Jeffrey LewisGrading the NPR: New Warheads

The United States will not develop new nuclear warheads or pursue new military missions or new capabilities for nuclear weapons.

Statement by President Barack Obama on the Release
of Nuclear Posture Review
, April 06, 2010

I gather that the President is hoping this will be a big applause line in his speeches. Imagine how much applause he might get if that was what his Nuclear Posture Review actually said!

Oh, I know, it is hard to be so cynical at such a tender age.

The Nuclear Posture Review does rule out “new” weapons, which the text suggests are those that are either (1) not based on previously tested designs or (2) support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities. It is not clear if there is a formal definition, thought I suspect that this one may have been misappropriated.

But that is sort of beside the issue. What everyone really wants to know is this: Is the RRW really truly dead? As in: This warhead is no more. It has ceased to be! It’s expired and gone to meet its maker! This is a late warhead! It’s a stiff! Bereft of life, it rests in peace! Its metabolical processes are of interest only to historians! It’s hopped the twig! It’s shuffled off this mortal coil! It’s run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible!

Is the RRW an ex-warhead?

Um, sort of.

The Nuclear Posture Review states the Administration will consider a full range of Life Extension options: “refurbishment of existing warheads, reuse of nuclear components from different warheads, and replacement of nuclear components.”

Furthermore, the NPR states that the Administration has a “strong preference” for refurbishment or reuse, and would undertake replacement only if “critical Stockpile Management Program
goals could not otherwise be met, and if specifically authorized by the President and approved by Congress.”

How would this language have affected the Bush Administration’s 2006 request for the Reliable Replacement Warhead? Not at all.

As it turns out, the Administration had the good sense to ask the technical community how the RRW would fit under the new 3R’s taxonomy (refurbish, reuse, replace). The design that the Administration ultimately selected, from Livermore, was derived from a previously tested design. The technical community was split as to whether this would be reuse or replacement. (The more venturesome Los Alamos design was replacement.)

As for the “strong preference” and “special Presidential authorization”? Those only apply as the warhead moves into Engineering Development phase — the so-called 6.3 dollars that allow the labs to start bending metal. The pitched battle over RRW was fought over 6.2A money.

It is entirely plausible that the ongoing process of LEPs will include a number of WR1-like warheads.

Now, is this a bad thing?

Actually, no, I think this is probably a reasonable policy to keep open a spectrum of options — if the Obama can avoid the temptation to build replacement warheads.

Much of the challenge in stockpile management is avoiding the trap of simply doing the opposite of what the Bush Administration would have done. The debate about “new” nuclear weapons or “modernizing” the stockpile was largely a proxy either for debates about the role of nuclear weapons or a referendum on whether the Bush Administration could be trusted with sharp objects. (For the record, my answers are “deterring nuclear attacks” and “no.”)

When it comes to actual designs — like WR1 — the Administration ought to make decisions on the technical merits. I thought — and still think — that RRW ought to be disposed of on the very narrow grounds that WR1 was not the most cost effective or technically appropriate option to maintain the capability provided by the W76, rather than on the more sweeping grounds that it was “new” or “modernized” nuclear weapon. It might have needed testing and probably would have cost boatloads of money. That’s reason enough to kill it.

I suspect this is what Administration officials are attempting to convey when they describe RRW as a concept, philosophy or approach. They are attempting to say that they aren’t interested in theoretical debates, but rather intend to make decisions about maintaining capabilities in the stockpile on a narrow technical basis, all the while keeping in mind our broader interests in arms control, disarmament and nonproliferation. That’s basically the right balance. As an ideologically-driven exercise, at least, the RRW is dead. We will no longer design new warheads for the same reason that a dog might lick himself.

On the other hand, words are slippery things. I got a little nervous during the roll out when NNSA Administrator Tom D’Agostino changed the phrase “only if critical Stockpile Management Program goals could not otherwise be met” into the “best way” to maintain the capability.

“Only” is a good policy; “best” tempts us down the path that leads toward untested designs and billions of dollars just to keep our designers happy.

I have argued before that the National Laboratories ought to keep open the option of replacing nuclear weapons components, if only as a last resort. “Last resort” is close to a “strong preference,” though different in one important way. Last resort implies something different about the order in which policymakers consider options. There was a apparently quite a debate about this issue, with one group arguing for sequential studies (if refurbishment fails, then you study replacement.) Another group argued for concurrent studies, with all options on the table at the beginning. The latter group won the debate, meaning that there will always be a temptation for the Labs to chase after the sexy new bomb. Which is why D’Agostino’s mischaracterization of the policy worried me. It reeked of the temptation to chase after next big thing.

So, whether the policy is a good one will depend on how disciplined the Administration is in interpreting this language as it moves forward on LEPs for the B61, as well as the W78/W88. Can they stay focused on the technical issues, while avoiding the political pressure to tinker with the stockpile as a sop to certain hawks? I am cautiously optimistic, but we will see.

Final Grade A-


  1. Scott Monje (History)

    I talked about this briefly with a former (recently former) Congressional staffer last week, and he believed that the fudging in the NPR was due to the national labs’ reluctance to say “never” rather than any intention on the administration’s part to sneak something through. Of course, whether that leaves an opening that interested parties could take advantage of is another question.

