The Nuclear Weapons “Procurement Holiday”

harencakBy Hans M. Kristensen

It has become popular among military and congressional leaders to argue that the United States has had a “procurement holiday” in nuclear force planning for the past two decades.

“Over the past 20-25 years, we took a procurement holiday” in modernizing U.S. nuclear forces, Major General Garrett Harencak, the Air Force’s assistant chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, said in a speech yesterday.

Harencak’s claim strongly resembles the statement made by then-commander of US Air Force Global Strike Command, Lt. General Jim Kowalski, that the United States had “taken about a 20 year procurement holiday since the Soviet Union dissolved.”

Kowalski, who is now deputy commander at US Strategic Command, made a similar claim in May 2012: “Our nation has enjoyed an extended procurement holiday as we’ve deferred vigorous modernization of our nuclear deterrent forces for almost 20 years.”

One can always want more, but the “procurement holiday” claim glosses over the busy nuclear modernization and maintenance efforts of the past two decades.

About That Holiday…

If “holiday” generally refers to “a day of festivity or recreation when no work is done,” then its been a bad holiday. For during the “procurement holiday” described by Harencak, the United States has been busy fielding and upgrading submarines, bombers, missiles, cruise missiles, gravity bombs, reentry vehicles, command and control satellites, warhead surveillance and production facilities (see image below).

Despite claims about a two-decade long nuclear weapons “procurement holiday,” the United States has actually been busy modernizing and maintaining its nuclear forces.

The not-so-procurement-holiday includes fielding of eight of 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines (the last in 1997), fielding of the Trident II sea-launched ballistic missile (the world’s most reliable nuclear missile), all 21 B-2A stealth bombers (the last in 2000), an $8 billion-plus complete overhaul of the entire Minuteman III ICBM force including back-fitting it with the W87 warhead, five B61 bomb modifications, one modification of the B83 bomb, a nuclear cruise missile, the W88 warhead, completed three smaller life-extensions of the W87 ICBM warhead and two B61 modifications, and developed and commenced full-scale production of the modified W76-1 warhead.

Harencak’s job obviously is to advocate nuclear modernization but glossing over the considerable efforts that have been done to maintain the nuclear deterrent for the past two decades is, well, kind of embarrassing.

Russia and China have continued to introduce new weapons and the United States is falling behind, so the warning from Harencak and others goes. But modernizations happen in cycles. Generally speaking, the previous Russian strategic modernization happened in the 1970s and 1980s (the country was down on its knees much of the 1990s), so now we’re seeing their next round of modernizations. Similarly, China modernized in the 1970s and 1980s so now we’re seeing their next cycle. (For an overview about worldwide nuclear weapons modernization programs, see this article.)

The United States modernized later (1980s-2000s), and since then has focused more on refurbishing and life-extending existing weapons instead of wasting money on mindlessly deploying new systems.

What the next cycle of U.S. nuclear modernizations should look like, how much is needed and with what kinds of capabilities, requires a calm and intelligent assessment.

Comparing Nuclear Apples and Oranges With a Vengeance

“Once you strip away all the emotions, once you strip away all the ‘I just don’t like nuclear weapons,’ OK fine. Alright. And I would love to live in a world that doesn’t have it. But you live in this world. And in this world there still is a nuclear threat,” Harencak said yesterday in an apparent rejection of at least part of his Commander-in-Chief’s 2009 Prague speech.

“This nuclear deterrent, here in January 2015, I’m here to tell you, is relevant and is as needed today as it was in January 1965, and 1975, and 1985, and 1995. And it will be till that happy day comes when we rid the world of nuclear weapons. It will be just as relevant in 2025, ten years from now…it will still be as relevant,” he claimed.

God forbid we have emotions when assessing the nuclear mission, but I fear Harencak may be doing the deterrent mission a disservice with his over-zealot nuclear advocacy that belittles other views and time-jumps from Cold War relevance to today’s world.

