Focal Points Blog

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.

Reader Challenge: Can Moderates Make Charges That Suicide Bombers Are Infidels Stick?

Reports Christian Caryl at Foreign Policy, Pakistani newspapers recently learned that jihadists have “just added a new target to one of their death lists. His name is Tahir ul-Qadri, and he’s no government official. He’s one of Pakistan’s leading Islamic scholars, an authority on the Quran and Islamic religious law.”

More from Sheikh to Terrorists: Go to Hell:

It’s no wonder the terrorists want to see Qadri dead. Last month he promulgated a 600-page . . . fatwa, that condemns terrorism as un-Islamic. … Many Muslim scholars before Qadri, of course, have denounced terrorism. What makes him significant is the uncompromising rigor of his vision. [Qadri’s fatwa] makes the case that terrorist acts run completely counter to Islamic teaching. While quite a few scholars before have condemned terrorism as haram (forbidden), the new fatwa categorically declares it to be no less than kufr (acts of disbelief). “There was a need,” says Qadri [to make Jihadis] “realize that…they’re going to hellfire. …and they’re not going to have 72 virgins in heaven.”


Ahmed Quraishi, a conservative Pakistani commentator based in Islamabad [says] “Suicide is outlawed in Islam…if it means killing the innocent. But it is not if it means attacking invaders or occupiers.”…Yet one of the things that makes Qadri’s fatwa so compelling is precisely that it sweeps aside such logic. The claim that terror is a legitimate or excusable response to oppression is, according to Qadri’s finding, an “awful syllogism” because “evil cannot become good under any circumstances.”

Qadri’s fatwa, writes Christian, is additional evidence

that the so-called “war on terror” pales beside the war within Islam itself, the continuing, subtle, and utterly vital struggle for the soul of the faith. So it will be worth keeping an eye on the impact these 600 pages will have on Islam’s restless minds in the years to come.

Do Focal Point readers think that Qadri’s tome of a fatwa will help stem the tide of young Muslims to terror? Or will they buy into jihadis’ specious “fighting and dying in self-defense” justification of suicide bombing?

The Death of Deterrence, Part 55

Maybe not as much fun to speculate about as the DYI garage shop cruise missile, but a potential game changer.

So…what if the Somali pirates tag a Hanjin container vessel but rather than ransom it, transfer it to al-Shabab or an ally (or just the highest bidder) and trans-ship a couple containers of these puppies before the word gets out. Sail on up the Canal…Even with a conventional payload, that’s gotta hurt, folks.

While the world’s ‘powers’ dither over the doctrine of deterrence (now dead and stinking, even if it hasn’t quite fallen over), the evolution of lethality multiplied by the porosity of globalization enhances the likelihood of such scenarios.

Deadly new Russian cruise missile hides in shipping container, reports the International Business Times.


A Russian company is marketing a devastating new cruise missile system which can be hidden inside a shipping container, giving any merchant vessel the capability to wipe out an aircraft carrier.

“At a stroke, the Club-K gives a long-range precision strike capability to ordinary vehicles that can be moved to almost any place on earth without attracting attention,” said Robert Hewson of Jane’s Defense Weekly, who first discovered the existence of the system…”The idea that you can hide a missile system in a box and drive it around without anyone knowing is pretty new.”

Hewson estimated the cost of the Club-K system, which packs a launcher with four ground or sea-launched cruise missiles into a standard 40-foot shipping container, at $10-20 million. The cruise missile system is still in the concept phase though and it will take some time before they could be possibly shipped to customers.

One of the missiles on offer is a special anti-ship variant with a second stage which splits off after launch and accelerates to supersonic speeds of up to Mach 3…”It’s a carrier-killer,” said Hewson…”Unless sales are very tightly controlled, there is a danger that it could end up in the wrong hands.” [A Russian defense expert said,] “Potential clients include anyone who likes the idea.”

Averting Civil War in Thailand

As an individual concerned with events in Thailand, I am not sure if a plague-on-both-your-houses stance toward the Red Shirts (who support ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra) and the Yellow Shirts (who oppose him) is enough. There is no magazine more anti-populist than The Economist. Yet this is what it says in an editorial in its most recent issue:

The origins of the bloodshed can be disputed…But the underlying causes of political deadlock are not: they lie in the persistent refusal of Thailand’s elites to accept electoral defeat at the hands of Thaksin Shinawatra, deeply flawed but nonetheless popular prime minister. He was turfed out in a coup in 2006 and went into exile. Against the odds, a party loyal to him did better than any other in an election in 2007. A year later, it was forced out of office by yellow-shirted mobs and convenient court rulings.

Mr. Abhisit can hardly be surprised that he now faces the same tactics. He is also guilty of hyporcrisy. In 2003 he called on the then prime minister to resign afte two yellow-short protesters had died. In general, the pro-Thaksin red shirts have shown greater discipline recently than the yellow shirts did then. The red shirts also have a stronger case: that the Prime Minister and his cobbled-together ruling coalition lack a popular mandate. It would be humiliating, but Mr. Abhisit should offer an early election. Better to cede power that way than in a coup or bloody insurrection.

My sense is that what we have in Thailand is clearly class warfare, with the rural and urban lower classes shedding their reputation for docility. History works in strange ways, but, whatever the reasons why, the classical left was unable to capture the support of the lower classes whereas Thaksin was able to do so. My sense is that Thaksin’s corrupt practices, while certainly to be criticized, count much less than the fact that he became, despite himself, the expression of the voice and anger of the poor–an anger that is now being expressed in the streets of Bangkok. The Red Shirts, in my view, are on right side, both in terms of their struggle against class injustice and in their claim to be the rightful claimants to political power owing to their electoral majority.

I have arrived at the conclusion that Abhisit should call for elections right away and that the losing side–which is likely the anti-Thaksin side–should respect the results of the elections. This may no longer be a sufficient condition for avoiding civil war, but it certainly is a necessary condition for it.