Reliable Replacement Warhead Is a Symptom, Not the Solution

Last week, the Jasons, a group of distinguished scientists who advise the Department of Defense, released the unclassified summary of their review of the Reliable Replacement Warhead, or RRW. Walter Pincus covered the report in the Washington Post. The summary is posted on the FAS website.

Although almost everything about nuclear weapons and their design is classified, the unclassified summary contains many hints of problems with the RRW that are yet to be overcome.

According to the report, the nuclear components of the RRW design have been fully tested during the time the U.S. was conducting nuclear tests. This confirms a previous report that the primary of the RRW is based on the well-tested but never weaponized SKUA-9 explosive package.

The challenge is to certify a design that will work without ever testing the weapon. That can be done but the Jasons judge that the RRW is not yet at that point. No details are provided but the review committee seems to believe that the computer models that must be used in lieu of actual testing to simulate the performance of the nuclear explosion are not sufficiently developed to give adequate confidence that the new design will work.

There is much left unsaid here. First, what is confident enough? We can never have 100% confidence in any nuclear weapon, even one that is thoroughly tested. I am fairly certain that if you asked the authors of the report whether the current design would work each would express high confidence that the design would work. But if “high” means 90% confidence and the criterion is 99%, then they are not yet confident enough. The problem the RRW faces is that we now have extremely high confidence in the existing warheads, in the 98-99% range. If it is to live up to its name, the Reliable Replacement Warhead has a very high hurtle to leap. Otherwise, why bother?

The report also calls for additional experiments and calculations. These include hydrodynamic tests in which less than critical masses of plutonium are squeezed and shaped by conventional explosives like those used to trigger a nuclear weapon. They may include tests on smaller quantities of plutonium to better understand its behavior under the extreme conditions found in a nuclear bomb. Anne Fitzpatrick and I described these experiments in great detail in a recent FAS Occasional Paper.

The report specifically calls out for the need for better understanding of the “surety features” of the warhead. These are the parts of the warhead that make an accidental explosion impossible even under extreme condition, for example, if the building or vehicle the warhead is in catches fire. Also, surety features make the warhead impossible to explode without special codes or authorization so, if the warhead is stolen, it cannot be exploded by a terrorist. One might think that a stolen warhead would at the very least provide terrorists with a source of plutonium that they could use in their own bomb but when, at a meeting, I asked John Harvey of NNSA about this he said that the warhead even contains features that will make reuse of the plutonium difficult. Harvey couldn’t provide any details on how this could work and I can only speculate. Perhaps some mechanism to automatically contaminate the plutonium with neutron-absorbing material so it will not be useful for a rebuilt bomb? Whatever these features are, they are a major justification for the RRW but the Jason committee does not believe that they have been adequately proven.

Finally, another major justification for the RRW is that it will, in the long run, save money. These savings will accrue by designing the weapon from the beginning to be simpler to manufacture and maintain. The Jason report notes that, while they were not asked to examine costs, the effects of proposed new and cheaper manufacturing techniques on the weapon’s performance are not yet adequately understood. Moreover, the report recommends that, as a hedge, the existing proven manufacturing processes should be maintained until the new procedures are fully understood. This is yet another reason to question the DOE’s as yet unsupported claims that the RRW will save money: The new manufacturing process may indeed be cheaper than the old process but maintaining both the new and the old process cannot be cheaper than the old process by itself. (Keeping in mind that maintaining the process will almost certainly require maintaining the equipment and keeping the people active. DOE consistently argues that it has to keep people doing whatever it is they do to maintain expertise.)

The report does not say that the RRW will not work; certainly it does not say that the warhead is unworkable, but it does state that more research, calculation, and experiment need to be done. The unclassified summary of the report does not put it in these terms but it seems clear to me that the RRW is not yet ready to pass from the design phase (called 2a) into the engineering phase (called phase 3) as DOE wants.

This is further support for California’s Senator Feinstein’s bill (S. 1914) that would put further development of the RRW on hold until a thorough reevaluation of U.S. nuclear doctrine has been completed.

And this leads to the one question the DOE did not ask the Jason committee, because DOE doesn’t even ask itself, is: why must the RRW have the characteristics that it has?

The way the problem is presented, the RRW is what it is and the question is whether it can be certified with adequate confidence given the tools available today. (The committee’s answer is no.) Similarly, the RRW is what it is and the question is what manufacturing capability, called the “complex” by the DOE, is needed. If the DOE’s justifications for the RRW —reduced cost, greater reliability, simplicity of manufacture and maintenance—were taken seriously, it is more natural to turn the question around: Given the evaluation tools we have available today, what sort of warhead could we certify? Given a goal of having the smallest, cheapest complex possible without the need to maintain esoteric skills, what sort of warhead could we build?

