Jeffrey LewisDid Congress Define "New" Nukes?

I attended the PONI debate last week between Joe Cirincione and Clark Murdock about whether the United States should modernize the arsenal with the Reliable Replacement Warhead. It was a very interesting and lively debate. I enjoyed myself, and that wasn’t just the Pabst Blue Ribbon I was drinking.

Murdock said a few things that are just plain false, and I want to talk about one of them — that Congress supposedly imposed a ham-handed definition of “new” nuclear weapons on the national laboratories. He implied that the definition prevents the modernization of the arsenal, by freezing us at an arbitrary point.

You can listen to the audio — provided you are not, like me, a Mac user — online. The comment occurs at the 25:08 mark. Here is Arms Control Wonk Super Intern Meri Lugo’s transcription:

The question of “new” and what constitutes “new” is an important theological discussion. Is it new military capabilities? Is a new weapon defined the way it is in legislation? That is, anything that we did not have before 1986 is by definition “new”?

My argument is that we are preserving a safe, secure and reliable warhead, I mean deterrent, and that is going to require a range of modernization options which includes life extension programs, it includes the extensive use of components and in some of these components, like plutonium pits or uranium pits, you may have to change the warhead slightly to fit a new component in it. Is that a new weapon?

Well according to the definition provided by Congress, that anything that was in the stockpile before 198 – I’ve forgotten the year it was – is by definition “new”. That to me is not a new weapon. That to me is a replacement weapon intended to provide the same capabilities but in a more safe, secure and reliable way.

This is seriously misleading.

I heard the same claim made by a DOD official at a previous PONI meeting, which leads me to believe that this is one of those anecdotes that has improved with retelling. It has always seemed to me that ideologically homogeneous groups are particular susceptible to these kind of memes.

My guess is that Murdock and the other speaker (protected by the Chatham House Rule) were not being mendacious; they genuinely believe this happened. They’ve probably heard it repeated on any number of occasions by people they trust (Murdock was at the previous PONI meeting where I heard the same claim) and haven’t bothered to dig through the legislative documents (which does not exactly make for a happenin’ Friday night). All groups do this to some extent, including the arms control community.

But we aren’t picking on the arms control community, today.

Has Congress Ever Defined “New Nuclear Weapon” for Any Purpose

Yes. For one purpose — budgeting.

This is the kernel of truth, from which the legend has grown. (In some tellings, a certain Congressional staffer who I quite admire is the villain, but Murdock — to his credit — played it classy last week.)

Section 3143 of the FY2003 National Defense Authorization Act states that:

(d) DEFINITIONS.—In this section:

[snip]

(3) The term ‘‘new nuclear weapon’’ means a nuclear weapon that contains a pit or canned subassembly, either of which is neither—

(A) in the nuclear weapons stockpile on the date of the enactment of this Act; nor

(B) in production as of that date.

Note that the phrase “in this section” — the definition applies only for the purposes of Section 3143.

What does Section 3143 require?

(1) In any fiscal year after fiscal year 2002 in which the Secretary of Energy plans to carry out activities described in paragraph (2) relating to the development of a new nuclear weapon or modified nuclear weapon, the Secretary shall specifically request funds for such activities in the budget …

In other words, any new or modified nuclear weapon needs — wait for it — its own budget line.

Section 3143 requires DOE to have a single dedicated line item for activities involving new nuclear weapons or modified nuclear weapons in Phase 1-6.2A and a dedicated line item for each such activity for a new or modified nuclear weapon in phase 3 or higher. (It’s slightly more complicated than that, but that’s the gist. I’ll put the full text in the comments.)

This is called budgeting “by tail number.” You can’t just have a giant pile of money called “nuclear weapons” and use it on whatever you damn well please. You have to allocate the money to specific warheads or warhead types.