  2. PC (History)

    What everyone really wants to know is this: Is the RRW really truly dead?

    As a member of Congress and chairwoman of the subcommittee, I led an effort to kill the RRW. When I kill something, it stays dead.

    Hopefully Tauscher can keep her title of RRW-slayer.

  3. yousaf

    “Now, is this a bad thing?”

    It is bad that the admin. decided to indulge in disingenuous doublespeak re. this issue, Scott’s point above notwithstanding.

    In normal English, does the NPR forbid new nuclear warheads? No.

    In NPR English, yes.

    Anything “based upon” any of the literally hundreds of weapons tested, but never fielded, are allowed. These could be completely new weapons, since they could be only vaguely “based upon” something previously tested — more on that below.

    More to the point, the NPR’s term of validity is only 5-10 years, so whatever it says doesn’t really constrain RRW-hawks. As I mentioned in my recent Bulletin piece

    “Nor is the NPR’s promise of not creating new warheads as stringent as it first appears. By definition, the NPR’s term of validity is 5-10 years and the pro-RRW lobby can easily argue that it’s planning for the future. Further, the NPR allows for three options in warhead modernization: refurbish, reuse, and replace. The latter option would be consistent with RRW since according to the NPR the replacement design needs only to be “based on previously tested designs.” (The first RRW, WR1, is loosely based upon the two-stage, boosted SKUA-9 design that was tested several times in the 1970s.)”

    I invite Tauscher — aka RRW-slayer — et al. to read the Politico piece on this undead program

    Coming back to the deliciously slippery language in the NPR, “based upon” is also in the eye of the beholder: when the NPR states “based upon previously tested designs” , this closeness to previously tested designs is, as yet, ill-defined.

    The National Academies’ study on margins and uncertainties (QMU) pointed out it is not clear “how close” to the tested design one needs to be to make a viable warhead (in the absence of testing of course), thus “based upon previously tested designs” in the NPR is an unclear formulation.

    Here are a couple of quotes from the NAS QMU study.

    “Finding 4-2. Any certifiable RRW weapons design will have to be “close” to the archival underground nuclear test base, while meeting reasonable criteria for adequate margin.

    The design and certification of new nuclear weapons that are sufficiently “close” to particular legacy designs could, in principle, be accomplished without nuclear tests, based on the existing nuclear test archive, on new experiments with no nuclear yield, and on modeling and simulation tools supported by a QMU methodology more mature than at present.

    For a certifiable RRW, the design labs will have to make the case that a new design is “close enough” to tested designs. The case would depend on establishing that the design is based on well-understood principles of nuclear warhead physics and engineering, that the design is related in key ways to designs that were successful in archived historical nuclear testing, and that any gaps between the knowledge of physics and engineering and the archival underground nuclear test base are bridged by experiments. Interpolation is highly preferable to extrapolation.

    “Recommendation 4-2. The design laboratories should lay out in detail their arguments for the relevance and closeness of archival underground tests to any proposed RRW design. These laboratories should investigate methodologies for helping address the problem of quantifying closeness.”

    “How to transparently define and quantify “closely related” is a difficult issue to which the labs should devote sufficient effort. “Close enough” depends on the direction of the change as well as the magnitude—the direction should be away from “cliffs,” and expert designer judgment must go into assessing “close enough.” Prior warhead anomalies and their “fixes” should be used to validate the definition of “close enough.” The goal is to increase the critical margins while controlling the uncertainties so that M/U ratios are greater than 3 or so. The margins and cliffs here are intentionally spoken of in the plural because there are multiple failure modes, and increasing one margin might decrease another—for example, increased Pu mass might endanger one-point safety, so all must be considered together. A primary lying between two successfully tested designs (i.e., interpolated rather than extrapolated) can provide additional confidence. The design and certification of new nuclear weapons that are sufficiently “close” to particular legacy designs could, in principle, be accomplished without nuclear tests, based on the existing nuclear test archive, on new experiments with no nuclear yield, and on modeling and simulation tools supported by a more mature QMU methodology. It must be noted, however, that there is no commonly accepted quantification of closeness in the laboratories. While closeness will always have a substantial qualitative component based on expert judgment, a quantitative measure is clearly needed. This is not a trivial problem.”

  4. Kingston (History)

    Gary Samore spoke to some of your points re: technical appropriateness and last resort at Carnegie a couple weeks ago: “And I think my personal view is if we had to do replacement, we would do replacement if that was necessary. I don’t think it will be, frankly, from what I understand. And again, this is from technical people who really understand this business. I think refurbishment and reuse will be perfectly fine for the foreseeable future. But if I’m wrong and replacement becomes necessary, the president has the option to do that.”

  5. MK (History)

    What about “dead as a doornail”?

  6. bobbymike (History)

    If you are to get my approval for the New Start Treaty (not that I particularly matter just an arms control sceptic) you need to show me that at 1550 warheads and 700 active launchers that we can modernize our entire nuclear enterprise including new warheads, new ICBMs, new SLBMs and a robust R&D effort to ensure the US stays in the technological lead of all things nuclear.