Redefining deterrence: How the Obama administration should handle RRW

By Yousaf Butt | December 15, 2008

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed below are solely those of the author and not his employer.

Advice on how President-elect Barack Obama and his advisers should proceed with the country’s nuclear policy, starting with the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) Program:

Editor's note: The opinions expressed below are solely those of the author and not his employer.

Advice on how President-elect Barack Obama and his advisers should proceed with the country's nuclear policy, starting with the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) Program:

Take a deep breath. Since Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Los Alamos National Laboratory have determined that the plutonium pits of current weapons are good for a minimum of 85 years–a finding endorsed by the independent expert JASON group and the National Nuclear Security Administration–there's plenty of time for the incoming administration (and many subsequent administrations for that matter) to carefully discuss the pros and cons of RRW.

Ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The United States has an advantage in computational simulations of nuclear explosions. By ratifying the CTBT, Washington can encourage other countries such as China to do the same, and thus, "lock-in" that U.S. advantage. (See also Richard Garwin's "A Different Kind of Complex: The Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons and the Nuclear Weapons Enterprise" regarding why nuclear testing isn't needed to maintain confidence in the safety and reliability of the existing U.S. nuclear stockpile.) In fact, the indefinite extension of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1995 was premised on the support of the CTBT by the nuclear weapons states.

Shelve RRW for now, and instead evaluate and properly invest in the Stockpile Stewardship and Life Extension Programs.

Examine the global proliferation and deterrence implications of RRW much more carefully–specifically, the negative ramifications upon global nonproliferation efforts. Contrary to what proponents of untested new warheads assert, the more credible deterrent in the eyes of a potential adversary will always be the tested legacy weapons. Also, fielding the less credible RRWs might encourage allies currently under our nuclear umbrella to produce more of their own more trustworthy tested weapons. On the other hand, if the proposed RRWs are eventually tested, it will be more difficult to stop other adversarial nations from doing the same. Either way, the RRW Program is detrimental to U.S. security vis-à-vis proliferation and deterrence calculus.

Ask tough questions. These include: What would be the numerical reliability requirement of the proposed RRWs? To what extent is reliability of nuclear warheads relevant to the purposes of deterrence? How does the reliability level of the delivery systems–i.e., intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarines, and airplanes–compare to that of the warhead? Can the baseline reliability level of the warheads ever really be ascertained without testing? And does the likely 1 percent–maximally 2 percent–difference in reliability from the tested legacy warheads matter in terms of deterrence or military utility?

Classify nuclear warhead reliability figures. Now is the time to do it. Washington has basically announced to the world that current U.S. warheads are 98-percent reliable with a high-confidence level and that their plutonium pits have a lifetime of at least 85 years. For the foreseeable–and likely even distant–future, this is a sufficient deterrent to any deterrable adversary. To keep it that way, future discussions of warhead reliability should be classified with strict oversight from truly independent experts with appropriate security clearances–i.e., the JASON group.

Examine the purpose and size of the U.S. nuclear stockpile. Unlike during the Cold War, ideologically driven superpowers are no longer locked in a struggle for the future of the world. More or less, the world now subscribes to capitalism with interlinked and interdependent economies. Therefore, a clear distinction needs to be made between competitors and adversaries, and just what type and quantity of "deterrent" is adequate to deter exactly what type of actions.

As Ivan Oelrich of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) has written: "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. . . . 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 United States and Russia (or the Soviet Union) but the much lower stakes involved. When we talk about U.S. 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 5,000 warheads to make it seem like a bad deal."

Frankly, even a prize worth the likely reprisal of "just" tens of warheads equivalent to millions of tons of TNT yield is unimaginable.

Initiate serious discussions with competitors–and even potential adversaries–to try to implement the absolute minimum level of deterrent nuclear arms. It's in no one's interest to maintain unnecessarily large stockpiles of expensive weapons that will never be used; so, instead of being reactive to the perceived plans of Russia and China, the United States should be interactive. These discussions could include thinking about replacing complex two-stage thermonuclear weapons with far fewer, simpler, more reliable, and lower-yield uranium weapons. The risks and consequences of accidental, mistaken, or unauthorized nuclear attack scale with the number and potency of nuclear weapons available worldwide, as well as with the state of relations between nations. There's no reason that an immediate reduction to tens of uranium-based devices in the stockpiles of the nuclear weapons states couldn't be negotiated within a year. Recall that during the Cold War, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, in a matter of days, nearly agreed on abolishing nuclear weapons altogether.

Seriously discuss the concepts of minimum and tailored deterrence. In order to inject economic and political realities into studies of deterrence calculus, a diverse working group for determining the appropriate minimum level of nuclear deterrence should be established. It could include representatives from academia, think tanks, the State Department, National Security Council, JASONs, the Defense Department, the Energy Department, the Department of Homeland Security, Treasury Department, Commerce Department, USAID, and the faculties of the War Colleges and the National Defense University. Similarly, a panel of experts should be commissioned to gauge the risks of deterrence failure.

Reject rapid surge options in the number of nuclear warheads. A new Energy/Defense Nuclear Strategy report states, "The [United States] must anticipate that an adverse change in the geopolitical threat environment, or a technical problem or development, could require manufacture of additional warheads on a relatively rapid timescale." It's inconceivable that the roughly 2,000 operational nuclear weapons planned to be in the stockpile by 2013 (together with thousands of additional reserve warheads) could be too little. The same holds true for even 100 weapons, each of which would be capable of destroying a city.

Plus, rapid surge options in the U.S. nuclear complex effectively makes moot the number of warheads agreed to in international treaties. What then would be the point of agreeing to numerical limits on nuclear warheads? Arms control implies control of the number of arms and, implicitly, the rate of their possible production, or else agreed-to numerical limits on nuclear weapons would be meaningless.

De-alert all nuclear weapons. Rapid-launch options are dangerous and destabilizing–inviting preemption, escalation, and misunderstanding–and serve no purpose now that the Cold War is over. Currently, many U.S. nuclear weapons can be launched in minutes. This should be changed to a minimum of 24 hours, which would greatly reduce the probability of an accidental, mistaken, or unauthorized attack–both by the United States and its potential adversaries. As former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara has written, "At a minimum, we should remove all strategic nuclear weapons from 'hair-trigger' alert. . . . It would signal to other states that the United States is taking steps to end its reliance on nuclear weapons."

Be wary of "hedging strategies" that attempt to address unknown remote future threats but cause real problems in the present. A case-in-point is missile defense in Europe. In attempting to field a future partial defense against one method of delivery of possible future nuclear weapons from Iran or North Korea, Washington has negatively impacted its current security calculus with Russia disproportionately. In general, the present security costs of hedges (nuclear or otherwise) against remote future threats need to be better studied.

Keep your promises. Article VI of the NPT pledges all parties of the treaty to pursue nuclear disarmament. This applies, in particular, to the nuclear weapons states.

Seriously consider the "Ten First Steps." Some of these recommendations from FAS, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Union of Concerned Scientists overlap with those outlined above–no surprise, given that leaders with views as diverse as those of Reagan, Gorbachev, McNamara, former secretaries of state George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Defense Secretary William Perry, and former Georgia Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn can all agree that working toward a nuclear-weapon-free world is an urgent goal.

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Topics: Nuclear Weapons

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