The Myth of Nuclear Modernization and the Ikea Bomb.

In the closing days of the Bush administration, we see nuclear advocates laying down markers for the debate about nuclear weapons that is expected early in Senator Obama’s presidency. In a recent speech at Carnegie and in an article in Foreign Affairs, Robert Gates, slated to stay on as Secretary of Defense, has called for developing a new nuclear bomb — the so-called Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) (“so-called” because it is no more reliable than current warheads and it will not replace them, but it is otherwise appropriately named).  General Kevin Chilton, head of Strategic Command, has made similar statements.

Those of us who are interested in working toward a world free of nuclear weapons realize that progress will involve many steps, some large, some small. One important step will be ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Some CTBT supporters suspect that the outlines of a deal are coalescing: those who want the RRW will try to make the CTBT and the RRW a package deal, arguing that we will be able to maintain a reliable, safe nuclear deterrent without testing, as the CTBT would require, only if the weapon labs are allowed to proceed with weapon modernization. The Congressional Strategic Posture Commission interim report appears to be at least sympathetic to this view. This artificial link is based on both faulty logic and a long list of unstated and unsupportable assumptions.

The assertion that our nuclear weapons need any modernizing implies, usually implicitly, that current weapons are antiques that are not quite up to snuff. Chilton, in the article cited above, specifically links U.S. modernization to Russian and Chinese nuclear weapons. This superficially makes sense: after all, we don’t send our military out to fight with World War II vintage tanks, ships, and airplanes. Certainly the United States should be armed with the latest and best nuclear weapons; at the very least, our weapons have to be at least as modern as any possible competitors, right? The simple analogy to conventional weapons doesn’t hold because of the types of tasks assigned to nuclear weapons and some confusion about just what a “nuclear weapon” is.

A nuclear bomb is an immensely powerful explosive, whose job is to blow things up. Our tanks fight other tanks and our ships fight other ships in an intrinsically competitive interaction. If our potential enemies improve their tanks or ships, then we must improve ours. But nuclear bombs do not fight other nuclear bombs, they blow things up. They might be expected to blow up airbases, ports, or oil refineries; whatever they are expected to blow up, if they can do that, then they accomplish their mission. There are certain targets that even the most powerful nuclear bombs cannot blow up, for example, targets buried in tunnels in hard rock or targets whose location is unknown or potential targets that we do not even know exist. Whether a target can be destroyed or not depends on how big a bang the bomb makes (and how accurately it is delivered), not how “modern” it is. Even when one of the main missions of U.S. nuclear weapons was to attack and destroy the Soviet Union’s nuclear-armed missiles in their silos, we were pitting our nuclear weapons, not against Soviet nuclear weapons, but against Soviet concrete. The world’s most modern nuclear weapon would be easily destroyed if a 1945-vintage Hiroshima-style bomb blew up next to it.

A conventional analogy makes the point: The Joint Direct Attack Munition, or JDAM, is a family of highly accurate conventional bombs. The bombs are dropped from the world’s most sophisticated, multi-million dollar aircraft, including the B-2, the radar-evading stealth bomber, which costs over a billion dollars. Once in free-fall, the guidance system on the JDAM picks up signals broadcast to Earth from a multi-billion dollar constellation of satellites that make up the Global Positioning System. These satellites broadcast time signals with an accuracy of a few billionths of a second, allowing tiny computers on the JDAM to calculate the bomb’s trajectory to within a few feet. Some JDAMs are outfitted with smart fuzes. When a bomb crashes through a building, it will decelerate when it goes through the floors of the building but not in the airspace between the floors. A smart fuze will detect these decelerations and count the number of floors that it has passed through, allowing the bomb to be exploded on a particular floor. Obviously, this bomb is extremely sophisticated—a marvel of modern military technology. So what is the explosive used in the bomb? Something called tritonal, which is a mixture of TNT and powdered aluminum. TNT, the shorthand for trinitrotoluene, was discovered in 1863. Millions of pounds of it were used in the First World War. The trick of mixing TNT with powdered aluminum to increase its power is a more modern innovation, only going back to the Second World War. Clearly, this astonishingly sophisticated bomb does not depend on some modern sophisticated explosive to make it effective. The explosive is the easiest part of the job. If you can use a highly accurate guidance and fuzing system to place a few hundred pounds of TNT into, say, a communications headquarters, the fact that the bomb uses an explosive that is a century-old technology is not going to save the world’s most modern electronics.

