Sixteen years after the end of the Cold War, some 27,000 bombs and warheads are gathering dust in the hinterlands of the world’s established nuclear powers. More than 95% of these weapons are in the United States or Russia, but France, China and Britain all have stockpiles of several hundred equipment.
Each nation spends several billions of dollars annually to keep and maintain weapons and to train physicists and engineers with weapons expertise. Yet their political leaders have given little thought to why this approach makes sense, or where it would lead.
During the Cold War, weapons were meant to deter either a conventional military attack or a nuclear first attack by the opposing side. Under the joyful and aptly named paradigm of mutually assured destruction, or MAD, they were designed for use in mass retaliation to destroy cities and nations.
Mercifully, that era is behind us. Now the five main nuclear powers want to keep their old-fashioned, while delivering confusing messages about what they are for, and how much is needed.
The United States’ latest nuclear-weapon research program, called the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW), captures the flavor of this era of nuclear disturbances. As described on page 18, proponents of the program envisage a future nuclear weapon that would be cheaper to manufacture and easier to maintain.
They portray the design as neither old nor new, but as a mixture of previous designs. It will be assured to work, but, the designers hypothesize, will never be tested to see if it does. Calling the weapon ‘reliable’ angers critics, who believe that existing weapons will remain reliable for several decades. They see the RRW as another employment program for huge US weapons laboratories, and fear its arrival would further weaken the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Advocates of RRW believe that this will allow scientists and engineers to address some of the important issues. At the end of the Cold War, the United States closed its vast nuclear weapons manufacturing facilities. They say that at some stage or the other, the country has to decide how to replace its existing weapons.
A political vision to guide such decisions is lacking. George W. Bush’s administration has reduced its stockpile of nuclear weapons, as agreed with Russia in 2002.
But it has also issued the desirability of nuclear strikes on suppressed targets. Had it not been for its disapproval by Congress, the administration would have been pursuing new ‘bunker-buster’ weapons for the purpose. Critics have to wonder whether the RRW is the path to a smaller arsenal, or to a new nuclear weapon.
The United States isn’t the only one sending mixed messages. France is reconfiguring its arsenal to be ‘resilient’, while the British government is intent on transforming its fleet of Trident submarines. Russia, like the United States, is committed to cutting back on its arsenal, although President Vladimir Putin has begun to significantly increase funding for its nuclear-weapons laboratories.
This business approach, as usual, met neither the military requirements of the nuclear powers, nor their obligations under the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty to move toward nuclear disarmament.
It is time for these governments to re-examine what their nuclear-weapons research and development capability, as well as their weapons stockpiles, are really for. Once they figure it out, it may be possible for them to manage their arsenal marginally better than was necessary for the Cold War.