Jeffrey LewisT-Baum on RRW

I’ve been working for weeks on a couple of posts, including one on FOGBANK. As a result, I’ve neglected a bunch important things including the fantastic article that Benn Tannenbaum and Francis Slakey (aka T-Baum and Slake) wrote about the aging of the stockpile in IEEE Spectrum.

The bottom line is that we don’t need new weapons, just more stockpile stewardship activities:

Geopolitics is an inexact science, to put it mildly. But physics is not, and as physicists who’ve been involved in science and national security policy for many years, we believe that science and technology can, in this case at least, tell us all we need to know to decide this issue. Based on the available data, we are confident that the current program of stockpile stewardship, with some modifications, can preserve the U.S. arsenal for the foreseeable future and that it isn’t necessary—and may even be counterproductive—to pursue new warheads.

For my part, I think the article is an important step for the arms control community — we need a proactive explanation of how we will maintain a safe, secure and reliable deterrent in the absence of testing.

They also make a strong argument that what we should be for is the FrankenLEP, although I still tend to think of such programs as risk mitigation measures in the event of a significant problem in the normal Life Extension Program process.


  1. MarkoB

    The GAO report on Fogbank and the W76 LEP was indeed very interesting, but of much more potential significance was the B61-7 and B61-11 LEP. From what I can gather the B61-7 and 11 LEP was supposed to manufacture a new “plastic component” and this arose out of a specific Stratcom mission request. The NNSA was able to deliver the B61 LEP “on time and on budget” after Stratcom did them a favour and withdrew the mission requirement.

    I think we can learn more about the interface between nuclear strategy and technical warhead matters from the B61 “plastic component” than from Fogbank and the W76. Indeed, it could well be the case that the B61 LEP might tell us something very important about the nature and origins of RRW. This is especially so given that the B61-11 is a bunker-buster.

    What is the “plastic component” and what was the initial Stratcom mission requirement?

    In so far as SSP vs RRW goes we should be mindful that this is a very narrow debate for both sides pre-suppose the necessity of maintaining an indefinite nuclear deterrent. I would rather like to see a debate on the merits of deterrence in the contemporary structure of international relations first. We might discover that the best means of achieving security in the nuclear age is not through deterrence but rather via common and co-operative security, with arms control regimes at the core, rather than deterrence.

    Finally, we also should be aware that US nuclear strategy doesn’t really have much to do with “deterrence” anyway. So the debate really becomes not “what is the best way to maintain a deterrent in the context of non-proliferation etc” but, tacitly, “what is the best way to achieve escalation dominance and counterforce targeting.” That’s a bad debate to have, I would argue.

    So the W76 LEP has given us a prompt hard target killer well configured for counterforce strikes. This is a success for SSP. However, we might ask whether such nuclear weapons are really necessary for the purposes of deterrence in the first place.

  2. rkelly (History)

    “The United States’ thousands of nuclear warheads have the explosive equivalent of over 1 gigaton of TNT. It’s an amount of energy that could literally move mountains, reroute rivers, alter climate, and result in the deaths of hundreds of millions or even billions of people, through fire, radiation, and starvation.”

    And, the sperm in one male ejaculation is enough to impregnate all the females on earth.

  3. Stephen Young (History)

    rkelly, the difference is we are readily equipped to kill billions in under an hour with very little effort, while impregnating every woman on earth with one man’s sperm would actually take us some effort. There is a difference.

  4. Max Postman (History)

    Marko, you point out that, in the course of the RRW vs. SSP debate, the merits of the United States’ “escalation dominance and counterforce targeting” nuclear force strategy have frequently been taken as a given. I’d like to see a real debate about U.S. force structure as much as anyone. However, using the RRW/SSP debate as a vehicle for proposing a radical overhaul of current U.S. nuclear force structure is unlikely to make anti-RRW arguments more persuasive to the people who need to be persuaded. I share your hope for a world where nuclear deterrence plays a smaller or non-existent role in the relations between states, but I think that goal is best served by beating back RRW today.

  5. yousaf

    High-confidence knowledge of the reliability of weapons is pertinent to knowing what fraction may be expected to explode within ~10% of their design yield.

    It is not terribly relevant to the deterrent value of the weapons in the eyes of one’s adversary. (Any deterrable adversary will be virtually equally deterred by a 99.99% reliable nuclear weapon, as with a 90%, or even 50% or 25% or less reliable nuclear weapon). In any case, nothing devalues the deterrent value of our nukes as much as senior military officials denigrating the reliability of the current stockpile, say, in the OpEd pages of WSJ.

    Our current stockpile, with or without the SSP, would be taken very seriously by our potential nuclear adversaries (who are these nations? N. Korea? Iran?) for many years to come.

    The nuclear deterrent forces of the United States, Russia and China should be sized to the possible threat from nations like North Korea – and for that purpose, even 10 “low-yield” uranium-based nuclear weapons may be more than enough.

    Decisions on the modernization of the nuclear complex are not urgent. (And new, untested weapons would hold, if anything, marginally less deterrent value than old tested ones in the eyes of potential adversaries).

    Decisions on the purpose, size and alert level of the nuclear arsenal of the U.S. (and Russia and China etc.) are urgent.

  6. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    Our large counterforce stockpile was linked to the geopolitics of 50 armored rifle divisions, 5000 combat aircraft, and over 200 attack subs aimed at Western Europe and the North Atlantic Ocean. Needless to say, those days are over. We really should be playing with vast reductions to a stockpile that reflects real world strategic need. That strategic need is so elusive to define in our days says that we can probably play with the concept of approaching near zero weapons on alert. When the next strategic threat emerges, we can build back up and we’ll have more money to do it by saving money now. Not to mention we can make an arsenal that reflects reality then, not the current U.S. nuclear stance that still reflects the needs imposed by the R-36M*/SS-18.

  7. Jodi (History)

    A small correction. Benn is actually “Dr. Deadpan”