So, that is the tiny kernel of truth: In 2002, Congress defined “modified” and “new” nuclear weapons for the narrow purpose of whether a specific nuclear weapons activity gets its own budget line, or not. DOE can still, design, build and produce “new” nuclear weapons, provided they ask permission by placing the request in an appropriate, specific line item.

(One little nitpick, Murdock was wrong to say that the weapon had to be developed by 1986 — and right to say that he had forgotten the year. Congress defined “new” was defined as having “entered the stockpile” before 2002. In practice, the last warhead to enter the stockpile was the W88 in 1990. But what is four years among friends? Besides, 1990 doesn’t sound as good as 1986, which is when the W88 entered Phase 6.2A and has that awesome Cold War throwback feel to it.)

Why Would Congress Want Separate Line Items?

When the FY2003 President’s Budget Request (a much less exciting PBR) arrived on Capitol Hill in early 2002, someone must have taken a close look at the $46.5 million dollars requested for “Supporting Research & Development” within Directed Stockpile Work:

Category FY2001 FY2002 FY2003
Supporting Research & Development…………. 23,450 32,567 46,464

This category conducts research and development (R&D) applicable to specific weapon systems as well as general R&D not yet directly tied to a particular weapon system. Weapon-specific R&D supports technologies needed to support a specific weapon refurbishment, maintenance, surveillance, and/or certification program. Activities include joint test assembly (JTA) redevelopment; ACORN, a gas transfer system development, and neutron generator development. General supporting R&D pursues technologies which are used to support the nuclear weapons stockpile, but are not designed for a specific weapon system. Activities include military requirements as issued by the Nuclear Weapons Council (NWC), technology development/materials studies, and advanced development systems engineering. The FY 2003 efforts will support research and development of a Commercial Off the Shelf (COTS) qualification process for the W80 and W76; continue development of the W78 gas transfer system, the enhanced fidelity JTA, W88 JTA, and W88 gas transfer system, W87 high-fidelity JTA pit production, complete EMP threat assessment, and support Phase 6.2/6.2A study on Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator.

[Emphasis mine.]

Like how DOE stuck that right on the end? Seriously, if an NNSA official were reading it, he would have coughed the words “Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator.”

As far as I can tell “Support Phase 6.2/6.2A study on Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator” is the entire explanation of the program provided to Congress in the budget.

Even though the money was in a Deparment of Energy budget submission, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Doug Feith was the first “responsible” (I use the term lightly) person to appear on Capitol Hill after the budget dropped. Feith was there — along with General John Gordon, Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration and Admiral James Ellis, Commander, US Strategic Command — to brief the 2001-2002 Nuclear Posture Review.

Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) had a few questions, which Feith answered with “Oh, yeah, that Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator. We were going to tell you about that …”

BINGAMAN: So, the item on Page 20 of the NNSA budget that came to us the other day says support an advance concept initiative, a phase 6.2/6.2a study for the robust nuclear earth penetrator, which will also maintain weapons design capability.

FEITH: As I just suggested, we were coming up to talk to you in a couple of weeks on that issue. That is not a low-yield system. That is a consideration of a modification of an existing system.

BINGAMAN: That’s a modification, but there is no design work going on on that at the present time, or that’s a design of a new system?

FEITH: When we start this program called 6.2/6.2a that leads to what we would formally call design. We’re coming up and chatting with you about that. To get to that point, one considers, you know, where you are on this issue. And, there’s been significant discussion about developing an earth — a significant robust penetrator for the military. And we are pursuing through the nuclear weapons [council] a program that looks at that by modifying a system to do that.

BINGAMAN: Well, let me just state of the record, Mr. Chairman, I do think we should concern ourselves if there are going to be new weapons, new nuclear weapons designs pursued that’s been contrary to the policy of previous administration’s. And, if there’s a change in that policy, I think we need to have a discussion about it and a chance to express our views.