Whether or not one believes that nuclear weapons are relevant and needed (or to what extent) in today’s world, to suggest that they are as relevant and as needed today as during the nail-biting and gong-ho conditions that characterized the Cold War demonstrates a surprising lack of understanding and perspective. Remember: the Cold War that held the world hostage at gunpoint with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons deployed around the world only minutes from global annihilation?

Even with Russian and Chinese nuclear modernizations, there is no indication that today’s threats or challenges are even remotely as dire or as intense as the Cold War.

Instead of false claims about “procurement holiday” and demonization of other views – listen for example to Harencak’s new bomber argument: if you don’t want to pay for my grant child to destroy enemy targets with the next-generation bomber, then send your own grandchild! – how about an intelligent debate about how much is needed, for what purpose, and at what cost?

This publication was made possible by a grant from the New Land Foundation and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

8 thoughts on “The Nuclear Weapons “Procurement Holiday”

  1. You missed the point – it has been a procurement holiday which is a very different statement from a maintenance holiday. Maintenance doesn’t count as all maintenance does it try to keep the wheels on as long as possible. You can keep pumping more and more money into your car as it gets older but that doesn’t mean it will last forever and that doesn’t mean it will be as reliable as a new car would be for the same amount of money. The US has kicked the can down the road for 25 years – now the cars are so old and so unreliable they can’t be fixed and need to be replaced with new cars.

  2. As a child of refugees from Nazi Germany in the 1930s, I have a different view of the historical lessons of weapons manufacture. In light of the foolish statements I hear from a variety of politicians, I have no faith in the unlikeliness of “nuclear war”. Some psychopath will someday get his hands on the button during a crisis situation, if we give him(her) the technological capability! The current technology of nuclear weapons is capable of such a degree of rapid indiscriminate mass murder, and collateral environmental damage that it would not just be “another war” which can be won or lost. It would be a major disaster for the human race, and for no justifiable reason. Treating nations as “sovereign” with gangs of highly armed thugs as protectors is an outdated concept which we need to get out of our mindset as quickly as possible.

  3. Your analogy is pretty poor, Keith: If a car sat in a dealer’s showroom with no mileage on it for 25 years, it would not have become “so unreliable” that it couldn’t be fixed; it would just be out of fashion. Nothing about a nuclear weapon or its delivery system is comparable to a car that is in service that long. Remember that the declared intent for nuclear weapons is ONLY deterrence. If one were aimed at you for a couple of decades, only having been well maintained, would you feel relaxed and comfortable even though it had not been replaced by a new, allegedly “better” one? Would the US not be deterred from a first strike at Russia even if it were known that the nuclear weapons on alert there had not been replaced for 25 years? And since there is no credible reason why either nation should want to start a war that would be at least suicidal and quite probably omnicidal, what is the point in fussing about who has the most and/or the most modern weapons? Both sides would be far safer if they acted as non-provocatively as possible and put major effort into negotiating all differences between them? Why not some effort in researching and adopting truly defensive defenses, meanwhile increasing our own safety by retiring our absurdly redundant stock of nukes as fast as possible? I am no fan of Putin nor do I think him an easy bargaining partner, but he is neither stupid nor crazy. He should be able to see his own and his country’s self-interest in reversing the nuclear arms race and working towards a detente and living up to the mutual obligations of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

    1. So you realize that our bombers and submarines actually have a lot of miles on them right? There are actually B52 pilots flying the same plane their dad flew. By the time the OHIO SSBNs retire they will be almost a decade older then any other submarine the US has ever operated.
      While it is true things like ICBMs have just been sitting in silos for over 40 years (the last Minuteman III missile was procured in 1973) your post also fails to consider if it is economical to continue repairing them. You can’t exactly just go back to the guy who manufactured them in 1973 and ask for more parts – chances are he isn’t in business. Also, because we regularly test these systems we use some of them up — how are we supposed to get new ones to replace those used in testing? It may be possible to do another life extension – but we still have to figure out how to get new missiles for testing.
      You can wave your hands and proclaim it is just the military not wanting things that are “out of style” but at the end of the day that simply isn’t true – it is about having a nuclear arsenal that is safe, secure, and effective so that it can be a deterrent. No one cares how old these systems are as long as they still work – that is why all of them have been extended over and over again. But at some point you just can’t keep extending them.
      As to the NPT treaty – if you were actually objective you would realize how much both the US and Russia have done to live up to it. Look at what has happened to deployed nuclear weapons since 1990 and what continues to happen. To say that the US and Russia aren’t living up to the NPT treaty is demonstrably false.

