Nuclear Weapons

A Response to Congresswoman Tauscher’s Article in Nonproliferation Review

10.29.07 | 12 min read | Text by Ivan Oelrich

A recent article, “Achieving Nuclear Balance”, in Nonproliferation Review, by Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher, Chairwoman of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, includes a sobering summary of the dangerous nuclear policies of the Bush administration, including its desire for new nuclear weapons and an expansion of the roles of nuclear weapons. Congresswoman Tauscher has been an important voice of reason in the nuclear debate and one of the primary forces behind efforts to force a fundamental review of the missions of nuclear weapons, to ask what nuclear weapons are for.

Nevertheless, her arguments in support of exploring the Reliable Replacement Warhead are mistaken and based on deeply rooted but ultimately unsupported assumptions. Her essay highlights the critical importance of carefully defining terms and avoiding being fooled by our own euphemisms.

She writes that,

“Defining the role that the U.S. nuclear arsenal plays in our current and future national security portfolio is a precarious balancing act. It hinges on the singular question: how do we reduce the size of the nation’s nuclear stockpile while retaining a credible deterrent?”

As I have written elsewhere, most discussions of nuclear weapons’ missions and goals go astray with the first step: the deeply ingrained but unspoken assumptions about deterrence. Those who have long dealt with nuclear weapons often say “deterrence” when they mean nuclear deterrence. In fact, nuclear weapons are horrendous weapons ideally suited for nation-crushing slaughter, not a subject easily approached, therefore few people want to admit to thinking about actually using nuclear weapons. “No, the reason we have them is not to use them but to deter,” they say. Yet what exactly is being deterred is often unstated or, at best, vaguely inferred. We are deterring nuclear attack but why an enemy might be attacking us is left hanging.

Nuclear weapons and deterrence are so firmly linked in people’s minds that nuclear weapons are often referred to as our deterrent force. I have frequently heard our submarine-based nuclear-armed ballistic missiles called our “sea-based deterrent.” Conversely, one could define “deterrence” as whatever it is that nuclear weapons do.

Ms. Tauscher and other members of Congress could do the country a great service by passing a law making it illegal to use the word “deterrence” without saying what is being deterred and how. This discipline would immeasurably enhance the clarity and usefulness of all discussion of nuclear weapons and the strategy for their use. In her paragraph quoted above, the inference is that the “credible deterrent” she refers to is a nuclear deterrent. Or course, deterrence existed long before the invention of nuclear weapons, almost all actions that are deterred today are deterred without reference to nuclear weapons, and deterrence will continue to operate even if we abolish nuclear weapons tomorrow, yet nuclear weapons and deterrence have become one and the same thing and logical muddle is inevitable.

Credibility of What?

What is the credibility she is worrying about? The United States has not used nuclear weapons in the few major and several minor wars it has fought since it first acquired nuclear weapons. While the Bush administration has been dangerously reckless and provocative in broadening the conditions for nuclear use, no sober nuclear analyst whether inside or outside government believes we should cavalierly use nuclear weapons in response to common threats to our security. If we did not use nuclear weapons in Korea, Vietnam, or Iraq, then threats to use nuclear weapons in response to lesser threats is rightfully incredible and no fiddling with the details of the nuclear forces will make such threats more credible. At the opposite extreme, almost everyone believes that, if the US were attacked with nuclear weapons, it would, or at least justifiably could, respond with nuclear weapons. Nuclear use would be extremely credible and no fiddling with the details of the nuclear forces will make such threats less credible. How can this situation be described as part of a “precarious balance”? At the very most, there may be some possible cases where our nuclear response to attack is ambiguous but the circumstances of the attack and the personality of the President at the time will overwhelm a percent or two difference in the estimated reliability of our nuclear weapons.

Unless we can more precisely define when we might use nuclear weapons and to what end, it is impossible to even begin to discuss what sorts of nuclear weapons we should have, their characteristics, or their number. Ms Tauscher’s call for a reexamination of the roles of nuclear weapons recognizes this but she writes that,

“President George W. Bush has said we must aim for the smallest possible force consistent with our national security objectives. This is an objective most can support.”

Well, of course. How could anyone not support it? The only problem is that President Bush believes the “smallest possible force” is more than five thousand nuclear warheads while I believe it is closer to a dozen and the number might very well be zero. At a time when we and the Soviets had tens of thousands of nuclear warheads, presumably there were people who believed that those arsenals, which seem utterly insane in retrospect, were “the smallest possible force consistent with our national security objectives.” A need for a minimum of more than five thousand warheads implies a “national security objective” of a disarming surprise first strike against Russian nuclear forces, eradication of entire nations, some nuclear war-fighting doctrine, or nuclear war with multiple nations at once and none of those missions are something that “most can support.” In fact, I believe that average Americans would be shocked and frightened if they understood US nuclear doctrine.