Virtually all of the critical potential or feared problems with nuclear warheads, certainly the ones that cannot be resolved without testing, are really plutonium problems. Questions about aging and stability or differences between cast and forged pits are uniquely plutonium problems. Similarly, the hardest and single most expensive part of weapon manufacture is the plutonium pit production. Questions about warhead certification mostly boil down to questions about certifying that the plutonium pit will operate as planned. After more than decade of trying, DOE last week was finally able to certify a new pit for the W88 warhead and that pit was a reproduction of an existing pit developed through nuclear testing.

Why do we need plutonium instead of uranium? Because the powerful high density plutonium core is what ignites the larger, much more powerful secondary, the hydrogen part of a hydrogen or thermonuclear bomb. This also explains DOE’s claims that it needs to maintain design expertise. Design expertise for what? The simplest atomic bombs are quite simple—the challenging design is the design of sophisticated two-stage thermonuclear bombs.

And why do we need thermonuclear bombs? Because only they are capable of explosive force measure in the hundreds of thousands of tons of TNT, an order of magnitude more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

And why do we need bombs of such immense power? Because of the missions, which are largely holdovers from the Cold War and remain unexamined almost two decades later. These missions include a disarming first strike against Russian nuclear forces, a mission the administration claims no longer exists although nothing else can explain the numbers of nuclear weapons, nor their day-to-day deployment, nor their characteristics, including their immense power.

And why do these missions persist? Because U.S. nuclear doctrine still considers nuclear weapons to be legitimate instruments of state power, indeed, the foundation of our security. This entire discussion about weapons—aging, manufacture, maintenance—hangs on outdated, dangerous, immoral, counterproductive doctrine that has been carried forward from the Cold War by unthinking momentum. The RRW certainly is not the cure, nor is it the disease; it is just a symptom of our doctrine.

It may well be that the U.S. needs a new nuclear weapon. If the country decides that nuclear weapons have any use at all it is highly improbable that the weapons left over from the entirely different conditions of Cold War will just happen to be most appropriate. For example, if the country adopted a nuclear doctrine of minimal deterrence, that is, the one and only mission for nuclear weapons is to survive an attack by nuclear weapons and retaliate to deter that nuclear attack in the first place, then the weapons could be very simple gun-assembled uranium weapons. These would be big and clunky, and delivered by slow aircraft rather than fast missiles and incapable of a first disarming first strike. They could be stored disassembled in deep tunnels. And we would need perhaps a dozen of them. And the result? All the “problems” of the DOE weapon complex would disappear. No need for plutonium pit facilities, no need to train elite bomb design teams, no questions of reliability, no need to ever test a weapon again. If that were what the RRW was going to be, I could imagine signing up for that.

9 thoughts on “Reliable Replacement Warhead Is a Symptom, Not the Solution

  1. But if they have fast thermonuclear ICBMs and we have bombers with clunky fission bombs, that could be intercepted, won’t that diminish the nuclear deterrent?


    I hope in the next few days to write another entry on how many nuclear weapons we need and I will address this point.

  2. The author (unnamed)states:

    “Virtually all of the critical potential or feared problems with nuclear warheads, certainly the ones that cannot be resolved without testing, are really plutonium problems… Similarly, the hardest and single most expensive part of weapon manufacture is the plutonium pit production.”

    This statement reflects an unfortunate ignorance of weapons design that casts doubt on the credibility of the rest of her (his?) assertions.

    Bates Estabrooks
    Oak Ridge, TN


    Without knowing where my error lies, I cannot respond to this.

  3. In this piece, Dr. Ivan Oelrich discusses some of the challenges and problems facing the U.S. effort to develop the Reliable Replacement Warhead. He makes insightful observations concerning how many of these problems are rooted in the requirement that the RRW be a multi-stage thermonuclear device. Such weapons being extremely complex, an extensive nuclear industrial and scientific base is required to maintain them, and developing new weapons is difficult without testing.

    But it is not until the latter half of the piece that Dr. Oelrich suggests an imaginative and ingenious solution to alleviate these problems: abandon nuclear weapons. Replacing the current arsenal will be about a dozen first generation HEU-based fission weapons – the same type of bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima 60 years ago – buried in a tunnel somewhere so we can still say that we have atomic arms. This solution will indeed solve all the problems of the DoE weapons complex: since we no longer have nuclear weapons, there will be no need to maintain the complex.

