to retain capabilities to develop and produce such warheads?

“My short answers to these question are, respectively, ‘maybe’ and ‘most assuredly.’ It is timely to review needed military capabilities in light of the evolution of the global security environment including Russia’s actions upsetting the emerging post Cold War international order and increased focus on the challenge of deterring escalation in a conventional conflict between nuclear-armed states. At least three options may be seen as pertinent: Lower yield options for ICBM and SLBM warheads, at least until a viable prompt global conventional strike capability is achieved, and capabilities to hold at risk hardened, underground installations.”

At this hearing, Keith Payne added,

“Russian military officials speak openly of the preemptive employment of nuclear weapons in a conventional war. And according to open Russian sources, Russia has pursued specialized, low yield nuclear weapons to make its first-use threats credible and its weapons locally employable.”

Brad Roberts has written a tightly argued, mostly unflinching book on nuclear requirements, The Case for U.S. Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century (2016). Brad does, however, flinch when it comes to new warhead designs, concluding that,

“The case for the addition of these weapons to the U.S. arsenal hinges on an assessment of whether they add credibility to U.S. threats in the eyes of the adversary… This seems plausible but is not testable.”

As an aside, one could argue that this “not-testable” constraint applies to every warhead and every nuclear weapon delivery capability in every nuclear arsenal. We can’t tell for sure why nuclear deterrence succeeds; knowing why conventional deterrence backed by nuclear weapons fails is more explicable. Either way, it’s a stretch to argue that the particulars of a new warhead designs will tip these scales.

But getting back to Brad’s argument, whatever modicum of additional deterrence a new warhead might provide must, in his view, be weighed against the amount of blowback on the Nuclear Enterprise that can be expected for re-fighting this battle.

Brad also weighs in with a humanitarian consequences consideration for low-yield options, as does Jim Miller and others, including Dr. Foster, who argues for “strictly minimized bloodshed” and to avoid “enduring environmental damage.”

This isn’t exactly what the Humanitarian Pledge Movement has in mind. If the Nuclear Enterprise stays on this course while opposing the CTBT, expect a strong domestic and stronger international backlash.


  1. Nick Ritchie (History)

    Great summary of the resurgent low yield nukes narrative that harks back to the post-Cold War Air Force’s PLYWD project to target ‘rogue states’ in 1991. The problem here is with the word ‘need’ and arguments that there is a definitive requirement to deploy (or at least be capable of procuring and deploying) specific types of nuclear weapons in order to have the desired ‘deterrent effect’. As you suggest, there are no objective criteria upon which to rest a categorical case. What we have instead are arguments that ascribe a rational universalism and thereby necessity to an argument that stripped down actually runs ‘I would prefer my country to deploy these sorts of nuclear weapons because I think their specific characteristics will be sufficiently well understood by enemy X under Y conditions to deter a major transgression of my country’s interests according to my understanding of the theory and practice of nuclear deterrence’. There’s a lot of ifs, buts and maybes underpinning all of this and a basic question of who we are trying to convince with this logic? A narrow epistemic community of like-minded ‘nuclear strategists’? Political leaders who must be convinced of the feasibility of getting some nuclear ‘skin in the game’ to best defend/advance national interests (whatever we decide those to be)? The wily enemy who will expertly exploit a kilotonnage gap in US killing power to ride roughshod over US interests safe in knowledge that it can keep the US penned in to its own ‘self-deterrence’ for the duration of a crisis? I think the nuclear strategy community is by and large talking to itself. As for a ‘humanitarian argument’ for low yield nukes, that perhaps falls into the category of another familiar argument: we must destroy (with low yield nuclear weapons) in order to save (from high yield nuclear weapons).

  2. Casper Diamond (History)

    It’s fascinating to see how persistent pro-nuclear weapons advocates are. The push for the RRW failed in the 2000’s, but that won’t do anything to stop them from pushing the /next/ expensive weapons system that we do not need (no expensive weapons system, no paycheck for the nuclear industry). Last decade it was the RRW and nuclear bunker busters, this decade it is interoperable warheads and the LRSO.