Do not misunderstand: nuclear weapons are very complex, precision devices. And they can have specialized performance, for example, when the Nixon-era ballistic missile defense system used nuclear-armed interceptor missiles, the nuclear warheads for use in space were tailored to produce extra x-rays while those for use in the atmosphere were tailored to produce extra neutrons. A nuclear weapon intended to produce an electromagnetic pulse should be designed to maximize the second derivative of the gamma ray flux (you will just have to trust me on that one). I am simply saying that nuclear bombs do not have to be complex and their required complexity depends on the missions assigned to them, and those missions should be dramatically different now that the Cold War is over.

During the Cold War, there was a great incentive to build huge numbers of nuclear bombs. The United States was the first to put some of these bombs on missiles that were small enough to fit on submarines. In the interests of efficiency, both the United States and the Soviets put several bombs on a single missile. Both sides wanted the bombs to be able to attack missile silos and other very hard targets. The Soviets tended to build bigger missiles than the United States. The United States took the more sophisticated course of building smaller missiles and put a great deal of effort into getting nuclear weapons to be as small as possible, which required sophisticated designs and precision manufacturing.

But nuclear bombs are, in principle, pretty simple. The complexity of current weapons comes about because of the extreme performance required, not because of any necessary and intrinsic characteristic of nuclear weapons. The first bomb used in war, the one that destroyed Hiroshima, was such a simple uranium design that Manhattan Project scientists had enough confidence to use it without testing it beforehand. So the first thing to note is that any statement about the need for weapons modernization or the needed sophistication of nuclear bombs rests on a hidden assumption about what the mission for that nuclear bomb will be and how it will be delivered to its target. Since the fundamental missions of nuclear weapons—the the question of what we are asking them to do, what they are for—are now being reevaluated and remain unsettled, it is premature to say just how sophisticated nuclear weapons have to be and whether they need any “modernizing” at all.

We must also be careful not to be confused by what a nuclear weapon is. There is a part that simply goes boom. That can be simple or complex. But the bomb sits atop a missile or in a bomber or submarine that is a truly complex piece of machinery. The bomb will be guided by advanced electronic systems, perhaps including sensors. All together, this makes up a “weapon,” almost all of the components of which are non-nuclear and can be tested fully under a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which only prohibits tests that produce a nuclear reaction. The job of the nuclear part of the weapon could in principle be very simple indeed: to explode and blow something up.

Paying attention to what is the nuclear part of the nuclear bomb is also relevant to DOE’s claim that we need a new weapon because of safety.  Most of the safety attributes are in the electronics that is outside the nuclear package and can be developed and tested without nuclear testing.  A few safety features are intimately connected to the nuclear package but before the RRW was even thought up DOE had plans for retroactively inserting new safety features, some quite major, into existing warheads.

I have written here about how the characteristics of the RRW imply, without debate or even apparent conscious thought, certain missions for nuclear weapons, missions that are at best of dubious relevance and most likely clearly outmoded and contrary to the security interests of the United States and the world. The most insidious part of this RRW-CTBT “deal” is the implied assertion that the new nuclear bomb we need is exactly the one that the Department of Energy (DOE) and weapon labs are trying to foist on us, along with all of its implied missions.

The United States does not need a new nuclear bomb but let’s assume for a moment that under a CTBT it does. What should that bomb be? The DOE presents many arguments. Some are based on assertion, such as the RRW will save money in the long term, even though the DOE has not done a sufficiently detailed cost study to support that statement (and historically DOE cost estimates are mind-bogglingly inaccurate). Another argument is that the labs have to physically build new bombs simply to continue to be able to build new bombs. That is, the labs need to maintain the expertise required to design and build modern, sophisticated nuclear bombs and, to do that, they need modern, sophisticated bombs to practice on. But without Cold War mission requirements, why do they need to be particularly sophisticated?

If some sort of machine, whether a computer or a toaster, has some manufacturing step that is complex and difficult, any engineer will be proud to develop some clever process to more simply and cheaply carry out that step. But the engineer will admit that that is the second best solution; the ideal solution is to redesign the machine so it still does what it is supposed to do but it does not even include that step in its manufacture. In other words, the ideal solution is not to solve the problem but to design the problem out of the system.