    I was so excited by the brilliance of Dr. Oelrich’s logic that I personally used it to craft solutions to a range of pressing national issues. For example, in pondering how we could address the issue of Social Security solvency, I determined that the problem would no longer exist if we abolished Social Security. Illegal immigration would no longer be a problem if we simply rejected the notion of state sovereignty; such rigid ideas are reflective of a bygone era anyway, and have no place in the 21st century. The Border Patrol could be downsized to about 100 agents – equipped with medical gear – who would be tasked with announcing to new arrivals that they are now entering the United States.

    I even realized that Dr. Oelrich’s solution could be applied to my personal life. After tabulating the costs associated with raising my infant daughter, I pointed out to my wife that we could avoid them by putting her up for adoption. When my wife vigorously objected to my proposition, I invoked Dr. Oelrich’s solution yet again, and told her that I would divorce her if she continued to disagree. Thank you Dr. Oelrich!

    All kidding aside, I apologize if I’ve offended or come across as sophomoric, and I do not mean to insult Dr. Oelrich, who is a well-meaning, extremely intelligent, and highly accomplished individual. And yes, I have exaggerated slightly (I’m not even married).

    However, the notion that the U.S. arsenal could revert to a small number of disassembled gun-based fission bombs and still maintain an adequate deterrent is asinine beyond comprehension. In fact, I have a hard time believing that Dr. Oelrich himself believes it.

    In all honesty, I have been disturbed by much of the rhetoric coming out of the arms control community as of late. Repeatedly, we are told by this community that the “entire discussion about weapons—aging, manufacture, maintenance—hangs on outdated, dangerous, immoral, counterproductive doctrine that has been carried forward from the Cold War by unthinking momentum.” In truth, this rhetoric is little more than cliché that no longer has any meaning. That it has become the mantra of the arms control community is dangerous in itself.

    More disturbingly, we are told that the U.S. seeks to maintain a first-strike capability against Russia. This is a complete fiction, and it is repeated so often, I am starting to think that it is deliberately used as a scare tactic. A simple examination of the balance of forces between the U.S. and Russia reveals this claim to be a myth. Tell me, if the U.S. sought to maintain a first-strike capability, why did it retire the Peacekeeper, even though the demise of START II meant that it was no longer obligated to do so? Why would it follow that up with the retirement of 50 additional Minuteman IVs? Why would it continue to download MIRVs from the remaining ICBM and SLBM missiles? Why would it decide to retire the most advanced delivery system in its arsenal, the AGM-129? It should be noted that these moves have not been reciprocated by Russia, which has retained its SS-18s and appears intent on maintaining multi-MIRV ICBMs. (I suppose by pointing this out, I will be accused of using “outdated, dangerous, immoral, and counterproductive Cold War-thinking.”) Perhaps the U.S. wishes to maintain a limited counterforce capability, but that is a universe apart from a “first strike” doctrine, and is more accurately associated with a doctrine of damage limitation.

    The fact of the matter is that nuclear weapons are an instrument of state power, and will remain so indefinitely. Unilaterally declaring that they are not does not mean that other nuclear powers will follow suit with their own arsenals.

    I would agree that if the U.S. only required a policy of “minimum credible deterrent,” the force structure and supporting weapons complex could be cut significantly from its present status. In this case, perhaps we could get away with retaining no more than a force of about 10 SSBNs…perhaps even less. Unfortunately, however, the unique position of the United States in the international system precludes it from adoption such a policy, and thus, the U.S. will need to maintain a robust nuclear arsenal and a developed doctrine for their use. Just to demonstrate one example, how else would the United States deter chemical and biological attacks on its military forces if it were not for the threat of nuclear retaliation? Granted, Dr. Oelrich may reply that the U.S. should abdicate its international position to avoid being faced with such dilemmas, but that hardly seems realistic, and is in any case a debate for a different place and time.

    I must congratulate the first commenter on this thread, who pointed out in only 25 words the argument that has required nearly 1,000 from me.


    I shall take these points more or less in reverse order.

