Obama Reverses Nuclear Weapons Rhetoric

BY Herschel Smith
4 years, 9 months ago

We previously noted that Obama campaign rhetoric on nuclear weapons relied on ending the global threat via negotiations rather than refurbishment and development.  In a reversal of that rhetoric, the administration is targeting nuclear refurbishment with new dollars.

President Obama is planning to increase spending on America’s nuclear weapons stockpile just days after pledging to try to rid the world of them.

In his budget to be announced on Monday, Mr Obama has allocated £4.3billion to  maintain the U.S. arsenal – £370million more than George Bush spent on nuclear weapons in his final year.

The Obama administration also plans to spend a further £3.1billion over the next five years on nuclear security.

The announcement comes despite the American President declaring nuclear weapons were the ‘greatest danger’ to U.S. people during in his State of the Union address on Wednesday.

And it flies in the face of Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to him in October for ‘his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples’.

The Nobel committee was attacked at the time for bestowing the accolade on a new president whose initiatives are yet to bear fruit – which included reducing the world stock of nuclear arms.

The budget is higher than that allocated by George Bush – who was seen by many as a warmongering president in the wake of the Iraq invasion in 2003 – during his premiership.

During his 70-minute State of the UNion speech on Wednesday, which marked his first year in office, Obama said: ‘I have embraced the vision of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan through a strategy that reverses the spread of these weapons, and seeks a world without them.’

This represents an important reversal of position regarding the nuclear weapons stockpile.  His supporters (who don’t realize – or admit – the half century of deterrence and peace that nuclear weapons have afforded) must surely feel betrayed, but before heaping scorn on him from the left or accolades from the right, it’s best to recall the state of nuclear weapons in the U.S.

As noted in National Security and Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century (DoD and DoE):

… quite unlike the United States, Russia maintains a fully functional nuclear weapons design, development, test and manufacturing infrastructure capable of producing significant quantities of nuclear warheads per year.  For a variety of reasons, Russia has explicitly placed increased emphasis on nuclear weapons in its national security policy and military doctrine, and has re-incorporated theater nuclear options into its military planning …

… the current path for sustaining the warhead stockpile—successive refurbishments of existing Cold War warheads designed with small margins of error—may be unsustainable in the future. Specifically, the directors of the nation’s nuclear weapons laboratories have expressed concern about the ability to ensure confidence in the reliability of the legacy stockpile over the long term, without nuclear testing.

Successive efforts at extending the service life of the current inventory of warheads will drive the warhead configurations further away from the original design baseline that was validated using underground nuclear test data. Repeated refurbishments will accrue technical changes that, over time, might inadvertently undermine reliability and performance. The skills, materials, processes, and technologies needed to refurbish and maintain these older warhead designs are also increasingly difficult to sustain or acquire.  Some of the materials employed in these older warheads are extremely hazardous.  Moreover, it is difficult to incorporate modern safety and security features into Cold War era weapon designs.

As a consequence, the stockpile stewardship program is expanding its range of component and material testing and analysis, and is likely to identify more areas of concern. However, without nuclear testing, at some time in the future the United States may be unable to confirm the effect of the accumulation of changes to tested warhead configurations. As the United States continues to observe a moratorium on underground nuclear testing, certification of the safety, surety, and reliability of the existing stockpile of weapons (with their narrow performance margins) will become increasingly difficult.  In the near-term, the United States has no choice but to continue to extend the life of these legacy warheads.

However, the Departments of Defense and Energy are pursuing an alternative to this strategy of indefinite life extension; namely, the gradual replacement of existing warheads with warheads of comparable capability that are less sensitive to manufacturing tolerances or to aging of materials. The generic concept is often referred to as the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW). The RRW concept promises other attractive benefits such as improved safety and security, production processes that are less complex, elimination of many hazardous materials in existing warheads, and production of less hazardous waste.  The directors of the nuclear weapons laboratories believe that modern scientific tools developed for the stockpile stewardship program, including advanced computer modeling and experimental facilities, will enable design and certification of the RRW without nuclear testing.

In addition to the technological problems associated with maintenance of older nuclear weapons, the Air Force and Navy have both treated nuclear weapons billets as second class occupations, and have allowed the doctrinal understanding (and availability of the fraction of nuclear weapons that are deployable) to atrophy over the last couple of decades.

Obama has spent approximately what Bush did on nuclear weapons refurbishment.  In order to ensure a viable nuclear deterrent into the 21st century, much more needs to be done.  The U.S. must restart the manufacture and design of a new generation of nuclear weapons.  Without this, the RRW program cannot go forward.  That will be the test of Obama’s vision and fortitude.  This allocation of money is just kicking the can down the road.  The left will want to heap scorn upon him, the right will want to praise him for his wise decision.  He deserves neither.




You are currently reading "Obama Reverses Nuclear Weapons Rhetoric", entry #4464 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Department of Defense,Nuclear,Obama Administration and was published January 31st, 2010 by Herschel Smith.

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