Nuclear Modernization Making a Mockery of Disarmament

Last summer, the Economist published a letter from hawkish Arizona Senator John Kyl (currently neck deep in the springtime of his state’s immigrant shame). Cole Harvey of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies reports that Kyl wrote: “Every nuclear weapons power — with the exception of the US — is currently modernising its nuclear weapons and weapons delivery systems…Yet the US continues to permit its nuclear forces to atrophy and decline.”

Harvey continued [emphasis added]: “Later in 2009, all 40 Republican senators at the time. … wrote that the further reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal would be acceptable only if accompanied by…’funding for a modern warhead…involving replacement, or possibly, component reuse.’” Since President Obama would need some of their votes to ratify the new START treaty, an increase in nuclear funding for the administration’s proposed 2011 budget was apparently perceived as necessary. [See below for how much. -- RW]

Meanwhile, what’s italicized above provides a glimpse into how confusing the concept of nuclear modernization can be, as well as the degree to which it can be manipulated. According to an Arms Control Association (ACA) Fact Sheet, “This distinction between ‘rebuilt’ and ‘new’ has led some to reach the mistaken conclusion that the U.S. strategic weapon systems are not being ‘modernized.’ …These systems are in many cases being completely rebuilt with essentially all new parts, although they are not technically ‘new’ systems.”

The questions this raises might be familiar to those who restore classic cars. At what point does the identity of the car on which you’re working run the risk of being lost and metamorphosing into a new one? For example, can the power train be replaced?

The author is scarcely equipped to answer that question. Still, it might prove helpful to acquaint ourselves with these three nuclear programs: Stockpile Stewardship, the Reliable Replacement Warhead, and Life Extension. You’re right to be suspicious if they sound a little too reassuring — “stewardship, “reliable,” “life extension.”

The Stockpile Stewardship Program, reports the ACA, “monitors weapons for signs of aging . . . conducts computer simulations [to verify they'll still detonate] . . . replaces aging components of weapons [and] adheres as closely as possible to the original design specifications of tested weapons.”

Life Extension (LEP), Harvey writes, is the program in which, “Weapon refurbishment is carried out . . . for individual systems.” For example LEP for one warhead is expected to extend its “life” [the span of time it's capable of dealing death, that is -- RW] for 30 years. The process includes “refurbishing the nuclear explosive package, the arming, firing, and fusing system . . . associated cables . . . valves, pads.” You know — the same way they keep airplanes flying for 50 years.

When it comes to the Reliable Replacement Warhead, though, Harvey explains: “Rather than rely exclusively on long-term life extension for existing warheads, the program called for the design and production of a new nuclear warhead” though “without the resumption of underground testing.”

In a show of rare good sense, Congress terminated that program. But the current senior White House coordinator for WMD counterterrorism and arms control, Gary Samore, was recently quoted by Martin Matishak at GSN: “From what I understand … refurbishment and reuse will be perfectly fine for the foreseeable future. But if I’m wrong, and replacement becomes necessary, the president has the option to do that.” Matishak continues: “The approach to renovation of each warhead type will be determined [as it] comes up for its periodic overhaul, and will be ‘consistent with the congressionally mandated Stockpile Management Program,’ according to” the new Nuclear Posture Review.

Wait a minute — Stockpile Management Program? What’s the difference between that and the Stockpile Stewardship Program?

According to Matishak, the former replaced the Reliable Replacement Warhead program. “The stockpile management program [enables] modernizing the U.S. nuclear stockpile along a spectrum of options ranging from…refurbishment to the manufacture of ‘new’ weapons. [But any new design should] adhere to well known designs and components, and be undertaken only in support of further reductions in the stockpile and the continued moratorium on nuclear tests. [Emphasis added.] In other words, we’re supposedly pursuing these programs to advance our progress on the path to disarmament. But, for 2011, “the Obama administration is requesting $7 billion, a 10 percent increase, in funding for weapons activities in the…National Nuclear Security Administration.”

Besides the Life Extension Program, this money would help fund, among other things:

[L]arge increases for the. . . plutonium facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory, N.M., which would see its budget increased from $97 million [in 2010] to $225 million in [2011] … complete rebuilds of the Minuteman III ICBM and Trident II [submarine]. … Additionally, a new submarine, the SSBN-X, is undergoing development in an effort that is expected to cost $85 billion. The B-2 strategic bomber, a relatively new system, is being upgraded, as is the B-52H bomber.

Disarmament in Name Only

You can be forgiven for wondering if these programs don’t cancel out the token reductions in the START treaty and then some. In fact, it’s hard to deny that START and the Nuclear Posture Review give every appearance of functioning as covers for the perpetuation of what’s been called the nuclear-industrial complex. As disarmament authors Darwin Bond-Graham, Nicholas Robinson, and Will Parrish made abundantly clear at ZComm:

Rather than allowing a neat policy process carried out at the executive level to determine the future of the nuclear weapons complex, forces with financial . . . stakes in nuclear weaponry, working through think tanks like [the Hoover Institute], or corporate entities like Bechtel and the University of California [which together manage Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore nuclear weapons laboratories], are actively attempting to lock in a de-facto set of policies by building a new research, design, and production infrastructure that will ensure nuclear weapons are a centerpiece of the US military empire far into the future. [Emphasis added.]

This is exemplified by the “Four Horsemen,” as Henry Kissinger, former Senator Sam Nunn, former Secretary of Defense William Perry (now a senior fellow at Hoover), George Schultz (president of Bechtel for eight years before he became Secretary of State; also now a senior fellow at Hoover) became known after they wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal in 2008 calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. They solidified their position — newfound for Kissinger and Perry — with another such WSJ piece a year later.

Their third op-ed in the series, though, published earlier this year, was titled “How to Protect Our Nuclear Deterrent.” The phrase “nuclear deterrent” is a tell that its user seeks to keep disarmament relegated to the slow lane, if not stalled out on the shoulder of the road. As the ZComm trio cited above (as opposed to the Four Horsemen…the Three Musketeers?) explained: “The Four Horsemen endorse the view…that ‘investments are urgently needed…in the laboratories’ budgets for the science, technology, and engineering programs that support and underwrite the nation’s nuclear deterrent.’”

In fact, the three maintained: “With their direct links to the corporations that manage the weapons labs…the Four Horsemen are the chief negotiators working through public forums to limit the extent of arms control treaties and extract the biggest pro-nuclear lab concessions.” The Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, they wrote, “have long been known as powerful bulwarks against international treaties that limit nuclear arms development.”

In other words, “statements of politicians and elder statesmen about a world free of nuclear weapons…has served to fix the attention of disarmament and antiwar activists on ‘policy making,’ which has ‘blinded them to the political deal-making process at hand.’”

Or as disarmament sage Jonathan Schell, less than thrilled by the new START, wrote in the Nation:

If this trend continues, it is entirely possible that the ultimate mockery will occur: nuclear arsenals will march forward into the future under a banner that reads Ban the Bomb.

First posted at the Faster Times.