    The argument that nuclear weapons are necessary to deter attack by chemical and biological weapons assumes some equivalence. This is an unfortunate consequence of the wildly overused and misleading term “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” which lumps all all of them together. A contagious disease could have worldwide effect comparable to a nuclear attack but is not a useful battlefield weapon. Other biological and chemical weapons are not in the same class as nuclear weapons. And the assumption that nuclear weapons are needed to deter chemical or other unconventional attack is unsupported. One could make exactly the same argument about any form of attack, whether conventional military or roadside bombs; if the US were attacked by any means it could reply with nuclear weapons, but we don’t. We don’t always need nuclear weapons to deter even nuclear attack. If N. Korea used a nuclear weapon against the US or its allies, I am confident we would destroy and probably occupy the country. We might or might not use nuclear weapons during that process but whether we do or not is hardly relevant to N. Korean deterrence calculations. The commenter rejects a minimal deterrent doctrine. During the Cold War, the US needed to maintain a nuclear arsenal to (among other things) deter conventional attack against NATO. Today, with conventional superiority, any use of nuclear weapons works against US interests so the only use of nuclear weapons that contributes to US security is to try to deter their use.

    Concerning first strike capabilities: The commenter lists the weapons we have retired, which is not the right measure. We have to look at what US weapons remain compared to the targets. Remaining US weapons are formidable and are on constant alert. I know of no other mission that could justify US nuclear force posture. The commenter may wish to consult a recent paper in International Security. It is true that Russia still has the huge SS-18s but these are considered beyond their life span and are being steadily replaced but, again, even if the Russians had a disarming first strike capability (which they do not) does not mean that the US does not have such a capability. The comment on damage limitation seems to suggest a distinction between a first strike capability and a disarming first strike capability.

    The commenter does have a point in his criticism of my statement that nuclear doctrine is carried forward by unthinking momentum. During the current administration there have, indeed, been important changes in nuclear doctrine but these have all been in the wrong direction, toward considering nuclear weapons as usable tactical instruments. My colleague Hans Kristensen has carefully documented the recent development of nuclear doctrine in his report “Global Strike.”

    Referring to the “asinine” suggestion that the US should adopt a minimum deterrence doctrine, that is, that nuclear weapons will be reserved for deterrence of nuclear attack, I only ask that anyone who uses the word “deterrence” always say what is being deterred. I shall write more on this soon.

  4. Mr. Borgeson,

    Excellent! You have stated, so well, the reality of things in the world today. Thank you.

    P.S. Correction to my earlier comment; the author, Dr. Oelrich, is identified.

  5. I agree with Ivan’s analysis but feel it does not go far enough. I simply cannot believe that something like RRW is being carried forward by “unthinking momentum”. If the standard rationales are fallacious this invites us to consider a strategic rationale for RRW and perhaps RRW is a part of re-tooling the entire US nuclear weapons enterprise to reflect the broad vision annouced in Bush’s NPR i.e. a nuclear strategy more in tune with the “second nuclear age”…that would be the exact opposite of “unthinking momentum” that would be “thoughtful dynamism.”


    See my comments above. I concede that nuclear doctrine is not static and has become more dangerous during the current administration.

  6. An excellent contribution to the debate by Ivan Oelrich – congratulations on your precise and sharp analysis.

    The commentator, Mr. Borgeson, completely fails to identify why the US should maintain more than a credible minimum deterrent. He simply reverts to the “unique position of the United States in the international system” – an empty phrase that fails to identify why exactly this unique position requires anything more than a credible minimum deterrent. The other argument that biological or chemical attacks may only be deterred by nuclear weapons is manifestly absurd. Not only is such a nuclear counter-attack almost inconceivable, but also does Mr. Borgeson fail to identify why the US should need anything more than a small number of nuclear weapons (= a minimum deterrent) to deter such attacks.

    Anyhow, instead of relying on the highly questionable and controversial “logic” of deterrence, it seems to be a better idea to trust on international verifiable disarmament in the field of WMD.

    Besides, I do not really get how it should be possible to deter a terrorist armed with chemical weapons with a nuke… It is strange to note that on the one hand the current US administration constantly argues that the security environment has changed since the Cold War (which is correct), yet the recipes used seem to stem from the 1950s.

  7. In this post, I will address the response of Dr. Oelrich, and to a lesser extent Mr. Müller.

    In the conclusion of his response, Dr. Oelrich points out that it is necessary, in any discussion of deterrence, to clarify what is being deterred. This is a good point, and is likely the source of much of our disagreement. While I do not believe Russia is a threat to the United States, I do believe that it would be enormously imprudent to omit it from the deterrent equation, which should also factor in China. This explains our vastly differing prescriptions for a minimum credible deterrent.