As it turns out, the Senate had a chance to express it’s view on RNEP. The Senate Armed Services Committee refused to authorize the funding, instead asking the Secretary of Defense to submit a report explaining:

(1) the military requirements for the RNEP;
(2) the nuclear weapons employment policy for the RNEP;
(3) the detailed categories or types of targets that the RNEP is designed to hold at risk; and
(4) an assessment of the ability of conventional weapons to address the same types of categories of targets that the RNEP is designed to hold at risk.

And them, for good measure, the Senate added Section 3143 to prevents DOE from hiding future efforts like RNEP deep in the fine print of the budget.

In conference, the House acceded, with an amendment that fully funded RNEP, but withheld the funds until the completion of the report. As far as I can tell, SECDEF did not submit the report in FY2003, so the funds weren’t released. Anyway, RNEP died a slow, miserable death.

Bottom Line

So, Congress didn’t really define new nuclear weapons after all, let alone constrain their development — Section 3143 merely required the Department of Energy place activities related to weapons not yet in the stockpile in special line items for easy visibility. They called those weapons “new” in the legislation, without prejudice to the “theological” debate to which Murdock refers.

With that kind of onerous restriction, it is a wonder we aren’t all speaking Russian, huh? (That’s sarcasm, people.)

It is interesting, however, that I’ve heard this particular falsehood twice. The first time I heard it, I was really taken aback. It took me the better part of a day to figure out the truth.

This is a pretty good example of the kind of myth that flourishes in the hothouse of an ideologically homogeneous community. And a nice reminder that it is good to get outside once in a while.

Comments

  1. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Here is 50 U.S. 2529:

    § 2529. Requirements for specific request for new or modified nuclear weapons

    (a) Requirement for request for funds for development
    (1) In any fiscal year after fiscal year 2002 in which the Secretary of Energy plans to carry out activities described in paragraph (2) relating to the development of a new nuclear weapon or modified nuclear weapon, the Secretary shall specifically request funds for such activities in the budget of the President for that fiscal year under section 1105 (a) of title 31.
    (2) The activities described in this paragraph are as follows:
    (A) The conduct, or provision for conduct, of research and development which could lead to the production of a new nuclear weapon by the United States.
    (B) The conduct, or provision for conduct, of engineering or manufacturing to carry out the production of a new nuclear weapon by the United States.
    © The conduct, or provision for conduct, of research and development which could lead to the production of a modified nuclear weapon by the United States.
    (D) The conduct, or provision for conduct, of engineering or manufacturing to carry out the production of a modified nuclear weapon by the United States.
    (b) Budget request format
    The Secretary shall include in a request for funds under subsection (a) the following:
    (1) In the case of funds for activities described in subparagraph (A) or © of subsection (a)(2), a single dedicated line item for all such activities for new nuclear weapons or modified nuclear weapons that are in phase 1, 2, or 2A or phase 6.1, 6.2, or 6.2A (as the case may be), or any concept work prior to phase 1 or 6.1 (as the case may be), of the nuclear weapons acquisition process.
    (2) In the case of funds for activities described in subparagraph (B) or (D) of subsection (a)(2), a dedicated line item for each such activity for a new nuclear weapon or modified nuclear weapon that is in phase 3 or higher or phase 6.3 or higher (as the case may be) of the nuclear weapons acquisition process.
    © Exception
    Subsection (a) shall not apply to funds for purposes of conducting, or providing for the conduct of, research and development, or manufacturing and engineering, determined by the Secretary to be necessary—
    (1) for the nuclear weapons life extension program;
    (2) to modify an existing nuclear weapon solely to address safety or reliability concerns; or
    (3) to address proliferation concerns.
    (d) Definitions
    In this section:
    (1) The term “life extension program” means the program to repair or replace non-nuclear components, or to modify the pit or canned subassembly, of nuclear weapons that are in the nuclear weapons stockpile on December 2, 2002, in order to assure that such nuclear weapons retain the ability to meet the military requirements applicable to such nuclear weapons when first placed in the nuclear weapons stockpile.
    (2) The term “modified nuclear weapon” means a nuclear weapon that contains a pit or canned subassembly, either of which—
    (A) is in the nuclear weapons stockpile as of December 2, 2002; and
    (B) is being modified in order to meet a military requirement that is other than the military requirements applicable to such nuclear weapon when first placed in the nuclear weapons stockpile.
    (3) The term “new nuclear weapon” means a nuclear weapon that contains a pit or canned subassembly, either of which is neither—
    (A) in the nuclear weapons stockpile on December 2, 2002; nor
    (B) in production as of that date.