Pursuing the idea that we need to define objectives, she goes on to writes,

“While it is clear nuclear weapons have an increasingly limited role, it is not as clear what their enduring mission should be or what we should do to reduce their appeal to rogue states or terrorist groups. This last point is crucial, for as we chart a 21st century plan for our own shrinking nuclear weapons arsenal, we must do so in the context of the real prospect of nuclear terrorism, the current challenges posed by the weapons possessed by North Korea (and the future weapons potential of Iran), as well as threats from existing nuclear arsenals.”

By linking our nuclear arsenal to the threat of nuclear terrorism or the threat from North Korea, she implies that our nuclear arsenal is somehow an answer to, or a defense against, these threats. But this argument depends on an unsupportable appeal to symmetric responses. Our nuclear weapons are largely irrelevant to the question of nuclear terrorism. If we consider state-sponsored terrorism as another form of attack from a “rogue” state, then we can define “terrorism” as actions outside of state sanction or control. It is very difficult to see how any nuclear response to even a nuclear terrorist attack could be justified because, almost by definition, there will be no appropriate nuclear target. Nuclear attack from rogue states, whether delivered by missile or freighter, might present preemptive or retaliatory targets but we should not assume that these must be attacked with nuclear weapons. For example, nuclear attack by North Korea on the United States or its allies would be the gravest possible provocation justifying the severest possible response. It is easy to believe that the United States would consider the continuing existence of the North Korean regime to be intolerable. The US might invade and occupy the country and might, or might not, use nuclear weapons in the process, but whether it does or not is largely irrelevant to North Korean deterrence calculations. Keep in mind that North Korea certainly is not thinking in terms of symmetric responses. It has developed nuclear weapons, not to counter the US nuclear arsenal, but in part as a counter to US conventional military strength. North Korea probably has chemical or biological weapons but the US is not going to deploy chemical or biological weapons in response. The US might consider nuclear weapons to be an appropriate response to North Korean nuclear weapons but nothing compels it to.

Ms Tauscher goes on to create a false dilemma:

“A strong, unambiguous commitment to nonproliferation is needed, but we must also recognize that for the foreseeable future, nuclear weapons will play an important role in deterring threats to the United States and our allies. From this starting point, however, we face significant choices on the role and size of our strategic forces to meet evolving threats from nation-states and terrorist groups. I strongly believe that the nonproliferation community should welcome a public debate on the nature of strategic deterrence and the role of nuclear weapons. The moral imperative that we find ways to prevent the spread and possible use of nuclear technology, material, and weapons is at least as important as the future of the nuclear arsenal itself. In order to come to a consensus, the nonproliferation community must recognize that these two issues are intimately connected. The challenge is balancing our need to maintain an appropriate deterrent force with the need for nonproliferation measures whose aim is to minimize the prevalence of nuclear weapons and materials around the world.”

The implication of an “intimately connected” “balance” is that there is some tradeoff between efforts to limit proliferation and maintaining an adequate deterrent, supposedly because non-proliferation calls for reductions in nuclear numbers while maintaining a deterrent argues against such reductions. Even if there were, at some point, some tradeoff does not mean that we are at that point now, nor that the US needs to maintain anywhere near the number of weapons it has now.

If deterrence really means deterrence and is not a euphemism for some military mission for nuclear weapons, then we can start to talk about numbers needed for deterrence. The basic nature of deterrence is that you might try to seize something of value from me and I must be able to plausibly threaten to impose costs on you that are great enough to make the prize not worth the fight. If I have a million dollars on my desk and I threaten to rap you on the knuckles with a ruler if you take it, you might not be deterred; if I have an apple on my desk the same threat might be effective. The threat needs to be proportional to the prize being seized. During the Cold War, two ideologically driven superpowers each felt it was in a struggle for future of the whole world. If the prize one side is trying to seize is the future of the world, that is, the prize is everything, then one must threaten near total pain to make seizing that prize not worthwhile. The most basic difference between the Cold War and the world of today is not the lower levels of tension between the US and Russia (or the Soviet Union) but the much lower stakes involved. When we talk about US nuclear deterrent forces, we have to address what prize might some nation try to seize, even in theory, that is going to take a retaliation of more than five thousand warheads to make it seem like a bad deal. It is true, the US may need that many for nuclear war-fighting missions but we should not confuse our discussion by euphemistically referring to these missions as deterrence.

It should, therefore, be clear that, even if there is at some point a tradeoff between non-proliferation and deterrence, we are miles away from that point. The US can afford to make 90% reductions in its nuclear arsenal before that conundrum even begins to take shape. Let’s do that first and then revisit this argument.