    Before going further, I would like to add that I am not opposed to the process of arms control with Russia, or with the recent dismantlement efforts of the United States. Upon the expiration of START I, I would support renewing it or replacing it with an equally robust structure. However, further cuts should be reciprocated by Russia in a process by which both arsenals are verifiably bargained down. I am discouraged by some of the recent developments in the Russian nuclear force.

    However, as my first post stated, I do not believe a doctrine of minimum credible deterrence is appropriate for the United States. Mr. Müller considers my justification for this to be “empty”…allow me to make it less empty for you. The international responsibilities of the United States did not conclude with the end of the Cold War. The United States maintains extended deterrent commitments over several allies, including South Korea, Japan, Germany, Turkey, etc. If this extended deterrent were withdrawn, it is likely that some of these states would choose to proliferate to ensure their own defense. This would be devastating to global nonproliferation norms, and unless you subscribe to the “more is better” argument, this is very bad news.

    Related to this point is the need to maintain the credibility of our extended deterrent. A force structure designed only to deter attack on the United States may not be a force appropriate for our extended deterrent commitments. Furthermore, if we state that our extended deterrent remains in place, yet buy a force structure that says something completely different, the confidence and trust of our allies will be shaken, perhaps leading them to proliferate. I am sure that Dr. Oelrich is very familiar with these arguments, but in this piece, he has not adequately reconciled “minimum credible deterrent” with the foreign policy requirements of the United States.

    My point on the need to deter the use of chemical and biological weapons seems to have aroused vigorous disagreement, with Mr. Müller terming it “manifestly absurd,” and Dr. Oelrich stating that the point is unsupported and the concept otherwise inappropriate. I disagree with this, and I will point to the first Gulf War as a case study. Notwithstanding verbal subtleties by American diplomats, it was the threat of nuclear retaliation that deterred Saddam Hussein from using unconventional weapons against coalition forces. It is not difficult to imagine future scenarios in which a similar threat will be necessary. Foreign states with biological arsenals would disagree with his assertion that they are not viable military weapons. Dr. Oelrich seems to discount the threat posed by chemical and biological weapons – which the United States has not encountered in combat since World War I – stating that “biological and chemical weapons are not in the same class as nuclear weapons.” This may be true, but that logic applies in the opposite direction as well: would nerve agent used against unprotected troops or civilian populations be in a different class than a 10-kiloton airburst over an armored formation deep in the desert? I think so.

    I am simply pointing out that nuclear weapons remain necessary to deter the use of chemical and biological weapons. Perhaps the United States will someday endure a chemical attack, and determine that a nuclear response would be overkill. But until that day comes, adversaries should feel that they would be risking much by using chemical and biological weapons. I fail to see how this policy could be extended to other forms of attack, which Dr. Oelrich argues is a risk. Not retaliating in kind to a nuclear attack – which Dr. Oelrich suggests is possible, given U.S. conventional superiority – would be very unwise, if for no other reason than it would undermine the nuclear taboo since the perpetrator would not suffer a nuclear consequence, and there would be other rivals watching. In any case, U.S. conventional superiority is exaggerated.

    Dr. Oelrich states that listing the retirement of recent weapon systems does not disprove that the U.S. is pursuing a first-strike policy. If that is true, then the metric he uses is also flawed.

    First of all, let me define what I mean by “first strike capability” as it relates to Russia: the ability to successfully disarm Russia of nuclear weapons, to the extent that the risk of nuclear retaliation would be minimal.

    Second, it is generally imprudent to divine political and doctrinal intentions from nuclear force structure. This is especially true in the United States, where the political process intrudes on the weapon acquisition process. During the Cold War, the United States relied on the threat of nuclear first-strike to deter the Soviet Union from attacking Europe, yet it purchased a force structure wholly unsuitable for the task. In so doing, it put itself at enormous risk when the Soviet Union responded by building a nuclear force to preempt the United States. Thus, the United States committed itself to first strike, but did not have a force structure capable of doing so, while the Soviet Union had the necessary nuclear forces, yet never attacked. We talked like Herman Kahn, but we were armed with Thomas Schelling. The point I am trying to make is that force structure is not necessarily an indicator of political intentions or nuclear doctrine.

