Inside the Obama Administration's Tug of War Over Nuclear Warheads
May 13, 2016
Nuclear Threat Initiative
In June 2009, US Vice President Joseph Biden blocked a Pentagon bid to revive a defunct program aimed at fielding modern nuclear warheads across the strategic arsenal after Defense Secretary Robert Gates raised the idea of reinstating the controversial Reliable Replacement Warhead effort during a secret meeting convened by the National Security Council. Biden argued the move would undercut nonproliferation goals. The issue remains unresolved.
WASHINGTON (August 19, 2009) -- US Vice President Joseph Biden in early June blocked a Defense Department bid to revive a defunct program aimed at fielding modern nuclear warheads across the strategic arsenal, according to those familiar with the episode (see GSN, June 24).
Defense Secretary Robert Gates raised the idea of reinstating the controversial Reliable Replacement Warhead effort during a secret "Principals' Committee" meeting convened by the National Security Council, Global Security Newswire has learned.
In pursuing the initiative, Gates appears to have won the backing of some pivotal Cabinet secretaries, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. One administration-watcher -- a critic of the replacement-warhead idea -- alleges that several key appointees at the Defense and State departments are now "scheming and maneuvering" to bring the program back to life.
However, Biden has strongly opposed the move, based on the view that pursuing a new US warhead program could undermine Washington's efforts to discourage nuclear weapons proliferation around the globe.
The issue remains unresolved, according to a wide array of policy officials and experts.
Under the RRW project, government officials said they intended to design new warheads that could make the aging nuclear arsenal more safe, secure and reliable -- without adding new military capabilities or resuming explosive testing.
However, Congress eliminated funding for the Bush administration initiative for the past two fiscal years and, this year, President Barack Obama omitted the program from his fiscal 2010 budget request (see GSN, May 11).
Lawmakers have charged that warhead replacement could damage US counterproliferation objectives by making it appear that Washington was backtracking on its commitment under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to reduce and ultimately eliminate its own large arsenal.
The proposed alternative is to continue the ongoing program to refurbish and reuse existing warheads through the National Nuclear Security Administration's Stockpile Stewardship effort. That approach involves extending the service lives of aging warheads rather than building new weapons to replace them.
Nuclear weapons experts are engaged in an increasingly heated debate over whether stewardship will be enough to maintain confidence in the vintage warheads, particularly as a voluntary US moratorium on explosive testing enters its third decade. The average warhead in the current arsenal is roughly 20 years old.
Two years ago, a US government advocate of nuclear warhead modernization said age-related failures in the arsenal are a serious concern, but one that would not likely manifest for 20 or more years.
US nuclear-design personnel have warned that successive refurbishments of existing weapons "may pose an unacceptable risk to maintaining the long-term reliability of the stockpile, absent nuclear testing," John Harvey, then head of NNSA policy planning, said in June 2007. However, he hastened to add, "[By saying] 'long term,' I'm not talking about two, three, four or five years. I'm talking about two [or] three decades."
In denying funding for the RRW program last year, Congress said it might reconsider warhead replacement, but only after the administration shows how such an effort would fit into an overarching nuclear weapons strategy.
The Pentagon is undertaking a broad assessment of strategy, forces and readiness called the Nuclear Posture Review, due for completion by the end of the year. Among the issues to be assessed is the "nuclear weapons stockpile that will be required for implementing the United States' national and military strategy, including any plans for replacing or modifying warheads," according to a Defense Department fact sheet.
Obama Team Weighs In
The conflict between Gates and Biden came to a head at the June meeting of the Principals' Committee, a White House forum in which top national security officials consider major policy issues. Sources would describe the meeting only on condition of not being named because they were not authorized to discuss the sensitive subject publicly.
Spokesmen for Biden and Gates would not confirm any details of the meeting, which sources said took place during the second week of June. A National Security Council spokesman declined to reveal the date on which the Principals' Committee met.
Nuclear stockpile modernization was not on the official agenda for the high-level gathering, which centered instead on preparing a US negotiating position for arms control talks with Moscow, according to sources.
Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in July announced they had agreed to nuclear-warhead and delivery-vehicle reductions for a new accord, which they hope will replace the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty before it expires in December.
During the interagency meeting, Gates reportedly volunteered that a warhead-replacement effort would be vital to maintaining the nuclear arsenal's viability, particularly after additional arms control reductions are taken.
Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, provided Gates backup at the meeting, according to these sources. Formerly the top combatant commander for strategic nuclear weapons, the Marine Corps general expressed concern that today's arsenal incorporates vacuum tubes and other outdated technologies that should be replaced, sources told GSN.
Through a spokesman, Cartwright declined comment for this article.
His successor at US Strategic Command, Gen. Kevin Chilton, stirred some controversy this spring after voicing similar worries about vacuum tubes. Nuclear-weapon experts have cast doubt on the notion that the vintage technology constitutes a valid basis for a warhead-replacement program, because it is used sparingly in the arsenal and could easily be tested and replaced, if needed (see GSN, May 14).
Clinton, also at the June meeting, joined in supporting Gates by noting that a US nuclear modernization program that includes warhead replacement might be necessary for domestic political reasons, according to sources. Specifically, she argued it might be necessary for the Obama administration to embark on an ambitious warhead modernization effort if it is to win enough Republican support for Senate ratification of the START replacement pact, according to sources.
A similar quid pro quo, according to conservative thinkers, might also be necessary next year for Senate approval of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, another objective Obama laid out in his Prague speech. "Then you can have your cake and eat it, too," one senior Senate aide said last week.
Energy Secretary Steven Chu, whose agency maintains the atomic stockpile via its semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration and took the lead in planning the RRW program, reportedly weighed in on the June discussion with a modest show of support, saying that replacement warheads might be needed.
Though James Steinberg, Clinton's deputy, volunteered that Obama should be consulted before his administration changes course on warhead replacement, it was left to the vice president to express full-throated opposition, sources said.
Biden raised the notion that an ambitious nuclear modernization effort that includes building replacement warheads could undercut the Obama administration's nonproliferation goals, according to these sources. Most importantly, Washington is attempting to build international consensus against Iran's suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons and North Korea's maintenance of its nascent arsenal.
Biden reportedly argued that the international community would almost certainly cry foul on a replacement-warhead effort, particularly given Obama's pledge to work toward the long-term elimination of nuclear weapons around the world. This spring, Obama tapped Biden to lead the administration's nonproliferation initiatives (see GSN, April 8).
As a presidential candidate during the Democratic primary campaign, Biden raised other pointed questions about the RRW effort. The former Delaware senator in 2007 alleged the warhead-replacement project had been "hijacked" by those seeking to maintain a bloated nuclear arms establishment, and should be jettisoned in favor of maintaining the existing stockpile.
A First Test
Few expect the Principals' Committee exchange to represent the final word on the warhead-replacement matter. Gates' behind-the-scenes attempt in June to resuscitate the idea, experts said, was a first real test of whether Obama as president would maintain his opposition to "rushing to produce a new generation of warheads," as he said during last year's campaign.
Even with Biden serving as a backstop against an RRW revival, Obama's national security team remains split over the matter and it is not certain which side will prevail.
"It's not clear where we're going to go [on the warhead issue]," one senior Defense Department official told GSN. "We need an effective stockpile [but] we haven't got a consensus within the administration on what that means. And so I can't say that, forever, this 'replacement' idea is verboten."
Insiders said the high-level discussion illustrated just the tip of the iceberg, reflecting a broader power struggle coalescing within the Obama administration's nuclear arms policy circles. The question: How to balance the president's ambitious vision for diminishing the global allure of nuclear weapons with domestic political pressure to maintain a robust US arsenal?
To some extent, the evolving tug of war can be seen in Obama's own public words. On April 5, the president delivered a major address in Prague in which he laid out two facets of his nuclear weapons policy (see GSN, April 6).
"The United States will take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons," Obama said. "To put an end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, and urge others to do the same."
