Jeffrey LewisSECDEF Tried to Revive RRW in June

Elaine Grossman has a stellar piece of process journalism on the infighting surrounding the Nuclear Posture Review and START.

The short version is that SECDEF Robert Gates tried to revive the RRW program at a Principal’s Committee meeting in June that was supposed to provide guidance on START negotiations. Only Vice President Biden stopped him:

The conflict between Gates and Biden came to a head at the June meeting of the Principals’ Committee, a White House forum in which top national security officials consider major policy issues. Sources would describe the meeting only on condition of not being named because they were not authorized to discuss the sensitive subject publicly.

Spokesmen for Biden and Gates would not confirm any details of the meeting, which sources said took place during the second week of June. A National Security Council spokesman declined to reveal the date on which the Principals’ Committee met.

Nuclear stockpile modernization was not on the official agenda for the high-level gathering, which centered instead on preparing a U.S. negotiating position for arms control talks with Moscow, according to sources.

Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in July announced they had agreed to nuclear-warhead and delivery-vehicle reductions for a new accord, which they hope will replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty before it expires in December.

During the interagency meeting, Gates reportedly volunteered that a warhead-replacement effort would be vital to maintaining the nuclear arsenal’s viability, particularly after additional arms control reductions are taken.

Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, provided Gates backup at the meeting, according to these sources. Formerly the top combatant commander for strategic nuclear weapons, the Marine Corps general expressed concern that today’s arsenal incorporates vacuum tubes and other outdated technologies that should be replaced, sources told GSN.

Through a spokesman, Cartwright declined comment for this article.

His successor at U.S. Strategic Command, Gen. Kevin Chilton, stirred some controversy this spring after voicing similar worries about vacuum tubes. Nuclear-weapon experts have cast doubt on the notion that the vintage technology constitutes a valid basis for a warhead-replacement program, because it is used sparingly in the arsenal and could easily be tested and replaced, if needed (see GSN, May 14).

Clinton, also at the June meeting, joined in supporting Gates by noting that a U.S. nuclear modernization program that includes warhead replacement might be necessary for domestic political reasons, according to sources. Specifically, she argued it might be necessary for the Obama administration to embark on an ambitious warhead modernization effort if it is to win enough Republican support for Senate ratification of the START replacement pact, according to sources.

A similar quid pro quo, according to conservative thinkers, might also be necessary next year for Senate approval of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, another objective Obama laid out in his Prague speech. “Then you can have your cake and eat it, too,” one senior Senate aide said last week.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu, whose agency maintains the atomic stockpile via its semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration and took the lead in planning the RRW program, reportedly weighed in on the June discussion with a modest show of support, saying that replacement warheads might be needed.

Though James Steinberg, Clinton’s deputy, volunteered that Obama should be consulted before his administration changes course on warhead replacement, it was left to the vice president to express full-throated opposition, sources said.

Biden raised the notion that an ambitious nuclear modernization effort that includes building replacement warheads could undercut the Obama administration’s nonproliferation goals, according to these sources. Most importantly, Washington is attempting to build international consensus against Iran’s suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons and North Korea’s maintenance of its nascent arsenal.

Biden reportedly argued that the international community would almost certainly cry foul on a replacement-warhead effort, particularly given Obama’s pledge to work toward the long-term elimination of nuclear weapons around the world. This spring, Obama tapped Biden to lead the administration’s nonproliferation initiatives (see GSN, April 8).


  1. J (History)

    Question of the day: To what extent are Bob Gates and Jon Kyl in cahoots here, working together behind the scenes to frustrate the President’s vision on a nuclear-free world?

  2. Greg R. Lawson (History)

    “Biden raised the notion that an ambitious nuclear modernization effort that includes building replacement warheads could undercut the Obama administration’s nonproliferation goals, according to these sources. Most importantly, Washington is attempting to build international consensus against Iran’s suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons and North Korea’s maintenance of its nascent arsenal.”

    To that I say- so what?

    It seems increasingly ludicrous to me that the President really believes that merely by climbing up to some supposed “moral highground” we will really give incentives to North Korea, Iran (or, for that matter Burma, if recent reports hold any truth).