    However, despite all indicators to the contrary, much of the arms control community refuses to believe that a first-strike capability is no longer sought by the United States, and uses force structure as evidence of this. To respond, it is therefore necessary to use much of the same evidence. I will expand on the logic in my first post: if the United States wished to retain such a capability, why would it retire the Peacekeeper/MX – the only viable “first strike weapon” in our arsenal – especially since it was no longer legally obligated to do so? Would it not make sense to keep the maximum MIRV load on all of our ICBMs and SLBMs, if we desired this capability? I do not deny that our remaining weapons may be accurate enough to target Russia’s nuclear forces; as I said, perhaps the U.S. desires a limited counterforce capability, perhaps as means to maintain the credibility of the deterrent. How this can be translated to “first-strike” is beyond me… “balance” and “parity” cannot be translated to “first-strike capability.” Even “nuclear superiority” – which the United States does not have – cannot and should not be interpreted as first strike doctrine or first strike capability, as the Soviet example demonstrates. The United States simply does not have the force structure necessary to carry out a first strike on Russia, and it never has possessed such a capability. By Dr. Oelrich’s logic of evidence, we should be more concerned with the direction of Russia’s nuclear doctrine, which is increasingly leaning in a negative direction. And yet, while discouraged by the recent behavior of our former Cold War rival, I am not fearful of any such intent on their part.

    I apologize for the length of this post, but it was necessary to adequately convey my thoughts.


    I am afraid that we have stopped making progress here because we can’t agree on what we are talking about.

    Mr. Borgeson writes in his most recent comment that “In the conclusion of his response, Dr. Oelrich points out that it is necessary, in any discussion of deterrence, to clarify what is being deterred. This is a good point, and is likely the source of much of our disagreement.” I agree and this is key to every thing I have said. We cannot advance the debate until we address this point. The commenter then say who we might need to deter (Russia and China) but not what.

    What I object to is the use of the word “deterrence” without any reference of what is being deterred and then the tacit tying of deterrence as a general concept to nuclear weapons in particular as though nuclear weapons were the only things that can deter. The world had deterrence before 1945. The commenter many times mentions “extended deterrence,” but of what? We don’t have to think of every possible future case but give me some examples. Are we trying to deter the Russian army’s invasion of NATO? An incursion into Kaliningrad? Cutting off natural gas supplies to western Europe? I did cite one specific example: nuclear use by North Korea and argued that nuclear weapons were essentially irrelevant to the North Korean deterrent calculation. They have developed nuclear weapons, not as a counter to our nuclear weapons, but as a deterrent of our use of our conventional forces. I have written about this elsewhere in more detail and I strongly urge anyone interested to read that short paper.

    Mr. Borgeson does mention specifically deterring the use of chemical and biological weapons. We will never be certain, but many assert that Iraq’s refraining from using chemical weapons was due to threats or at least ambiguity about a nuclear response. As in the Korean example, deterrence does not imply necessarily the use of nuclear weapons. In fact, why is this not a better argument for redeploying chemical and biological weapons so we could reply to chemicals with chemicals, etc.? That would have the advantage of symmetry. And why should we only deter the use of chemical weapons by nuclear weapons, why not use nuclear weapons to deter any sort of weapon use against US forces, fuel-air explosives or saboteurs behind our lines?

    Advocates of a robust nuclear posture also make a quantitative mistake here: We have proven that we need nuclear weapons to deter chemical attack, therefore we need the nuclear arsenal we have. Again, let’s try to be more specific. How many nuclear weapons do we think we would have used against Iraq? If we count up the possible cases, no combination of numbers adds up to our current nuclear arsenal.

    In response to my assertion that the US had and has worked toward a first strike capability, Mr Borgeson writes “the United States relied on the threat of nuclear first-strike to deter the Soviet Union from attacking Europe, yet it purchased a force structure wholly unsuitable for the task.” This is entirely contrary to the facts. The Peacekeeper was specifically designed as a weapon to attack the SS-18 and other large Soviet land-based missiles. The constant efforts to increase the accuracy and yield of sea-based missiles like the D-5 were motivated to give them a counter-silo capability. We now know that Soviet ballistic missile submarines were routinely constantly tailed by US boats at frighteningly close range. Today, while the force is smaller, the Russian target set is also smaller. Also, the Russian submarine force is in disrepair and their early warning systems have large holes. Some calculations are presented in the International Security article that I reference above and the commenter may want to examine that piece.

  8. Dr. Oelrich asks that I be more specific in identifying future exigencies that justify my advocacy of a force structure that exceeds minimum credible deterrence. I assure you, if I had the power to see into the future, I would certainly oblige him. Short of that, I could indeed list a number of possible future contingencies that relate to nuclear weapons. Suffice is to say that I am not as optimistic as some concerning the future security environment. In any case, given that the future is inherently unpredictable, Dr. Oelrich’s request is somewhat unfair. I have no more failed being specific in arguing for a robust posture than Dr. Oelrich has in arguing for a force of “clunky” fission bombs. Without wishing to extend this debate indefinitely, I would ask that he explain why the United States requires no more than this. From what I have read thus far, Dr. Oelrich does not assign much value to the need to hedge against the future.