He added, though: "Make no mistake: As long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies."
If Obama's drive to bring fresh thinking to complex policy issues prevails in this instance, these twin nuclear objectives might successfully be pursued hand-in-hand, according to some nuclear strategy experts. Nearly all agree it would take a great deal of focus and finesse.
As the world's premier nuclear power, "you need to act like you care just enough to maintain just enough [US weapons] for long enough for people to think that you're serious," the senior Senate aide said last week. "This is hard to do."
However, behind closed doors in Obama's administration, senior appointees and others have begun lining up behind one or the other policy goal, and the two sides are beginning to clash.
The Prague speech "opened up two trenches," said Hans Kristensen, who directs the Federation of American Scientists' Nuclear Information Project.
One faction promotes "taking strong, practical and unambivalent steps toward zero" nuclear weapons, he said in an interview last week. The other is "more interested in maintaining a credible deterrent, as long as nuclear weapons exist."
Link to Arms Control
In Gates' view, as the stockpile ages, the risk grows that a defect might be discovered that could render a whole class of warheads unusable. Once arms control reductions are taken and the arsenal shrinks, the relative effect of such a discovery could magnify.
If a sizable portion of a smaller arsenal becomes unusable, the US deterrent posture could be significantly weakened, according to this perspective.
The antidote, from Gates' standpoint, would be to ensure that -- after taking arms control reductions -- newer and more reliable warheads populate the remaining stockpile. The Reliable Replacement Warhead's new design was envisioned as replacing outdated materials with modern technologies, and lowering the risk of theft or accidental detonation.
The Pentagon leader -- a Bush administration holdover who has largely embraced the new president's policies on Iraq, Afghanistan and defense acquisition reform -- last year publicly laid down the gauntlet on nuclear modernization. He said an ambitious effort must be undertaken to assure that the arsenal remains safe, secure and reliable.
The RRW program, Gates told a Washington audience in October, "could potentially allow us to reduce aging stockpiles by balancing the risk between a smaller number of warheads and an industrial complex that could produce new weapons if the need arose."
Warhead replacement, the defense secretary said, "is about the future credibility of our strategic deterrent. And it deserves urgent attention" (see GSN, Oct. 29, 2008).
"His view of the necessity of a safe, secure, and reliable nuclear arsenal has not changed since that speech," Geoff Morrell, Gates' spokesman, told GSN on Friday.
With the change in administration, the urgency Gates saw last fall was overtaken by more pressing issues, including the global economic meltdown and increasing violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
However, the June meeting offered Gates an opportunity to revisit the issue, this time specifically linking a domestic warhead-modernization imperative to the ongoing START follow-on negotiations, according to sources.
"Scheming and Maneuvering"
At the Pentagon, military officials are quietly looking to "fund RRW sometime late in the [fiscal 2011 budget-planning] process, either right after Thanksgiving or right after Christmas," said one former officer following the issue. "They don't understand that nuclear weapons are essentially political weapons and not to be used."
"RRW is dead but RRW supporters are looking to revive this corpse," said Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund. "They are scheming and maneuvering to use the Nuclear Posture Review as justification for a new warhead, to convince the White House that the only way to get the test-ban treaty ratified is to get a new warhead."
Morrell, Gates' spokesman, confirmed that the issue remains in play.
"The Nuclear Posture Review is still very much a work in progress," he said last week. "Nuclear modernization is certainly part of that review."
An influential, bipartisan group of senators last month wrote to Obama to suggest that their support for the upcoming START follow-on treaty might hinge on his nuclear warhead modernization plans.
When the president submits the new pact for Senate ratification, he "should also submit a plan," including multiyear budget figures, "to enhance the safety, security and reliability of the nuclear weapons stockpile," according to the July 23[, 2009] letter, signed by six senators, including Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.); and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) and ranking member Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) (see GSN, Aug. 4).
"In whatever form it is, [RRW] is still alive," said one former official who asked not to be named. "I think the stalemate has disappeared and what emerges remains to be seen."