    I can support more work on securing unsecured nuclear material throught the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program, but I maintain deep skepticism over the entire thrust of Obama’s arms control policy.

    Stripping away the technical arguments, does anyone really believe we can achieve a fully non-nuclear world? If so, then supporting President Obama’s plans makes sense. If not, then how far down the road of arms control do you take things and still retain the correct amount of flexibility as it relates to not only our direct deterrent, but our extended deterrence on behalf of other nations and/or regions?

    I think at the very least, SecDef Gates has stated an important point. Namely, if your going to reduce our stockpiles, then those remaining stockpiles must be made more effective in order to retain the level of deterrence we need across the board.

    Losing a bit of the proverbial “moral highground” is an acceptable consequence if one is bound and determined to seek arsenal reductions.

  3. yousaf

    so you think it is smart for us to replace tested warheads (one that have been fully updated via the LEPs) with untested ones?

    Which do you think hold more deterrent value?

  4. Scott Monje (History)

    I seem to recall—decades back, when electromagnetic pulse became an issue—that someone told me Soviet equipment had an advantage. It was less prone to damage from EMP because they still used vacuum tubes. Can anyone tell me if there is anything to that?

  5. bradley laing (History)

    To: Lawson

    If effective means “Blows up when we want it to” you do not need a two-stage weapon like the RRW. You can make a one-stage Highly Enriched Uranium weapon that will not need to be tested to work.

  6. MarkoB

    We’ve known about the DoE and the DoD all along, so now State is on board the RRW cart as well. Interesting that Biden made the case that Clinton should have made; my view is that the RRW concept flows from the previous administration’s nuclear strategy. So if it flies again then the strategy, presumably, will live on.

    I think you can have something called “deep cuts” and maintain the previous administration’s nuclear strategy. If you go down the RRW and Complex Transformation road, claiming one’s hand was forced by those nutty congressional Republicans, you can have “deep cuts” and maintain the nuclear strategy at the same time. After all, Bush claimed that RRW leads to ditching the hedge stockpile by creating a responsive weapons complex leading on to what they called “deep cuts.” A smart PR savvy policy official in the Obama admin would go down this road one would think; that would be truly having one’s cake and eating it too.

    You gotta admit, that would be pure Obama. Spin up the change but make sure everything stays basically the same. Like Clinton in the 90’s

  7. Tim (History)

    Our existing stockpiles are plenty effective. We can destroy any city on the planet if we want to. We can destroy hundreds at a time within an hour at absurdly confidence levels. The idea that our “stockpiles must be made more effective” is ridiculous. It’s believed by the same sort of paranoid nutcases that believe that Burma has a reactor based on rumors that run contrary to facts on the ground.

    Regaining the moral high ground will not convince North Korea to act differently. But it may tilt moderate nations in our direction, and progress is always made by winning the hearts and minds of the middle, not the extremes.

  8. Stephen Young

    Greg, what possible use are 2,000 nuclear weapons? Every single one can destroy an entire city. The ONLY existential threat to the United States is Russia’s oversized nuclear arsenal. Verifiably reducing Russia’s arsenal is completely in our interest.

    Gates’ push is understandable but not required; the current arsenal can be maintained w/o building new warheads. The folks who tell you differently have perhaps two motivations: doing their job based on worst-case scenarios (a particular warhead type may fail), and – perhaps unconsciously – trying to keep their jobs by making work for themselves.

    And what if one warhead type fails entirely? Say the warhead that makes the vast majority of our submarine-based arsenal, the W76, suddenly went caput? Russia – or China – or Iran – or North Korea – would attack us because we could only hit them with 450 ICBM warheads?

    Even if we make cuts to 1,000 warheads and one warhead type fails, wouldn’t 200 warheads be a pretty convincing deterrent?

    The zero goal is not immediate, but longer term. The most dangerous threat we face is a stolen or sold nuclear weapon, and the best way to clamp down on that threat to get international cooperation by reducing our own arsenal and moving toward zero. No, it won’t convince North Korea or Iran, but it will help get the international community to unite against those countries.