If maintaining design expertise is a challenge, the labs should be designing bombs, and procedures for designing future bombs, that do not require such sophisticated design expertise. If manufacturing plutonium pits is so difficult, then design bombs that do not use plutonium. (The reply will come back that we need plutonium pits because we need triggers for two-stage thermonuclear bombs with yields of tens or hundreds of kilotons of TNT explosive force. But what future missions require such huge yields? During the Cold War, the answer was attacking Soviet missile silos in a disarming first strike. If that is the future mission they have in mind, we should debate that first and only then build the new weapon to carry out that mission.) If maintaining a nuclear weapons industrial complex and the corresponding sophisticated work force is such a challenge, then DOE should design new weapons that do not require either. DOE will respond that that is precisely what they are trying to do with the RRW, but that claim is contradicted by the scale of their multi-billion dollar budget requests for the future nuclear weapons complex. Even if that is DOE’s direction, it does not go anywhere far enough.

Simple uranium bombs with high reliability and yields of twenty kilotons (or the power of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima) or more would be easy to manufacture. We could design such a weapon, perhaps build one or two, and put the plans on the shelf in case we ever needed it. I can’t help but imagine those language-free schematic assembly instructions that come along with unassembled Ikea furniture, describing how to put a bookshelf together without special skills or complex tools. We should design the Ikea Bomb. The DOE’s arguments for a new nuclear bomb design would be a lot more convincing if DOE were eagerly trying to design themselves out of a job rather than looking at a future that has them building nuclear weapons forever.

12 thoughts on “The Myth of Nuclear Modernization and the Ikea Bomb.

  1. The myth buster is written so eloquently that anyone who finishes a high school should understand the logic. However, we have for too many times run into this sort of strange situations where logic is not needed. Experts have told us that missile defense can be easily overwhelmed by balloons, but we do our star wars anyway. Mr. Obama, who promised to restore rational thinking to policy decisions, hired Mr. Gates, who used to run a university. None of the two distinguished gentlemen and countless many others in the Government has any deficiency in understanding logic – in general or in your argument. Yet, RRW will happen with or without breaking CTBT. There are many hidden arguments for RRW such as keeping our nuke designers sharp and employed, etc. But those are not as motivating as keeping up with the Russians or the Chinese, even if that claim is totally bogus. When Mr. Obama and Mr. Gates retire, they will perhaps join the elderly statesmen to pine for a world without nuclear weapons. But as long as they wish to keep their jobs, nukes will never be gone. Many of us will have to be gone before nukes will be gone. A bomb is built to blow up. The desire to kill is only waiting for an excuse. However glorified the excuse may be, we are inviting the same excuse on ourselves when we detonate the bomb.

  2. Even the argument that RRW is needed to keep the cadre of nuclear weaponeers “sharp” is wrong. The complicated design work for the RRW (WR1) is done. The rest is engineering. It would be better to just have a design competition every 5 years for a new design with a $1m prize, to be donated to the Arms Control NGO of the winning lab’s choice.

    I wrote about the false linkage between CTBT and RRW being perpetrated on us in the current edition of the Bulletin. In fact, it is blackmail plain and simple: buy RRW, we are told, or else there is no way you’re getting CTBT.

    Garwin has poked holes in that line of thinking already in the December issue of Arms Control Today. A 2002 NAS study said that we don’t need nuclear explosive testing to attest to the reliability and safety of warheads. How many times do have to revisit this?

    RRW is just a symptom of a bureaucracy wanting to sustain and empower itself.

    Most importantly, in the eyes of any potential adversaries, untested RRWs will be a less credible deterrent than the well-tested legacy weapons.

  3. Couldn’t your argument apply to Russia as well? So why are the Russians upgrading their nuclear weapons? Are they just stupid or do they know something that you don’t?

    Why do nuclear weapons have a serviceable life? The warhead is relatively simple, so what’s the problem?

    Why is it that both Russia and the United States have to keep extending the serviceable life of their nuclear warheads? How long can one keep doing this?

    Russia has many nuclear warheads and missiles, yet they keep upgrading them. Why?

    The bottom line is that the Russian nuclear forces are starting to degrade due to age. By 2025 Russian nuclear weapons will number three or four hundred. The rest will have degraded to such an extent that they will be unreliable.

    The Russians know that they must upgrade their nuclear forces or they will lose them.

    The same logic applies to our nuclear forces. Our nuclear weapons are degrading too because of the toxic metal inside. Our weapons are over 20 years old, and we have the same problem as the Russians.

    Unfortunately, you implicitly assume that no one will launch a nuclear attack on us because we have nuclear weapons. If you looked at the amount of resources that both Russia and China have poured into underground bunker systems, then perhaps you would wonder why they are doing this. These bunkers are effectively useless, hence America has few, unless one initiates the attack.

