Nuclear Weapons

Congressional Commission and Nuclear “Requirements”

05.07.09 | 4 min read | Text by Ivan Oelrich

The Congressional Commission on the strategic posture report released yesterday is what the Air Force calls a “target rich environment.” There is a lot to shoot at. This essay follows up on the post that Hans Kristensen and I published yesterday. I want to continue the theme I discussed yesterday that the recommendations of the report are based on assumptions about nuclear weapons characteristics, assumptions that are implicit, unexamined, and unsupportable.

For example, “Although nuclear weapons have existed for over sixty years, weapons science was largely an empirical science for much of that period. Nuclear weapons are exceptionally complex, involving temperatures as high as the sun and times measured in nanoseconds. Understanding these weapons from first principles requires a broad, diverse and deep set of scientific skills, along with complex experimental tools and some of the fastest and most powerful computers in the world.”

But didn’t we build nuclear weapons in 1945 while armed only with slide rules? The above statement about the science of nuclear weapons is partially true about our current nuclear weapons but that is because our current weapons are high performance, two-stage thermonuclear bombs with yields of up to fifty times greater than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.  As I have written elsewhere, these powerful bombs are needed to conduct first strike attacks against Soviet, and now Russian, hardened silos containing nuclear-armed missiles. The reason they must be of such sophisticated design is to make them small and light so many of them can fit atop one missile, to increase American strike power efficiently. The requirement for knowledge of plutonium behavior comes about because plutonium is a far better trigger than uranium for multi-hundred kiloton weapons. These were all important nuclear weapons requirements during the Cold War.

Do these “requirements” persist today?  In fact there is no new physics needed to understand nuclear weapons adequately;  they are, in principle, well understood, the challenges are technical, not scientific, and there is little to no technical challenge left for American and other advanced nuclear weapon states in just getting a bomb to explode and we could design bombs that do not require a complex supporting infrastructure.  There is, however, a challenge in getting a dozen warheads, each with several hundred kilotons of yield, on one missile and that was important at a time when the United States was planning a nation-crushing attack on the Soviet Union.  The stated need to maintain expertise in the labs rests, then, on an implicit endorsement of a nuclear mission that many of us think ought to be explicitly rejected.  This occurs at several points in the report; the commission is so comfortable with the nuclear status quo that they seem unaware of fundamental questions that are being widely discussed today about the future of nuclear weapons.

The report repeatedly makes implicit assumptions about nuclear weapon performance characteristics that depend on nuclear missions while never saying anything specific about the missions themselves.  For example, “So long as the nation continues to require a nuclear deterrent, these weapons should meet the highest standards of safety, security, and reliability.”  This is an open-ended requirement.  We are not given the faintest clue about how we will know when we will be done.  When will our nuclear weapons be safe, secure, and reliable enough?  The political answer is that they will never be safe enough, the weapon labs will make nuclear weapons as safe as they can with the biggest budget they can convince the Congress to send to them and if you send them more money the weapons will be more safe.  More safety is always better, right?  Apparently not, because we could dramatically increase the safely of nuclear weapons by storing them disassembled.  But since this would not allow them to be used quickly (in another place the report advocates ICBMs because they are “immediately responsive”) it is too far outside the box to be considered by the Commission. The Commission’s constraints on considering what is available to enhance safety implies, without examination, certain mission requirements and it is precisely these mission requirements that the Commission ought to have been focusing on. Instead, they talk about lab budgets.

An amusing comparison is the discussion of how the labs ought to be relieved of some of their safety and security burden. While nuclear weapons should meet the “highest standards” of safety and security, the Commission later writes,

“A significant new cost driver is security. Costs to protect nuclear weapons and material have dramatically increased over the past few years. Today, security costs at NNSA sites consume one out of every five dollars appropriated for the weapons program or approximately $1 billion per year. Some increase was inevitable in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001. But in the view of the Commission, some of the increase is not warranted. Both the Congress and the Department of Energy have been reluctant to take actions that might be interpreted as a lessening of security. As a result, the security program has become unbalanced, with few incentives for reducing costs and a tendency to apply standard procedures even when illogical.”

And later, the report states,

“Costs for security are inordinately high in part because of the incentive structure. There are no incentives to do more than simply comply withexisting standards and, instead, to use good judgment in the service of innovation. Conditional probability metrics are not being used as the basis for defining the necessary security protection at the sites.”

Nor are “conditional probability metrics” being used to determine the required safety and security requirements for the warheads themselves.

Some others have written on the report. A brief piece is in Wired and Kingston Reif at the Center for Arms Control and Non-proliferation did a good analysis.