  9. Jon (History)

    I also found it quite interesting that Clinton was backing up Gates. It seems like RRW would only complicate her job when it comes to nonproliferation initiatives. Sure, one can spin the whole “RRW will allow for deeper cuts in the stockpile” yarn, but the counterspin is that these are new warheads. Yes, it’s sort of a semantic pas de deux, but I can only imagine certain challenges facing Clinton would be easier to navigate if RRW wasn’t looming in the background.

  10. FSB

    it is true that vacuum tubes are less susceptible to EMP than common ICs. That is likely why the current warheads have, and will continue to have, some vacuum tube components.

  11. yousaf

    Greg: “stockpiles must be made more effective in order to retain the level of deterrence”

    If anything, untested new warheads may hold marginally less deterrent value in the eyes of a potential adversary. Just because something is shiny and “new” does not make it more effective at deterrence.

    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? On the other hand, if the proposed RRWs are eventually tested, it will be more difficult to stop other adversarial nations from doing the same. Either way, the RRW program is detrimental to U.S. security vis-à-vis proliferation and deterrence calculus.

    There is nothing wrong with the current warheads. They are safe, secure, and reliable, and experts and relevant government agencies agree that their nuclear components will be just fine for the next roughly 70 years.

    In fact, the preoccupation with reliability misses the point: The inherently psychological deterrent value of massively destructive nuclear weapons is not proportional to their reliability, which is anyway about 98 percent for the current warheads.

    Since it’s being advertised that the new warheads would be fielded without testing, how will we ever know their true reliability? In fact, for this reason, in the eyes of an adversary, untested new warheads may even hold marginally less deterrent value than the current tested ones. Yet if the proposed new warheads have to be tested, they would break the worldwide moratorium on testing, making it more difficult to stop other nations from doing the same. As far as US security is concerned, the proposed program to develop new nuclear warheads is a lose-lose proposition.

    Here is what Robert Peurifoy, former Vice President of Technical Support at Sandia National Laboratories says: The present nuclear weapon stockpile contains 8 or so nuclear weapon types. That population has enjoyed perhaps 100 successful yield tests. These weapons have benefited from a test base of perhaps 1,000 yield tests conducted during the 40 or so years when nuclear testing was allowed. Is the DoD really willing to replace tested devices with untested devices? Why are Livermore and Los Alamos designing devices that can’t be yield-tested?

  12. George William Herbert (History)

    Side comment – “Untested” regarding RRW is an ambiguous term.

    The primary used has been described as a non-military warhead “test” primary used in a number of test shots, very successfully.

    The secondary is reportedly an existing model as well.

    The detailed configuration and radiation case are apparently all new – but those are things which are probably far less hard to simulate accurately than a primary’s behavior or secondary’s yield.

  13. Nukethrower (History)

    Refurbished nuclear weapons are consistent with what Obama has been saying; i.e., the United States will not unilaterally disarm in a world of multiple nuclear weapons states. There is no disadvantage to ensuring a reduced arsenal is an improved arsenal (safer, more reliable and more secure). Moreover, there is a strategic advantage to keeping weapons designers gainfully employed as we wait for China and Russia to decide to give up their nuclear weapons as the United States maintains a deep advantage in conventional military power.

    China and Russia might decide to eliminate their nuclear weapons if the United States allows for conventional military parity to obtain, but the United States will probably spend a lot of money to prevent that situation from coming to fruition. That is one reason why a world free of nuclear weapons is a distant dream.

  14. Rwendland (History)

    Has anyone seen anything recent on the extent the UK’s recent substantial investment in AWE re-equipment is being used to further RRW research?

    I’ve not noticed anything solid since the February 2009 reporting that John Harvey (policy and planning director at NNSA) said:

    “We have recently … taken steps to amend the MDA [Mutual Defence Agreement], not only to extend it but to amend it to allow for a broader extent of cooperation than in the past, and this has to do with the RRW effort.”


    “There are some capabilities that the UK has that we don’t have and that we borrow… that I believe we have been able to exploit that’s been very valuable to us.”