    The extended deterrence commitments over our allies remain in place whether or not these allies are currently under threat; some of them are (especially in Asia), some of them are not (Europe). Based on recent developments in Iran, the United States will soon be taking under its nuclear wing a number of new states. If it is determined that some of our commitments are no longer appropriate for U.S. interests, then so be it: withdrawal the commitments. However, the United States should make clear what its new policy is, and the question remains how global nonproliferation norms would survive if our allies acquired nuclear weapons in response to the withdrawal of our commitments.

    I find it somewhat amusing that an arms control advocate (I assume that I am fair in describing Dr. Oelrich as such) would favor the reintroduction of chemical weapons; this may indeed be necessary if we are to avoid using nuclear weapons to deter chemical and biological use, but I personally feel that we made much progress by renouncing such weapons. As I said earlier, I fail to see how a policy of nuclear deterrence against chemical and biological weapons could be extended to “fuel-air explosives or saboteurs behind our lines.” I think there is a clear distinction between “weapons of mass destruction” and other types of attack.

    Dr. Oelrich writes, “If we count up the possible cases, no combination of numbers adds up to our current nuclear arsenal.” This may or may not be true, but let me posit a different question: If we could attack all of these targets with conventional weapons, does that mean we should disarm of nuclear weapons? Of course not. Nuclear weapons have a psychological value to them that we are not able to do without. Having an excess number of warheads as compared to targets is a secondary problem, if a problem at all. As my comments imply, I believe it to be prudent to retain such a hedge. Disarmament for the sake of disarmament reeks of utopianism.

    Dr. Oelrich undercuts his own argument concerning a possible U.S. first strike capability when he mentions that the Peacekeeper was designed to counter the SS-18…I will remind him that the Peacekeeper is history, while the SS-18 remains. The Russians are re-MIRVing their forces; the United States is not. I am familiar with the work of Press and Lieber (of Foreign Affairs infamy) but without getting into an entirely different debate, I would argue that many of their claims – especially those relating to Russia’s nuclear forces and early warning system – are highly suspect, and their conclusions questionable. The U.S. nuclear force structure remains inadequate for a first strike on Russia. Dr. Oelrich’s concern about the U.S. posture seems premised on the assumption that any counterforce capabilities are destabilizing.

    I will repeat my assertion that the U.S. had an insufficient force structure for the mission that was assigned it during the Cold War; the United States was not able to credibly threaten the Soviet Union with first strike. The reasons for this go beyond nuclear weapon systems to include our lack of civil defense, missile defense, etc. The Europeans were right to question our reliability as allies, because in the event of Soviet armor crossing the Fulda Gap, no American president would risk the U.S. homeland. The Soviets – on the other hand – did take us seriously, which explains why they built such fearsome weapons as the SS-18. Anecdotal strong points in U.S. nuclear forces during the Cold War (strategic ASW, the D-5, etc.) do not prove that the U.S. – as a whole – could credibly threaten first strike.


    Up to now, I have tried to carefully and patiently address each of the points raised by Mr. Borgeson but my replies are ignored, dismissed, ridiculed, twisted, or circumvented.

    He begins by writing that, “Dr. Oelrich asks that I be more specific in identifying future exigencies that justify my advocacy of a force structure that exceeds minimum credible deterrence. I assure you, if I had the power to see into the future, I would certainly oblige him. Short of that, I could indeed list a number of possible future contingencies that relate to nuclear weapons.” He could indeed, yet he does not. And I did not ask for every possible case. I wrote, “We don’t have to think of every possible future case but give me some examples.” That is, just give me any possible case to add some specificity to the discussion.

    He goes on to write, “The extended deterrence commitments over our allies remain in place…” I fully agree but then he goes on to put the adjective “nuclear” in front without justification, or even necessarily awareness, making reasonable arguments about deterrence and then automatically applying these arguments to nuclear deterrence. This is precisely the error I addressed above and in much greater detail in my analysis of the Senate Republican position statement cited and linked above, which is ignored.

    He writes that, “I find it somewhat amusing that an arms control advocate (I assume that I am fair in describing Dr. Oelrich as such) would favor the reintroduction of chemical weapons…” Of course, I never said any such thing.

