Over the past year, much attention has been paid to the "human" element of our nuclear arsenal. Embarrassing incidents at Minot AFB, North Dakota and Hill AFB, Utah prompted a comprehensive review of the Air Force's nuclear enterprise, and generated reforms aimed at bolstering experience and accountability among personnel who protect, service and handle nuclear weapons.
But the technology of our nuclear inventory also requires serious attention. The Commander of U.S. Strategic Command, Air Force General Kevin Chilton, emphasized that point in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. Among the world's major nuclear powers, the United States is the only one not investing in new weapons technology. As a result, our deterrent rests on an aging arsenal, with declining reliability, and yes, increasing safety concerns.
As General Chilton explained to the Journal's Melanie Kirkpatrick:
"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.
But it's more than simply designing modern warheads. Chilton notes that the U.S. has also abandoned its infrastructure for building nuclear weapons. Manufacturing capabilities atrophied after the "newest" weapons were produced 20 years ago, and there has been no effort to sustain production facilities. Additionally, many of the experts who produced the last generation of nuclear weapons are approaching retirement age, but there has been little effort to train the next generation of scientists and engineers. The StratCom CINC describes the problem bluntly:
"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.
General Chilton is lobbying hard for Reliable Replacement Warhead Program (RRWP), which would allow the U.S. to modernize its nuclear arsenal--and force necessary investments in research and manufacturing. Better technology, he observes, would produce a nuclear arsenal that is more reliable and less vulnerable to terrorism. Chilton told the WSJ that it's now possible to design "terrorist-proof" devices that cannot be detonated if they fall into the wrong hands.
Still, the new warhead program promises to be a tough sell. President-elect Barack Obama has talked about a nuclear-free world, so it's doubtful that he would invest in a new generation of weapons. But RRWP has a powerful ally in Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who will likely stay on for the first year of Obama's administration. We can only hope that Dr. Gates can convince the incoming commander-in-chief to change his mind.
General Chilton told the Journal that our nuclear delivery platforms are in better shape that the weapons they carry. But that assessment is charitable, in some respects. While introduction of the Ohio-class SSBNs (and the Trident D-5 missile) modernized the sea leg of our nuclear triad, the land-based elements are getting long in the tooth. Minuteman III ICBMs date from the 1970s (though some missiles received newer warheads from the Peacekeeper missile when that system was phased out). Meanwhile, B-52Hs--which rolled off the Boeing assembly line in 1962--remain the backbone of our land-based bomber force.
Despite their age, both the Minuteman III and B-52 retain relatively high mission-capability rates. That's a testament to the young men and women who maintain those systems. Not surprisingly, most are far younger than the aircraft and missiles they work on.