    Both Russia and China have informed us that they will launch a nuclear attack under specific conditions. For example, Russia said they will use a preemptive nuclear attack to protect its allies. Fair enough, but who are its allies?

    It turns out that Syria is an ally.

    What would happen if Syria launches chemical weapons on Israel cities and Israel replies with nuclear weapons?

    Under that scenario Russia would think to obliterate Israel, but would recognize the United States as a problem.

    What would Russia do? Their ally was just obliterated. Would they do nothing?

    Successful states may generate trouble, but failures produce catastrophes: Nazi Germany erupted from the bankrupt Weimar Republic; Soviet Communism’s economic disasters swelled the Gulag; a feckless state with unpaid armies enabled Mao’s rise.

    And Russia is moving back into the failure category. China will not be far behind because it has so many problems that I’m not going to list them.

    It turns out that Russia has a huge set of problems. It recently stepped off an economic cliff along with China. It has major demographic problems. Russia’s health situation today is a disaster. More than one region wants to break away. It lacks cultural cohesion because of its size.

    Russia may not survive in its present form for very long.

    So maybe war shouldn’t be taken off the table.

    The answer is to upgrade our weapons and build more of them. We need to explain to Russia that we have a third, fourth and fifth strike capability. Years after the dust settles we will be able to retaliate against their newly rebuilt cities.

    Thanks to people like you and Obama, we will not get those upgraded weapons. We will not get more weapons, but rather we will get fewer weapons as the weapons we have continue to degrade and are taken out of service. Finally, we will position ourselves for defeat at the hands of Russia and China.

  4. While I would love nothing more than to see nuclear weapons banished from the face of the earth, I’m afraid I must disagree with Mr. Oelrich on at least two issues.

    First, he briefly presents an argument on what must be – and must NOT be – done to banish nuclear weapons from the face of the earth. Well, a wise man once told me something about djinnis and bottles. The only way to abolish nuclear weapons, now and forever, is to come up with something cheaper, safer to handle, easier to manufacture, more stable, more powerful, or any compelling combination of those attributes. In other words, the world will stop building nukes once nukes are obsolete. Maybe this will occur when we’ve got something even more horrible, or maybe it will be when there’s nothing left to blow up or no one left to initiate the launch.

    Secondly, the argument on the use of the word “modernization” is well taken but I feel it’s largely semantic. I’ll agree that we are not modernizing the “nuclear” part of nuclear weapons. At least, we aren’t making big changes (or we aren’t making any that a civilian such as myself would know about). However, a nuclear warhead is not like TNT. It cannot be easily replicated, cheaply and in large quantities. No nation on earth, the US included, can simply push a button and start making nuclear weapons as quickly as they could conventional explosives. They are similar in a way, though. Other than the “explosion” part, I mean. If you leave TNT alone long enough, it starts to break down. It becomes less stable and more dangerous, and starts bleeding out of its container. Nuclear weapons have a shelf life, too, and as Russia has kindly showed us, there are problems with leaving them to rot.

    I think a better question is, do we really NEED nuclear weapons at all? The US Air Force is becoming increasingly focused on precision, particularly as the asymmetric conflict in the Middle East rages on. As much as some particularly frightening pundits rant and fume, we cannot nuke Mecca. Or Baghdad, or Fallujah, for that matter. The only remaining purposes for a nuclear bomb is as a deterrent – something that our leaders constantly remind us will not work against terrorists, which somehow includes Iran – or as a last resort in a war against another superpower with a conventional military.

    If what you need is a scalpel, it seems strange to worry so much about bludgeons.

  5. As a former nuke weapons technician I can make a few comments regarding the “reliability” of US nuclear devices; the most un-reliable links in the chain are the humans involved in either making the decision to launch, or the persons doing the launching.
    Coming in a distant 3rd place is the physical arming/launching system.
    The shelf life of current stockpiles is based on the performance of the part with the shortest perceived life span, the o-rings.
    I’ll have to leave off any further design descriptions other to say that some very revealing design considerations can be deciphered just from info posted on the web.

    Bottom line:
    The RRW is nothing more than a smokescreen to allow for new classes of nuke devices to be developed, one that could make their deployment and use in an otherwise conventional operation more likely.

  6. Ivan thanks!

    Re: 3. Mattw

    Interesting how you seem to be stuck in the same old cold-war argument. How then can you argue that Brazil, Iran, Israel, whoever/everyone should not acquire/improve their nuclear capabilities by any means necessary for the same reasons? But then I’m possibly arguing the same old preliminary arguments from years past against your type of “logic”. Oh well.