    He also states that “Disarmament for the sake of disarmament reeks of utopianism.” I have not made any argument for disarmament. As is typical of many arguments for a robust nuclear posture, again and again the commenter makes statements about disarmament and, more often, deterrence that are sound and then sticks the word “nuclear” in front. It does not work. I argue that a minimal nuclear deterrent doctrine would be safer than our current doctrine and that we should work toward a global ban on nuclear weapons. I have never argued for disarmament, that is, the elimination of our armed forces. Arguments about disarmament cannot automatically be applied to nuclear disarmament just as arguments supporting deterrence cannot be assumed to support nuclear deterrence. Moreover, saying that I am arguing anything for its own sake is an example of simply ignoring what I have said. I argue, for example, that a general de-emphasis on nuclear weapons will enhance the security of the United States, is safer, more moral, etc. Even someone who disagrees with those positions cannot say that I have argued for “Disarmament for the sake of disarmament…”

    He writes that, “As I said earlier, I fail to see how a policy of nuclear deterrence against chemical and biological weapons could be extended to ’fuel-air explosives or saboteurs behind our lines.’ I think there is a clear distinction between ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and other types of attack.” I invite anyone to do the math. Nuclear weapons are different from chemical weapons and from biological weapons. The clear distinction is between nuclear and all others. I and many others believe that “WMD” is not a useful category and the category is now used more for political than technical reasons.

    The statutory definition of “weapons of mass destruction” is “Any weapon or device that is intended, or has the capability, to cause death or serious bodily injury to a significant number of people through the release, dissemination, or impact of toxic or poisonous chemicals or their precursors; a disease organism; or radiation or radioactivity.” (See US Code TITLE 50, CHAPTER 40, Section 2302.) The word “significant” is not defined but I will guess that many people would say that 100 is “significant,” certainly 500. Yet more were killed in a coordinated truck bomb attack on Qahtaniya and Jazeera in August. So 100, not even killed but suffering “serious bodily injury,” from chemical weapons could reasonably be classified by some as a “WMD” attack, lumped in with the 140,000 killed at Hiroshima, but 500 killed by conventional explosives or fuel-air explosives or the 3000 killed on September 11 would not be. How can this be a useful categorization?

    The commenter simply ignored references to quantitative analyses published in well-respected journals except to dismiss them with pejorative, derisive language, saying “I am familiar with the work of Press and Lieber (of Foreign Affairs infamy)…”

    So now I am upset…but not for any of the above.

    The commenter asks rhetorically, “If we could attack all of these targets with conventional weapons, does that mean we should disarm of nuclear weapons?” I would say yes. For example, I have said elsewhere “We’re at the end of a long process of denuclearizing the U.S. military, and this process has not been driven by arms control, by international pressure or moral revulsion at nuclear weapons; it’s been driven, as others have pointed out, by the – overwhelmingly by the development in sensors and miniaturized electronics that have made precision conventional munitions possible and has made them the preferred military solution.” I also have written “…on-going advances in U.S. non-nuclear technology allow conventional weapons to supplant nuclear weapons in those missions that remain. During the Cold War, nuclear explosives were developed for use in torpedoes, depth charges, demolition charges, air-to-air rockets and surface-to-air missiles, and for small-unit fire support. One by one, advances in modern sensor-guided munitions have made nuclear weapons obsolete for each of these missions.”

    The commenter disagrees, going on to finish the paragraph by saying, “Of course not. Nuclear weapons have a psychological value to them that we are not able to do without.” In other words, this entire discussion has been pointless. Even had I persuaded Mr. Borgeson on every point above concerning deterrence, first strike capability, nuclear weapons’ displacement by conventional alternatives, all of it, the arguments are irrelevant because of a newly introduced and unspecified “psychological value” that does not lend itself to a testable hypothesis and is not, therefore, susceptible to analysis. To Mr. Borgeson nuclear weapons represent an ideology. To me, they represent a means that should always be subject to analysis and even questioning. In other words, Mr. Borgeson has been wasting my time. That is why I am upset.

  9. As long as nuclear weapons exist somewhere in the world, they are a threat to those who do not have them. They are the ultimate insurance policy. A clever enemy, with several well placed strikes, could cripple our massive conventional capability…precision or not.

    Keeping the weapons dismantled and separated invites a preemptive strike. The fact that the weapons are configured for launch and survivable make any opponent’s decision calculus much more complicated.

    Nuclear weapons are nasty things, but they have their uses. They will be around until mankind designs something equally as horrible, but for a cheaper price.

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