  2. Allen Thomson (History)

    > kind of myth that flourishes in the hothouse of an ideologically homogeneous community

    Yeah, that’s one of the things that has distressed me about the intelligence agencies for many years. Ideas that are blatantly and provably false, or at least lack any evidential basis, get accepted as canon. As you say, it would be hard to find ill intent in most cases — it just kind of happens, like a thermodynamic phase change.

    John Raulston Saul has things to say about this phenomenon.

  3. yousaf

    Indeed, this is a pretty good example of “the kind of myth that flourishes in the hothouse of an ideologically homogeneous community”.

    Another such myth is that new untested warheads would be a more “credible deterrent” than those that have been tested. What counts is that potential adversaries have seen that your weapon actually goes “bang” — regardless of what the smartest of weaponeers assert. The ideological hothouse has apparently unwittingly conflated psychological deterrent value with technical warhead reliability.

    As mentioned to the editorial board of the WSJ:….would you fly on an airliner that had never had a test flight, even though its aerodynamics may be well understood? So why would you — or more importantly our enemies — believe untested new weapons would work better than the tested ones we have?

    Let’s hope for the sake of our nuclear deterrent that new untested weapons are never placed in the stockpile.

    In fact, I am against the very phrase “credible deterrent” — either we have a nuclear deterrent or we do not. Anyone penning the words “credible deterrent” (and there are many many…) should be asked what exactly they are talking about. The easiest way to undermine our nuclear deterrent is for senior officials to make public statements denigrating it unnecessarily (e.g. Stratcom chief in WSJ recently). Do we have any firm idea of the reliability of the Chinese or Russian weapons systems and warheads? Not really. Do we take them seriously? Yes. Well, it works in reverse also.

  4. Shay Begorrah (History)

    For some reason after reading this post I can not get the word “magisterial” out of my head.

    Nice work.

  5. Heather (History)

    I was also at that PONI event (how did you get PBR? I was stuck with Bud Light) and discussion on defining “new” left me baffled, so I’m grateful for this clarification. Of course it leaves me with further questions….
    Cirincione later pointed out in his remarks that Congress turned down funding for these “new” weapons, which I believe he referred to as “Bush Bomb 1” and “Bush Bomb 2.” So although Congress never defined “new,” they have de facto been rejecting any “new” nuclear weapons. Am I getting this straight? Also, anyone know how much we spend on the Stockpile Stewardship Program?
    And yousaf hits on a great point. I have Murdoch as saying in the debate, “Our deterrent is only as credible as it is perceived to be by our allies.” I’m with yousaf on this one, the very existence of a nuclear deterrent is probably enough to deter adversaries- not many of them are going to cross the red line and then cross their fingers in hopes that one of our nuclear weapons doesn’t go BOOM when it is supposed to.

  6. Tim (History)

    I agree. If a country had just one nuke with a reliability of only 50%, it’d already change my behavior. If a country has thousands, and the first digit is a nine, I don’t care what the second one is.

  7. kerbihan

    I think that the discussion on “credibility” is garbled here.

    1. Credibility has three political dimensions:
    a. In the eyes of the decision-maker (“I need to be confident in my nukes”),
    b. In the eyes of the deterree,
    c. In the eyes of allies protected by US nuclear weapons.

    2. Credibility has two technical dimensions:
    a. The weapon needs to be seen as reliable (tested or not),
    b. The weapon has to be seen an adequate deterrent threat – hence the non-trivlal discussion (which has been going on for 65 years) about precise effects and collateral damage.

