Sounding the Nuclear Alarm
The U.S. will not have a credible arsenal unless Washington acts soon to replace aging warheads.
Gen. Kevin Chilton, a former command astronaut, is no stranger to cutting-edge technology. But these days the man responsible for the command and control of U.S. nuclear forces finds himself talking more often about ’57 Chevys than the space shuttle. On a recent visit to The Wall Street Journal he wheeled out the Chevy analogy to describe the nation’s aging arsenal of nuclear warheads. The message he’s carrying to the Pentagon, Capitol Hill, the press and anyone else who will listen is: Modernize, modernize, modernize.
Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. nuclear weapons program has suffered from neglect. Warheads are old. There’s been no new warhead design since the 1980s, and the last time one was tested was 1992, when the U.S. unilaterally stopped testing. Gen. Chilton, who heads U.S. Strategic Command, has been sounding the alarm, as has Defense Secretary Robert Gates. So far few seem to be listening.
The U.S. is alone among the five declared nuclear nations in not modernizing its arsenal. The U.K. and France are both doing so. Ditto China and Russia. “We’re the only ones who aren’t,” Gen. Chilton says. Congress has refused to fund the Department of Energy’s Reliable Replacement Warhead program beyond the concept stage and this year it cut funding even for that.
Gen. Chilton stresses that StratCom is “very prepared right now to conduct our nuclear deterrent mission” — a point he takes pains to repeat more than once. But the words “right now” are carefully chosen too, and the general also conveys a sense of urgency. “We’re at a point where we need to make some very hard choices and decisions,” he says. These need to be “based on good studies that would tell us how we would modernize this force for the future to incorporate 21st century requirements, which I believe are different than in the Cold War.”
“We’ve done a pretty good job of maintaining our delivery platforms,” the general says, by which he means submarines, intercontinental ballistic missiles and intercontinental bombers. But nuclear warheads are a different story. They are Cold War legacies, he says, “designed for about a 15- to 20-year life.” That worked fine back when “we had a very robust infrastructure . . . that replenished those families of weapons at regular intervals.” Now, however, “they’re all older than 20 years . . . . The analogy would be trying to extend the life of your ’57 Chevrolet into the 21st century.”
Gen. Chilton pulls out a prop to illustrate his point: a glass bulb about two inches high. “This is a component of a V-61” nuclear warhead, he says. It was in “one of our gravity weapons” — a weapon from the 1950s and ’60s that is still in the U.S. arsenal. He pauses to look around the Journal’s conference table. “I remember what these things were for. I bet you don’t. It’s a vacuum tube. My father used to take these out of the television set in the 1950s and ’60s down to the local supermarket to test them and replace them.”
And here comes the punch line: “This is the technology that we have . . . today.” The technology in the weapons the U.S. relies on for its nuclear deterrent dates back to before many of the people in the room were born.
The general then pulls out another prop: a circuit board that he holds in the palm of his hand. “Compare that to this,” he says, pointing to the vacuum tube. “That’s just a tiny, little chip on this” circuit board. But replacing the vacuum tube with a chip isn’t going to happen anytime soon. The Department of Energy can’t even study how to do so since Congress has not appropriated the money for its Reliable Replacement Warhead program.
It ought to go without saying, but the general says it anyway: His first priority for nuclear weapons is reliability. “The deterrent isn’t useful if it’s not believable, and to be believable you got to have tremendous, complete confidence that your stockpile will work. . . . We have that today. Let me be clear: We have that. We’ve monitored the stockpile, made adjustments as necessary, but, again, we’re on the path of sustaining your ’57 Chevrolet.”
Security is another priority — especially keeping nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists. This, he says, is another vital reason to modernize weapons that were designed and built in another era.
“In the Cold War you didn’t worry about the Soviets coming over here and stealing one of our weapons. They had plenty of their own. . . . But now you worry about these things.”
It’s possible to design a terrorist-proof nuke, the general says. “We have the capability to design into these weapons today systems that, should they fall into wrong hands — [should] someone either attempt to detonate them or open them up to take the material out — that they would become not only nonfunctional, but the material inside would become unusable.”
The general stresses the need to “revitalize” the infrastructure for producing nuclear weapons. The U.S. hasn’t built a nuclear weapon in more than two decades and the manufacturing infrastructure has disappeared. The U.S. today “has no nuclear weapon production capacity,” he says flatly. “We can produce a handful of weapons in a laboratory but we’ve taken down the manufacturing capability.” At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. produced 3,000 weapons a year.
Under the Moscow Treaty, signed in 2002, the U.S. has committed to reducing its strategic nuclear arsenal by two-thirds — to between 1,700 and 2,200 deployed nuclear weapons from about 10,000 at the height of the Cold War. “Deployed means they’re either on top of an ICBM, on top of a submarine, or in a bunker on the base where the aircraft are located,” Gen. Chilton says. “We’re supposed to be down to those numbers by 2012, but we’re on a glide path to actually get down to those numbers by the end of next year.”
But these already-old weapons aren’t going to last forever, and part of the general’s job is to prepare for their refurbishing or replacement. “Think about what it’s going to take to recapitalize or replace those 2,000 weapons over a period of time. . . . If you could do 10 a year, it takes you 200 years. If you build an infrastructure that would allow you to do 100 a year, then you could envision recapitalizing that over a 20-year-period.”
There’s also the issue of human capital, which is graying. It’s “every bit as important as the aging of the weapon systems,” the general says. “The last individual to have worked on an actual nuclear test in this country, the last scientist or engineer, will have retired or passed on in the next five years.” The younger generation has no practical experience with designing or building nuclear warheads.
Generals don’t talk politics, and the closest Gen. Chilton gets to the subject is to say that he had spoken to no one from either of the campaigns in the recent presidential election. It’s a fair bet, though, that Barack Obama’s comments on the campaign trail will not have escaped his notice. The president-elect likes to talk about a nuclear-free world and has said, “I will not authorize the development of new nuclear weapons.” He has not weighed in on the Reliable Replacement Warhead program.
Gen. Chilton says the modernization of U.S. nuclear weapons is “an important issue for the next administration in their first year.” At the very least, he says, the U.S. needs to “go out and do those studies” on design, cost and implementation. As for his own role: “You’ve got to talk about it. You can’t just one day show up and say we have a problem.”
Ms. Kirkpatrick is a deputy editor of the Journal’s editorial page.