    2. Mr. Holt, your use of the term “détente” to include arms control agreements with Russia under the current Treaty of Moscow is unfortunate for your argument.

      The last time we pursued a policy of détente with a Russian government, it was in the 1970s, and their systematic and gross evasion of the Biological Weapons Treaty they signed with the US and British governments is a matter of record. While their violations of nuclear arms treaties were more subtle (the Krasnoyarsk phased-array ABM radar, for example) they still existed.

      The idea that a Russian government will keep to the letter or the spirit of an arms control agreement with any other nation is entirely unsupported by historical facts. That nation’s current behavior indicates to me that the United States ought to pursue its own security and enhance its strategic deterrent posture first, then pursue arms control after parity with the Russians and Chinese has been re-attained.

  4. Unfortunately, the facts on the ground have changed since the procurement holiday (no actual new nuclear device designs implemented, W76s only now being refurbished with anything like responsiveness to the needs of the Anglo-American SLBM force, and their actual performance characteristics not backed by actual testing – with published doubt by knowledgeable physicists from Los Alamos as to their viability as nuclear weapons appearing in the New York Times… ).

    It’s not a bipolar nuclear world any longer and hasn’t been throughout the tenure of that “procurement holiday.”

    Speaking as though all we have to do is continue pretending Putin will keep his end of the Treaty of Moscow is disingenuous for several reasons. First, the Russians have a military ally and convenient proxy in the Chinese to destabilize the nuclear weapons balance in their favor. Second, they have bent every effort to give Iran a nuclear weapon development capacity when they felt they could do so. Third, the Russians failed to stop producing Special Nuclear Material while they were shipping their old SNM to us for mixture into nuclear fuel – so that the rationale behind the purchase of the old Russian SNM under the Nunn-Lugar Act was diminished (to say the least and put the best face on matters).

    The Russians have NOT gone on a nuclear weapons procurement holiday – they’ve actually gone ahead with modernization and development of entirely new land-based and submarine-launched nuclear delivery systems.

    Pakistan, with truly inexplicable US backing, has a nuclear arsenal which may actually approach Israel’s in size and for years exported not just the nuclear weapons (nothing really indicates they didn’t keep their end of the quid pro quo with Saudi Arabia to provide the Saudis with warheads for their DF-3A force – and thermonuclear warheads are the only things it makes sense to put on the nose of a DF-3A, given its huge CEP).

    Pakistan, with truly inexplicable US backing, has a nuclear arsenal which may actually approach Israel’s in size and for years exported not just the nuclear weapons (nothing really indicates they didn’t keep their end of the quid pro quo with Saudi Arabia to provide the Saudis with warheads for their DF-3A force – and nuclear warheads are the only things it makes sense to put on a DF-3A, given its huge CEP). And as we now know, they were active nuclear weapon technology proliferators from the time they themselves gained the capacity to make nuclear weapons. Selling the capacity to make nuclear weapons to other nations was a profit center to the Pakistanis for years.

    India essentially has tilted almost their entire nuclear infrastructure toward production of special nuclear material; their heavy-water nuclear reactors are being milked for tritium produced by transmutation of the deuterium in heavy water to the heavier tritium isotope, at a cost much lower than more traditional means of tritium production. This has led to a politically unstable bipolar nuclear regime spanning the Oxus River.

