Jeffrey LewisMaintaining Deterrence in the 21st Century

Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice submitted a three-page joint statement to Congress entitled Maintaining Deterrence in the 21st Century, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Fully Fund the RRW.

Okay, so I made that last bit up. But one-third of the report—the entire last page—is dedicated to the RRW.

The statement is pretty thin gruel, which is obvious by the second paragraph which suggests the real report is coming later:

To address these concerns in more depth, a detailed report will follow this summary paper. The report will lay out the data and methodology used to determine our nuclear weapons force structure, outline knowledge points for measuring progress in transforming our nuclear stockpile, and dispel a number of myths that have grown up around U.S. nuclear forces.


  1. hass

    Iran believes the proposal for an international consortium is the best option to end the deadlock, but has also proposed the permanent stationing of UN inspectors and even “smart centrifuges” which explode when uranium is enriched past a certain percentage. – The Independent


  2. Haninah (History)

    Interesting. As you say, the gruel is thin – the document reads like a Word Auto-Summarize of past DOE and NNSA statements. That being said, this is still an important step, and a long time coming. First the SAIC report chaired by Lewis Dunn took the Bush Administration to task for not even being bothered to try to explain its nuclear posture, pointing out that if they can’t do that, they can’t blame anyone but themselves if no one buys their goods. Then Domenici all but begs Gates and Rice to get his back in his efforts to save RRW. The the Democrats on HAC propose a new commission to reassess the US nuclear posture, and the Republicans don’t really fight them on it.

    As we all know, the Administration is allergic to engaging in public debate on its policies, even (or especially) with Congress and its other constitutionally-mandated partners in government. Even just getting them to issue a damn white paper would be a great step in the direction of an open and meaningful discussion of these issues.

  3. Amyfw (History)

    There is virtually nothing worth noting or quoting in this rehash of DOE talking points. However, I will note and quote a little. First point—keep an eye on the point about the role that positive security guarantees play in keeping our allies from acquiring their own nuclear weapons. This is the new supreme talking point for the nuclear proponents—it is their answer to the concern that our nuclear weapons programs undermine nonproliferation policy. It is stated and repeated at least 3 times in the 3 pages. Second point—they stake the entire future of our deterrent posture (and our security guarantees) on the pursuit of RRW. That’s a bit risky. If RRW does not go forward, do we have to conclude that nuclear deterrence is no longer credible or relevant to U.S. national security? That could really come back to bite them…

  4. Stephen Young (History)

    “including some established nuclear powers with aggressive nuclear force modernization programs”

    This must be referring to the British and their Trident plans – who else could it be? Certainly not the Chinese who, as Jeffrey highlights, have been aggressively pursuing a non-aggressive modernization program for decades.

  5. Anon (History)

    Amyfw, I think nonproliferation is a very important policy issue. But I recognize that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, by itself, did not prevent some of Uncle Sam’s keenest friends from going nuclear.

    A key role was played by America’s corresponding security guarantee towards its allies—of which its well protected and continuously controlled nuclear arsenal forms one component. (Do keep in mind that after World War Two, the atom bomb’s primary mission was not to deter in the Continental United States [CONUS], but to deter central war in Europe.) Uncle Sam’s nuclears helped not only to dissuade allies from going nuclear (or from State and its European counterparts from pushing that truly stupid nuclear sharing arrangements, the Multilateral Force [MLF]), but also to make the NPT look like an even more attractive, and credible choice.

    That said, you can certainly argue about whether and when qualitative improvements to America’s nuclears would be prudent.

    It’s worth noting that not all qualitative improvements to Uncle Sam’s nuclears are bad. Some have been downright revolutionary. For example, during the 1970s, and especially during the SALT talks, some arms controllers were arguing against any qualitative improvement, esp. delivery accuracy, to Uncle Sam’s nuclears. Distorting McNamara’s original concept of the “assured destruction” metric, they argued vehemently that indiscriminate city-busters were sufficient for credible deterrence.

    A small circle of strategists (some of whom are long dead, and wrongly denigrated today), however, grasped the truly revolutionary potential of, among other things, lower circular error probables (CEPs). They saw that if war should break out, certain qualitative improvements to nuclears, such as lower CEPs, would enable Uncle Sam not only to use dramatically lower yields against area targets (e.g., sprawling enemy industrial complexes), but also to substitute non-nuclears against many point targets. A consequence was that Uncle Sam, in trying to figure out ways to deliver nuclears with more precision (something so very anathema to many arms controllers then), actually ended up relying on nuclears a lot, lot less, and helping to push up the threshold for use of nuclears a lot, lot more.

    Lower CEPs, by the way, are one qualitative improvement that let Kissinger, Nunn, Perry and Shultz write that WSJ op-ed, which some (but not all) arms controllers and non-proliferationists look to as the fifteen—er, sorry, Mel Blank—the ten commandments.

    Would RRW be such a useful qualitative improvement? I personally haven’t decided, and think that it is a debate (preceded by a lot of grubby analysis) worth having.

    A lot of arms controllers, as well as non-proliferationists, seem to focus excessively on the number of warheads that the a given nuclear weapon State (NWS) might have. I’m not fond of bean-counting, the number of nuclear warheads possessed by a NWS is just one characteristic of its system of nuclears and, by itself, implies nothing whatsoever about the stability of that system, especially in times of stress and crisis. But to the extent that bean-counting matters, we all should consider, and perhaps cautiously welcome, the effect that qualitative improvements to nuclears can make to quantitative decreases in the number of warheads.

    If RRW will lead to a smaller, very-long term nuclear force that is still well-protected, still continuously controlled, and numerically much smaller, then that would perhaps be a not unpleasant outcome.

  6. Anon (History)

    Er … “Mel Blank” should read “Mel Brooks.”

    That’s all folks.

  7. James (History)

    “Delays on RRW also raise the prospect of having to return to underground nuclear testing to certify existing weapons.”

    I’m not saying this is groundbreaking news, but I’m not sure the administration has ever been this blunt about the perception of RRW as the last chance to avoid leaving the CTBT and resuming nuclear testing.

  8. Anon

    FYI, don’t hold your breath in anticipation of the promised “detailed report.” There is no congressional requirement for such a document and nobody I know believes that one is actually in the works. In my humble opinion, this vague promise of substantive information in the future was meant to allay criticism of the “thin gruel” served up in the three-pager.

  9. Stephen Young (History)

    It is slightly but I think significantly more blunt. Here is the quote for NNSA acting head before the House Armed Services Committee on March 20, 2007: “Specifically, the Directors of our nuclear weapons laboratories have raised concerns about their ability to assure the reliability of the legacy stockpile over the very long-term absent nuclear testing.” Usually, John Harvey merely says a non-RRW world simply increases the chances that we would have to test; this new phrasing is more alarmist, ala “If we don’t have the RRW, our entire arsenal will turn into cheese!”

  10. Brigitte N. (History)

    Unlike the posters and contributors of comments on this site, I am not at all an expert on arms control. I visit this site to get important information I do not find in the several newspapers I read daily.