  7. Let me get this straight. The DOE is proposing to introduce a new design that will make replacing ‘expiring’ bombs cheaper in the long run. The author claims that this is not so, because that program will not save money:

    “If maintaining a nuclear weapons industrial complex and the corresponding sophisticated work force is such a challenge, then DOE should design new weapons that do not require either. DOE will respond that that is precisely what they are trying to do with the RRW, but that claim is contradicted by the scale of their multi-billion dollar budget requests for the future nuclear weapons complex.”

    What’s the point of this article then? It sounds like this is an argument over the most efficient way to maintain sufficient stockpiles to function as a deterrent. And that’s an argument which people not intimately involved in the industry are not qualified to answer. It’s a math question, not a theoretical question.

  8. I’m not exactly sure what the crux of this argument is actually supporting in the end. It sounds that for the purpose of modifying or updating the systems integrated with weapons of our arsenal, this article does not make much sense. Idealistically we should reprocess the warheads we already have. I take it that the good secretary really wants entirely new warheads. Which I can not really support either. There should be no need to re-invent the wheel or spend sums we do not have to duplicate something that could be done better by rebuilding. I do support rebuilding or replacing component systems on nuclear delivery systems. Taking the opportunity to again call for further stockpile reductions. I do not feel the world is sufficiently peaceable enough to dump them out of hand yet. At least until the Middle East has run it’s course and those nuclear powers can be reliably brought to the table. Peace is best achieved on a wise and prudent backing, not on a rush to an aim.

  9. The United States should always have the most modern and sophisticated nuclear forces no matter what, and the nerve and steel to use them when required. To not have to use them is ideal, but if the situation dictates that we must…. then having in the arsenal the most modern and effective devices to get the job done is necessary. If a modernization of warheads is needed, so be it. If a new class of nuclear weaponry is needed, so be it.

    – – a.adnrax

  10. a.adnrax:

    the purpose of nuclear weapons is for deterrence. untested “new” weapons (i.e. the proposed RRWs) will be a less credible deterrent than the tested ones, no matter how shiny the new ones are and whether or not they have that “new nuclear weapon” smell.

    deterrence is in the eye’s of one’s adversary.

    MattW: Israel has its own nuclear umbrella. There are no prizes worth fighting over with Russia (yes, now its called Russia, not mini-USSR) that would be worth the risk of nuclear retaliation. Your scenarios may have been somewhat valid during the cold war, but it is now over. Russia is a competitor not an adversary. China needs us around so that we can re-pay them the trillions we owe them.

    Kindly read the two articles at:

  11. [Edited] While in the missile field, I personally shepherded the fielding of numerous “upgraded” boosters, cables, guidance systems, and numerous other support systems for our nukes. So, if even the least significant of all launch components was seen as running out of life, and needing to be extensively tested, then why not the actual warhead itself? How can anyone in their semi-right mind even think that one, a warhead that has been standing at the top of a missile for decades, hasn’t yet passed its time, and two, that we would field a new warhead that has not been tested.

    With 12 years of experience in this business, I know that EVERYTHING, let me say it again, EVERYTHING in relation to nuclear weapons must be field tested. I’ve seen it time and again, where computers are manipulated to spit out the desired results, so the item is contracted, purchased, and then put into the field, AND THEN tested…oh yeah, more times than not, the so-called “sure thing” failed miserably.

    Bottom Line: Yes, it is time to field a new warhead. Yes, it MUST be field tested. No, to the CTBT. Yes, nukes ARE an important piece of our national defense (do we really think that if we get rid of our nukes, other nations will actually follow?…oops, another soap box for a different blog).

    Note: The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of The Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

  12. Actually every positive step towards genuine disarmament seems to come with it two steps backwards.

    First when Clinton separated the DOE to create a quasi-autonomous weapons agency NNSA, we saw the creation of programs under the aegis of Stockpile stewardship program – National Ignition Facility (NIF) and High Energy Density Physics programs in universities and national labs as a bargaining chip. These extraneous programs are taking fusion energy production, human resources continuity as a cover for continued funding for weapons science when all we need is DOD-NNSA to focus on maintenance of existing arsenals and dismantlement of excessive weapons. In the same way now RRW appears to becoming the bargaining chip for signing CTBT.

    Considering the huge budgetary deficit, tanking economy and the recent Carnegie report on prioritizing nuclear security spending, do we need all these extraneous programs instead of focusing on the primary goals and tasks necessary for global peace and global disarmament ?

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