    Additionally, Iran is an interesting case in nuclear weapons proliferation. They’ve got TWO separate uranium enrichment cascades, one of which is the property of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and unlikely ever to be subject to meaningful monitoring activity. They make their own tritium, in quantities far in excess for their demand for gun sight dots and highway signage. They float on oil and natural gas, yet protest they need nuclear power at a cost that would be ridiculous for a country likely to be self-sufficient in oil and gas for the next century.

    The Iranians’ nuclear infrastructure is massive for a country their size, and almost all in fields very helpful to a sophisticated nuclear weapons development program. It’s been that large since the 1990s, when they were buying uranium enrichment technology from AQ Khan and the Khan Research Laboratories in Pakistan, and getting help from China in getting the P1 and P2 centrifuges working in cascades.

    Given the Saudis’ free spending (to Pakistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and other nations in the Islamic Umma) for nuclear weapons and nuclear weapon-related technology for decades, and active, not very well-concealed Iranian spending and engineering activity to the same end, it’s not inconceivable that another bipolar nuclear regime exists NOW across the Persian Gulf. President Obama may be making a great show of ceremoniously closing that barn door long after the nuclear horses got out.

    My point is that not making sensible upgrades to our nuclear weapons deterrent capacity doesn’t serve the cause of nuclear stability. It doesn’t even fit within the rational definition of “deterrence,” given the fact that the people aiming nuclear weapons at us haven’t gone on anything resembling a “nuclear weapons procurement holiday.”

    Moreover, the idea that an accord between Russia and the United States, especially one which is essentially rife with opportunities for evasion and for imbalance between the signing parties, helps the nuclear stability of the world at large seems fallacious to me.

    The “Islamic Bomb” isn’t a joke or a shadowy threat any longer. The Sunnis have had their Bomb for decades.

    If the Shias of Iran don’t have at least a few deployable nuclear weapons after twenty years of having the requisite infrastructure, facts not now in evidence to explain that would have to be produced.

    So, we have a terribly multipolar nuclear world in which deterrence will have to be continually redefined. Putin’s need to restore his lost Soviet empire, China’s craving to be the Middle Kingdom once more, the Arab-Israeli nuclear divide, the internecine Shia-Sunni split within Islam and, perhaps one day, Islam’s having a sizable nuclear arsenal under the cover of which to determine its destiny to expand the Dar-al-Islam outward are all things the United States of America and Britain must deal with in sizing and maintaining their nuclear arsenals.

    Pretending none of these issues exist isn’t an option.

  5. (NOTE: I entered a reply to this article earlier which seems to have disappeared. I’ll try to restate the points I made from memory.)

    Gen. Harencak’s comments were substantially accurate. We haven’t developed a new nuclear weapon design which has been implemented in the time he spoke about. We’re in arrears in developing facilities to maintain weapons such as the W76 which are a large part of our strategic nuclear deterrent, and according to some Los Alamos scientists interviewed by the New York Times, that weapon may have defects in its design which make it less than a reliable part of our nuclear deterrent.

    Maintaining the systems we have and deploying systems which entered the procurement pipeline long ago isn’t the same thing as procuring new weapon and warfighting support systems. It seems to me that your argument, Mr. Kristensen, is demonization of those who disagree with you, such as General Harencak.

    Examining the procurement activities of the Russians and Chinese (now publicly declared allies in a military bloc which seeks to offset and oppose our own interests in the world) is helpful. The Russians have a new land-based mobile ICBM which they’ve purchased and deployed while we withdrew the Peacekeeper from our deployed strategic arsenal. They have a new SLBM, and new submarines from which to launch it. The Chinese have also expanded their own strategic arsenal, with a variety of thermonuclear devices on an array of delivery systems.

    I would welcome that “intelligent debate about how much is needed, for what purpose, and at what cost?” you call for at the close of your article. I think that the preponderance of intelligent views on the subject would favor a real nuclear deterrent capable of actually deterring threats to the US homeland and threats to the national security of nations with which we have signed mutual defense treaties.