    With an industry so large and a lobby so strong and well organized, it’s clear that the elimination of the US’s stockpile is a dream that will never be accomplished.

    Lets all breath a sigh of relief that the ‘sausage bombs’ that Teller theorized about were never assembled. If they had, we would need to worry about the potential ‘doomsday gap’ that would inevitably be created once those weapons were decommissioned.

    • Bradley Laing (History)

      What do we do if a current nuclear power, now. in 2016 wants to build cobolt-salted bombs out of the novel “On the Beach?”

      Decide that there is no “doomsday gap” because the US Military did not have them first, so no “Doomsday gap” can exist now?

  3. Mark Gubrud (History)

    It’s really not clear whether the presence or absence of a gap in the ladder of escalation (per discussion assuming such a thing exists) at “nuclear” makes nuclear war more or less likely, since the main point is that we stay well away from any rung on the ladder that is remotely close to the gap, such as a major land battle or direct attacks on home territory.

    If you have a continunous spectrum of response capability, you also have a continuous spectrum of preemptive options for “escalation dominance.” If both sides have such options, where is the structural stability? If an actual war is breaking out, such a situation argues both for preemption and for ruling out moderation in favor of all-out attack or counterattack.

    I would not put too much faith in the “nuclear firebreak” if the fire comes anywhere close to it, but I’d rather have the firebreak and make first use as salient as possible. Visions of being able to manage the fire once it has crossed to the nuclear side do not seem to me worth sacrificing or undermining this clarity.

    The advocates of low-yield and limited nuclear war options are making too much out of Russian “de-escalation” rhetoric. Russia’s operational doctrine is not unlike that of the US, which also refuses to rule out first use. When will Russia use nuclear weapons first? When NATO invades Russia, or maybe when the US launches a massive campaign against the Russian Navy or military sites inside Russia. Supreme national interests-type scenarios.

    Elbridge Colby worries that the US would have to attack inside Russia in a Baltics scenario. Whether that is accurate and what scale of attacks would provoke a nuclear response is debatable, but this is far from the notion that Russia would recklessly seize the Baltics and threaten or actually use a nuke or two if NATO tried to do anything about it.

    If we were engaged in a major war with Russia over the Baltics, well, that would be a very dangerous situation, wouldn’t it? People would think it was Armageddon. Are we days from nuclear holocaust? That would be the question on everyone’s mind. It would warp the spacetime fabric of human thought. That is the kind of mental environment in which ideas like strategic preemption or demonstration strikes begin to seem real to people. I would hope that, in such a situation, people will see “crossing the nuclear firebreak” as formidable, not just taboo but deadly to the whole world. As something to be avoided always, to always look for the way out of the trap without going that way.

    The other argument is that Russia already has low-yield weapons, and doctrines for their use, that the US needs to match. But new US nuclear weapons won’t encourage Russia to give up its own. The US could explicitly offer to give up these programs in exchange for Russian disarmament, but in this case Russia has already decided that the existence of a nuclear deterrent to land warfare is in its security interests and the existence of a US or NATO counter-deterrent is almost irrelevant to that calculation. Rather, it would only provide further reasons and requirements for continuing Russian modernization which could well include a further buildup of short-range delivery vehicles for nuclear weapons.

    In short, limited nuclear war planning and capabilities are counter to national and global security interests, but we can tolerate the Russians holding onto their tactical nukes if they want. If we want them to give them up or to lower the numbers, building new US tactical nukes, all shiny and advanced, would have the opposite effect.

  4. Bradley Laing (History)

    MAR 6, 2016

    WASHINGTON – A U.S. civic group said Friday two ships have arrived in Kobe to transport the massive plutonium stash Japan agreed in 2014 to return to the United States.

    The British-flagged ships will pick up the cargo in the village of Tokai, Ibaraki Prefecture, and take it during a 52-day voyage to the Savannah River Site, a U.S. government nuclear facility in South Carolina, according to Savannah River Site Watch.

    The Pacific Heron and the Pacific Egret, anchored in Kobe, will transport 331 kg of the highly toxic material, including weapons-grade versions, from the Fast Critical Assembly run by the Japan Atomic Energy Agency in Tokai.


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