Jeffrey LewisChilton Repeats the Vacuum Tube Myth

Global Security Newswire’s Elaine Grossman asked STRATCOM Command General Kevin Chilton about the Bulletin article in which Kingston Reif and I called him out for his misleading claim that the RRW program is needed to remove vacuum tubes from the US nuclear stockpile. (It isn’t.)

Rather than correcting the record, he doubled down on the talking point, saying that we were “confused” — but not exactly contradicting us.

That got me fired up, since we really did our homework. You can read the back-and-forth, though I am happy to say that Dick Garwin weighed in favorably:

“I think the plain reading of ‘confused’ is that there is some technical inaccuracy in what we wrote,” Lewis told Global Security Newswire this week. “Either Chilton can point out an inaccuracy in what we wrote or correct his own wildly misleading statements to the Wall Street Journal.”

The strategic commander is “really obfuscating and making things more difficult,” agreed Richard Garwin, a longtime nuclear weapons physicist and IBM fellow emeritus.

“I’m absolutely confident that the vacuum tubes can be replaced if you really needed to replace them, which you don’t,” he said in a telephone interview Monday.


  1. BJR

    Bravo Dr. Lewis. It seems that you and the General are becoming regular sparing partners.

  2. Paul Bell (History)

    Could the General be referring to Krytons or High Voltage Pulse Transfer switches? I think they are still used in the B-61 series firing circuts.

  3. yousaf

    I think a critical point — missing both in the Bulletin article and Chilton’s earlier WSJ delusions — is that, in many cases, you may well want to have vacuum tubes instead of ICs, since vacuum tubes are more resilient to EMP.

    Soviet era MIGs also carried vacuum tubes (and for this precise reason, I believe).

    So, no, you don’t need RRW to replace vacuum tubes (since they are not in the phys. package), and you may not want to replace them in the first place, since they perform better than ICs under EMP.

    He seems now to have gotten the point, according to the GSN article:

    “They are essential to the operation of the weapon, OK?” Chilton said…

  4. Major Lemon (History)

    You were obviously not“confused” as he put it. Very strange.

  5. FSB

    What is Chilton doing arguing for RRW? (And wrongly at that…)

    He is a soldier and should take commands from the commander and chief, and otherwise sit quietly and STFU.

    If technical people want to stand up for RRW that is one thing, if a subordinate soldier wants to fire his ignorant mouth off to the WSJ he should be fired.

  6. Greg Kochanski (History)

    EMP is a red herring. (FYI, EMP is “electromagnetic pulse”, a brief, nanosecond-long burst of intense radio waves that is generated by a nuclear explosion.) While EMP will certainly toast an unprotected IC, there is nothing magical about it. One can shield EMP using the same kind of ideas that you use for any other kind of electromagnetic interference: Faraday cages and filters on the input/output wires.

    Of course, it all has to be designed right and it might be a bit technically challenging, but it is a straightforward electronic design problem. It has been worked on for decades and probably pretty well solved for the last 20 years. Here, for example is a photo of a large EMP simulator and here is a report on EMP simulators in 1990 . Anyhow, it’s just engineering: you design it, you build it, you put it in an EMP simulator and you see if it still works afterwards.

    EMP is not an argument for vacuum tubes any more!

  7. David Ruppe (History)

    Interestingly, the GSN article’s initial quote from Lewis/Reif that the vacuum tubes are “the perfect symbol of technological obsolescence” confusingly seemed to imply they had some sympathy with Chilton’s view an overhaul is needed … it became clearer lower down in the story that wasn’t the case.