Obama administration officials "haven't reconciled Prague's rhetoric with the stockpile's reality," said the senior Senate aide. "I think right now they're muddling, and very badly."
A Possible Outcome?
In May, a bipartisan congressionally mandated commission recommended that the nation take a case-by-case approach to maintaining the US arsenal.
As each warhead type comes due for maintenance and life-extension measures, officials would determine what specific steps would be needed, in this view. Many experts believe the Pentagon-led Nuclear Posture Review will adopt a similar tack.
"The two basic approaches to refurbishment and modernization are, in fact, not stark alternatives," according to the report from the panel, headed by former defense secretaries William Perry and James Schlesinger.
"Rather, they are options along a spectrum. That spectrum is defined at its two ends by the pure remanufacturing of existing warheads with existing components at one end and complete redesign and new production of all system components at the other," the document states.
"In between are various options to utilize existing components and design solutions while mixing in new components and solutions as needed. . . . The decision on which approach is best should be made on a case-by-case basis as the existing stockpile of warheads ages."
Yet, some advocates of including the full array of modernization options have made clear they do not share Obama's vision of a nuclear weapons-free world. Those include Schlesinger, the commission's vice chairman, who said last month that "we will need a strong deterrent" into "perpetuity."
In June, a senior administration official endorsed the commission's approach to nuclear modernization.
"We can best manage risk if given the opportunity to apply a spectrum of options: warhead refurbishment, warhead component reuse and warhead replacement to our life extension strategy," Harvey, the former NNSA policy official, said at a Capitol Hill gathering.
Now a Pentagon senior civilian working on nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs, Harvey said a modernization effort that includes warhead-replacement would be consistent with the test-ban treaty, because upgraded weapons would increase confidence in the stockpile in the absence of test explosions.
He also said such an effort would bolster the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty because a "credible" US deterrent would reduce incentives for allies to acquire their own atomic arms.
"If you're living in a world with other nuclear powers, are you going to play in the ballgame?" said a former senior Bush administration official, who asked not to be identified. "There's nothing in history to suggest that leading by example works in the nuclear world."
One replacement-warhead critic said this approach would almost certainly dash Obama's hopes of seeing the test-ban treaty ratified by other nations and come into force, and could also encourage further proliferation of nuclear weapons.
"One of the principle arguments in favor of the test ban has long been that it would prevent new types of weapons from coming on line," said Stephen Young, a senior analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "An American decision to deploy new, untested warheads undermines that argument and could destroy any chance of the treaty becoming reality."
Cirincione, who spent years as a congressional committee staff aide, finds particularly galling his sense that many in Obama's own appointed national security team are selling the president short by pushing for a replacement warhead. These include a half-dozen or more political appointees at lower levels at the Pentagon, State Department and elsewhere known more for their sense of caution than an affinity for bold strokes.
"Ironically, in their effort to look strong, they're displaying weakness," he said. "They're offering concessions up that should only come down to the last resort."
Several experts said Obama himself would likely have to issue a clear directive if his administration is to take a fresh approach to warhead modernization, one that reflects his vision of de-emphasizing the role of nuclear weapons on a path toward eliminating them.
"The president has to have the guts to say no," said one RRW opponent who asked not to be named. "Almost everyone else is inclined to Clinton-vintage political triangulation."
As a Democratic contender for the presidency, the former president's wife in 2007 staked out a position in opposition to a replacement warhead.
"The Bush administration has dangerously put the cart before the horse, planning to rush ahead with new nuclear weapons without any considered assessment of what we need these weapons for or what the impact of building them would be on our effort to stop the spread of nuclear weapons around the world," said Hillary Clinton, then representing New York in the Senate.
For his part, candidate Obama left himself some room to reverse course, saying he would not support "a premature decision to produce the RRW."
Without clear direction from Obama, now president, "we essentially signal [to the world] that the president's nuclear elimination pledge is just another ultimate goal and not different from what any other president has uttered," Kristensen said.
"The vision comes only from the president," he added. "Somebody has to make a decision and tell [the bureaucracy], 'Do it.'"
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