The Reliability Fallacy

Ms Tauscher, maintaining that the tradeoff above actually exists, then argues for the RRW:

“One option for retaining a deterrent while establishing a nonproliferation agenda may be the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program. RRW is a design concept for replacing some existing U.S. nuclear weapons with new ones that are simpler to manufacture and easier to maintain. In so doing, the RRW would ostensibly ensure a more reliable future nuclear arsenal for the United States. Indeed, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and U.S. Strategic Command have presented RRW as the best means of reducing uncertainty in the future performance of our nuclear arsenal, and thereby reducing or eliminating any technical reason to conduct nuclear tests.”

This statement properly includes many caveats. “May be,” “ostensibly,” and “have presented” are all warranted. And, in fact, the possible benefits of the RRW are, thus far, mostly assertions of the NNSA; the paper properly notes that the RRW is as yet only a research program. Moreover, most outside observers, in particular review panels of the Jasons and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), as well as independent outside experts, are at best reserving judgment on NNSA’s claims or are actually skeptical. Even putting that aside, we need to ask how a more reliable warhead is going to make any difference to any plausible deterrence calculation. The Reliable Replacement Warhead is being sold on the basis of reliability but statistics of inspection implies that the reliability of the current arsenal is in the 97-99% range. Even if a future warhead were more reliable, there is no plausible experimental test, even including nuclear testing, that would let us measure reliability with enough precision to tell. That is to say, even if we could make a more reliable warhead, we would never know it for certain. Nevertheless, I have heard stated several times, as though it is obvious, that we need a more reliable nuclear arsenal. Why? Is there any use of nuclear weapons for which there is any conceivable difference between 99, 98, 95, even 90% reliability? If US nuclear weapons were 90% rather than 99% reliable, can anyone honestly believe that that would make any difference whatsoever in the deterrence calculation of any potential enemy? And if the RRW is sold on the basis of being 99% reliable, how do we justify stopping there? How can I be certain that we don’t need 99.9% unless I know the consequences of reliability? We can’t claim that we need a more reliable nuclear arsenal without demonstrating (1) that it is technically possible and (2) that it would make a difference.

Nuclear Social Welfare

Finally, we get to what I believe is the real justification for the RRW: keeping the design and production line warm.

“The RRW may also provide an important means of maintaining existing nuclear weapons expertise so that the developers and engineers retain and exercise the skills required to ensure the continued safety and reliability of our stockpile. The Stockpile Stewardship Program, created in the mid-1990s, has brought world-class scientific tools to the labs, including the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the Dual Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the Z Accelerator at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque. These tools have not only facilitated the annual certification of nuclear weapons without testing, they have helped the labs retain and recruit the best scientists in the world, perhaps the most crucial element of our deterrent. RRW would lead to the exercise of different scientific and engineering skills, however, and could thus play an important role in the maintenance of the labs’ human capital. The development of this human capital, which translates into the ability to adapt to the evolving needs of the war fighter rather than rely on an outdated stockpile being metaphorically stored on blocks in a garage, is one of the reasons I believe further examination of the RRW program is warranted.”

We should not claim that we need to maintain design capability before we know what the design is for. Nuclear weapons are a mature technology. How they work is well established. There is no new science to be found in the basics of a nuclear bomb. There is much interesting science in the details, for example, concerning plutonium aging; and there are real engineering challenges involved in getting the maximum possible yield in the smallest possible package. So first class scientific talent is not needed to maintain an arsenal of nuclear weapons; good scientists and engineers might be needed to develop new high performance nuclear weapons. Until we know what sort of nuclear weapons we need, we cannot make a judgment about the kind of talent we might need or the purpose they have to serve.

If, as Ms Tauscher says later, we want to maintain a “minimal” deterrent and nothing more, the US might need weapons no more sophisticated than the simplest uranium bombs. The scientists of the Manhattan Project were so confident of their uranium bomb design that they did not bother to test it, using their first bomb directly to utterly destroyed Hiroshima. While it is true that preemptive strikes and other nuclear war-fighting missions might require more powerful weapons, it is not at all obvious how hundred kiloton weapons lend themselves to a minimal deterrent goal. Nor is it clear why the simplest nuclear bombs that might adequately meet a minimal deterrence goal require a highly skilled design force and a sophisticated industrial base.

In summary, arguments for the RRW rest on a series of unstated assumptions and as yet unproven assertions: that current weapons are not adequately reliable, that an RRW would be more reliable, that we could tell the difference between 95 and 98% reliability without nuclear testing, and that such differences would make any difference in any conceivable deterrence calculation. But probably the greatest cause of logical confusion is caused by false assumptions that deterrence means nuclear deterrence and by short-circuited logic that comes about by believing our own euphemism that anything that nuclear weapons can be used for can be labeled deterrence whether it is or not.