How to reconcile modernization and dismantlement of nuclear weapons

By Eileen Filmus | June 9, 2015

What should the United States do with its aging nuclear stockpile? The fundamental debate in theoretical terms is between refurbishment and dismantlement, but in practice the policies are not mutually exclusive. With a change in priorities and spending, the United States can have the best of both worlds. Instead, dismantlement is being held hostage, as Robert Alvarez explains. The government plans to cut funding for dismantlement, and to halt it altogether in 2022 until new production and refurbishment facilities are established.

There are better options: The two policies can be pursued simultaneously. Unilaterally decommissioning two weapons for every weapon refurbished, for example, would achieve the positive consequences of both disarmament and modernization while minimizing the negatives.

The case for modernization. The fundamental logic underpinning stockpile modernization is that it increases weapons’ reliability and safety, which of course benefits specialists working at plants, communities living around sites, and Americans at large—but it also benefits foreign countries, because it reduces the likelihood of an accident whose disastrous environmental consequences can spread beyond a nation’s borders.

Weapons reliability is crucial for core strategic interests—both in the military sense that they function as intended, and in the deterrence sense of adversaries’ confidence in their destructive capacity. A modernized weapon would be less likely to miss its target or even land outside the adversary’s borders. With enhanced precision, the admittedly horrible civilian death a weapon causes is at least constrained to the intended target.

Diplomatically, refurbishment is a compelling signal of reassurance for US allies, especially those promised protection under the US nuclear umbrella in return for not cultivating their own program. Modernizing is a way of reinstating that security promise, whereas dismantlement may lead allies to question America’s commitment to their security.

The case for dismantlement. As much as refurbishment is a persuasive force of intimidation, it also has critical adverse diplomatic implications. The United States has employed its status in the world to dictate other countries' nuclear policies, and modernization could reignite or further fuel tensions with those countries. What cooperation can American negotiators expect if the United States further bloats its already unrivaled active stockpile? US refurbishment undermines nonproliferation, because stockpile reduction is seen as a key pillar of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which has the ultimate goal of worldwide arsenal elimination. The alternatives to refurbishment are not so simple, though.

Yes, a US decision to scale back could be a step toward global disarmament: America could be the proud leader of a nuclear-free movement, re-establishing some of the moral authority and credibility lost in recent decades. Dismantlement might enhance the trust and cooperation of foreign actors, improving the US bargaining position when it comes to multilateral negotiations. On the other hand, US dismantlement could do just the opposite: Allied states could increase proliferation out of fear that they are no longer secure under the US nuclear umbrella. Dismantlement may reduce allies’ dependence on the United States, maybe even making it a less desirable ally in other (non-nuclear) domains.

Another consideration is that if dismantlement policy comes in the form of an arms reduction treaty, it would likely be accompanied by inspections. Even if the United States complies, inspections could (deliberately or not) allow secret information—technical knowledge or national security strategy—to fall into the wrong hands.

Competing policies. US prioritization of refurbishment generates a host of problems. One of them has to do with a lack of transparency surrounding the entire enterprise. The US government’s plans directly contradict the message it attempts to send; in April 2014, it reported great progress in the dismantlement of its stockpile, but the Government Accountability Office suggested the following day that these statements are misleading. Part of this has to do with inherent challenges of the dismantling process. For example, the National Nuclear Security Administration lacks a proper system of assessing the weapons’ reliability and an accurate accounting of warheads’ retirement dates. But beyond these complications, the misleading statements, and the decision to favor refurbishment over dismantlement, have undermined US credibility, especially at the recent NPT Review Conference.

Economic considerations certainly have a place in this conversation as well. First, there is the costly storage of retired weapons that will later be decommissioned anyway, on future generations’ dime. Second, there is the dismantlement technicians’ employment. In theory, modernization creates or at least retains specialists’ jobs, whereas dismantlement makes specialists’ jobs obsolete. But it is not so black and white, as Alvarez explains: “Such a break in the dismantlement program would mean the significant loss of certified technicians, who require intensive training. By the time new weapons facilities are established, most of the trained workforce required for dismantlement will likely have disappeared.”

The case for compromise. The problems stemming from US prioritization of refurbishment are not going anywhere until, as Alvarez writes, “the elimination of nuclear weapons becomes a true programmatic function of the US government, considered as part and parcel of the nation’s defense costs.” Dismantlement does come with significant disadvantages, so perhaps what appears to be dysfunctional is actually strategic. The future of the US nuclear complex, however, requires a more concrete policy.

If the eventual goal is worldwide disarmament, the United States must reorient its priorities and make serious strides in decommissioning the stockpile, reducing it by an amount that puts it on a level playing field with other nuclear nations. The United States could unilaterally decommission two weapons for every weapon it refurbished, for example, and that would achieve the positive consequences laid out for each policy while minimizing the negative.

The bottom line is that there needs to be a decisive policy that is beneficial to national and international security. Whether it is brought about by further reliance on nuclear deterrence or by a concerted effort to eliminate nuclear weapons, US policy must reflect a genuine desire for peace.

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