    In this regard, the much-defamed RNEP, a program which originated in the need to threaten new Soviet bunkers, had a stupid name, but it was not a stupid concept.

  8. Smith (History)

    From Yousaf’s article:

    “Keep in mind, too, that an ‘unreliable’ warhead may still completely destroy a city, as the government considers a warhead with an expected yield of 90 percent or less of its design yield as unreliable.”

    I’m very curious as to where you got this information. That particular metric is highly interesting.

  9. yousaf

    Smith,
    sorry, I should have cited that — it is from this study (click here).

    In particular, see footnote 4 in the above URL — the exact number is classified I believe but it close to 10% of the design yield, if not actually 10%:

    The reliability of a weapon refers to the probability that it will be delivered to its target and explode at or near its design yield (it is generally assumed that the requirement is that the yield be within 10% of the design yield). Safety refers to the ability of the weapon to prevent accidental detonation, and security refers to the ability of the weapon to prevent unauthorized use. In general, a nuclear weapon refers to the entire weapon system, including the nuclear warhead and its delivery system.

  10. FSB

    kerbihan,
    in most cases when people talk of credible deterrent they refer to credibility in the eye of the deteree (and/or allies) and in these cases it is indeed an extraneous adjective to say “credible”. (Even allies view the deterrent value in terms of the view of the deteree). You cannot have an “un-credible” deterrent. An un-credible deterrent would not be a deterrent.

    When one says deterrent, one means credible deterrent implicitly.

    The problem arises in speaking of nuclear weapons as a deterrent. In many cases they are not a deterrent — e.g. against terrorists. They are not a “non-credible” deterrent — they are simply not a deterrent in some cases.

    btw, NYT editorial of note

  11. FSB

    Heather, SSP costs $6billion or so per year.

  12. Mark (History)

    Late jump into the forray here. First, Jeff, thanks for posting on the debate.

    But I think that the newness discussion can get overdone pretty quickly, especially in the absence (as Jeff pointed out) of a clear definition of “newness.” The “new” accusation gets thrown both ways: pro-RRW folks say it’s not new based on an assessment of capabilities; anti-RRW folks say it is because it’s a new design. Different reference points lead to different conclusions, and I think that’s where that whole debates goes, which is why Clark referred to it (lightheartedly) as “theological.”

    My main takeaway from the lack of a definition from Congress is that both sides will continue talking past each other on this point. Actually, even if Congress did define it, there’d still be plenty of debate concerning intent or whether it was a good definition at all. I don’t think, however, that this particular part of the debate is “ideological” in nature. I think it less so given that both Joe and Clark – as they did throughout the debate – invoked the authority of Congress and other distinguished task force reports, panels, etc. Both were jockeying to establish their arguments on the strength of statements contained in the same reports at times. Ideology colors interpretation, of course, but I don’t think this part of the debate (or much of it at all) was ideologically charged to any great degree. Seemed pretty wonky to me, in fact.

    I would agree with most of the comments regarding the confusion between credibility and deterrence: you can’t equate deterrent effect with reliability estimates, and you obviously can’t simply manufacture deterrence at a weapons lab or at Minot simply by keeping good tabs on your missiles – and neither Joe nor Clark would say that you could. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that credibility won’t factor-in on some level (as kerbihan noted). This definitely doesn’t by itself form a basis for RRW, but it does make the case for credibility a little more credible (pardon the epigram). Whether RRW should be part of the equation is where the debate is. Obviously.

    Also, I am pretty sure that there was an ample supply of “good” beers (i.e. Bud Light) until the post-debate reception; so if anyone was drinking PBR during the debate, it was probably on their own volition. Correct me if I am wrong. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with PBR. Our Commander In-Chief drinks PBR! In any case, there will be single malt scotch on-hand next time, and a booth selling slim tees for the true PBR enthusiasts/hipsters.

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