    No more Ukraines, no more Crimeas, and no more East China Sea exclusion zones. All of those developments in current events occurred because the people responsible aren’t deterred from acting in those ways. They know that a conventional military response from us is unlikely, and our nuclear umbrella is shrinking and not as well-maintained as it used to be. And they’re acting accordingly.

  6. (NOTE: this is more of the reply I made which disappeared in the maw of WordPress, never to be seen again.)

    While considering the procurement activities of what used to be called our “probable adversaries” (the major powers now pointing nuclear weapons at our cities and defense installations), it’s also useful to consider the nuclear procurement activities of the rest of the world, particularly the states whose foreign policy brings them into conflict with other nuclear-armed states in their regions.

    India and Pakistan both have nuclear arsenals of undetermined sizes. Pakistan has quantities of weapons-grade uranium, active facilities to enrich more of it, and may at some point lost custody of some of the HEU (according to Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark in their book “Deception” on the history of the Pakistani nuclear weapons program and their proliferation of the required technology to other nations). They also have an acrimonious history involving frequent military conflict both in the Kashmir, the Siachen glacial area and elsewhere. The likelihood of a nuclear exchange across the Oxus River is, unfortunately, present and higher than we’d like it to be.

    While Iran’s nuclear weapons state aspirations are making the news, Saudi Arabia’s parallel ambitions have no such press, and it’s difficult to see why that is. Defectors have conveyed reams of information relevant to the Saudi nuclear weapons program, and they maintain squadrons of DF-3A intermediate-range missiles whose low accuracy makes them militarily useless unless they are carrying thermonuclear weapons. The fact that the Saudi DF-3A squadrons are, in fact, in service argues that the Saudis either have such weapons or expect to have them.

    This puts the question of Iraq’s nuclear statehood into a new light. It’s unclear that we ought to be discussing Iran’s weapons while failing to discuss Saudi Arabia’s weapons and Israel’s weapons at the same time, for deterrence is the stated reason why states generally seek nuclear weapons.

    While Israel has a firm policy of avoiding “wars of choice,” they do have between 200-400 nuclear weapons in the Middle Eastern theater (according to at least one paper submitted to the US Army War College). Israel pursues “nuclear opacity,” in which they refuse to confirm or deny that they possess nuclear weapons at all, but allow speculation as to the existence of that arsenal as a means of gaining military deterrence.

    And Israel is a democracy. Working democracies generally avoid initiating wars. Iranian democracy works differently than Israeli (essentially Westminster parliamentary) democracy, so that it’s unclear where the chain of command over Iranian nuclear forces would lie. One assumes that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps maintains its own uranium enrichment facility because it wishes to also maintain its very own nuclear deterrent and not be bound to the rest of Iran’s government.

    So we have three possible nuclear wars in the Middle East, at least:
    – Iran and Israel fighting, either through proxy forces as Iran now conventionally attacks Israel, or directly
    – Saudi Arabia and Israel fighting (perhaps after the current centrist faction of the Saud family loses power)
    – Iran and Saud Arabia fighting, taking the Sunni-Shia split nuclear.

    Whether any of these wars could be contained to the Persian Gulf is a good question. Iran might seize the opportunity during a regional nuclear war to sink elements of Western navies – especially the US Navy – in the Persian Gulf. Credible threats in that direction might provoke pre-emptive strikes on Iranian forces in the area. We’d then find out whether Iran’s candidate membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (the Russian-Chinese-regional mirror of NATO) has any wider military implications.

    These two regional potential nuclear tinderboxes are simply examples of the fact that our own acquisition and modernization of nuclear weapons isn’t happening in a vacuum. We have real nuclear threats against which to defend which never existed when the whole rubric of Russian-US arms control was born.

    It’s time for an informed, intelligent debate on our nuclear deterrence needs which covers ALL the contingencies against which US military forces may have to act in the 21st century. It’s not a bipolar nuclear world any longer.

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