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Strategic Weapons in the 21st Century

SW21 2009
Forces, Infrastructure, and Science & Technology:
Options for Hedging

Sidney Drell

There has been an erosion of the international consensus favoring fewer nuclear states at the same time that there is a trend towards greater availability of nuclear technology. The clarity of a bipolar world has now faded, being replaced by deep uncertainty. Policy must balance the continuing needs of nuclear deterrence against the needs of diplomacy being used to achieve greater nuclear security and to counter proliferation.

Against this background, the Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP) has been successful, but continued success is not assured. The program has successfully identified problems and fixed them. The key ingredient allowing this success has been the availability of the expert personnel needed to assess problems and devise appropriate responses while exercising ‘change discipline.’ At the same time, these experts are needed to assess proliferation risks, devise approaches to nuclear forensics, verify treaties, and help disarm and disable nuclear programs. Other key ingredients include experimental capabilities, including facilities, and high-speed computers and computer models.

A key question for the future is whether aging stockpiles can be sustained by replication of current designs or by devising new designs to achieve the same capability. Life Extension Programs (LEPs) are replications, while the so-called Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) was tending towards a new design. RRW made great strides, but the Jason panel concluded that certification could not necessarily be assured. Hybrids somewhere in between may be feasible, and the best option may well depend on the problem being addressed. A wider range of options needs to be explored. The approach of assessing the ratio of performance margins to uncertainties offers an approach to determining the accumulation of risks in any approach. A new kind of peer review may be needed for certification of future designs. Certainly, the political consequences of such technical actions must always be kept in mind.

Richard Mies

Today's context for managing risk is new. Warfare has been or threatens to be irregular, catastrophic, disruptive and asymmetric. Conflict is not confined to the battlefield and involves non-state actors. At the same time, nuclear technology, biological agents and cyber technology are proliferating. We see the emergence of potential peer and near-peer competitors. Deterrent relationships are complex and multi-dimensional rather than bi-polar.

US-Russian Stockpile Comparison

While the Nuclear Posture Review of 2001 marked a promising step towards the reduction of operationally deployed strategic forces and a broader framework for thinking about defense capabilities, there are perils in further movement in this direction. For example, there may be risk in further strategic force reductions. Deterrent commitments to others may be questioned, and potential adversaries may be emboldened to challenge us and our allies. We risk losing the inherent robustness and flexibility provided by current stockpile numbers and diversity, and we may be moving from a counter-force to a counter-population posture. Furthermore, comparative stockpile asymmetries will become more pronounced. See Figure 1. Yet arms control agreements focus only on strategic weapons, leaving untouched other aspects of crucial military capability, including tactical nuclear weapons, the inactive stockpile, fissile materials, and the nuclear infrastructure that could form a base for force reconstitution.

To compound these issues, several recent reports have called attention to the atrophy that is overtaking our strategic capabilities. There is a loss of attention by senior political, military and congressional leadership, and a lack of investment in R&D and defense infrastructure. Delivery platforms are also aging, and spending on strategic forces has declined by 55% since 1990. At the same time, stockpile is facing an inexorable increase in age and a likely decline in reliability.

There are several options for hedging against an uncertain future, including technical uncertainty. Traditional approaches include ensuring diversity among operationally deployed and stockpiled warhead types as well as diversity in delivery platforms and tactics. The ability to reconstitute forces will be especially important as type-diversity and numbers decline. Another hedging dimension would involve integration of strategic offense and defense capability and thinking, as well as integration of kinetic and non-kinetic defenses. Reduced numbers will demand new investment in force survivability, and flexibility in force generation. Warning time can be increased through better intelligence, attack warning and attack assessment, e.g., through greater diversity in land‑, sea‑ and space‑based sensors, greater reliance on dual phenomenology. Establishment of joint/international data exchange centers can also help.

There also needs to be serious and visible leadership commitment to, advocacy for, and involvement in the nation's strategic capabilities. Demonstration of such commitment would include investment in comprehensive strategic R&D, and in a sustainable stockpile that includes replacement warheads with enhanced safety, security and use control, as well as designs that address current mission shortfalls. Capabilities should be exercised regularly. There should also be better integration of all instruments of national power, including the matching of declaratory policy with actions. In particular, there should be stronger commitment to a full suite of nonproliferation initiatives that include prevention, consequence management, attribution and, as appropriate, response.

While moving towards zero nuclear forces will likely remain a long-term goal, there are serious questions that need to be addressed: is such a goal really feasible; is it verifiable and enforceable; is it inherently stabilizing and hence sustainable; and is it really desirable? The following principles should guide strategic force reductions.

  • The journey is more important than the destination;
  • Focus should be on stability and capabilities rather than just on numbers;
  • Reduction should be viewed, not just as an end in itself, but as a means to the end of national security;
  • Strategy should drive numbers rather than numbers driving strategy;
  • Strategic adaptability should be preserved as a hedge; and
  • The burden of proof should rest on the advocates of reduction.

During discussion several additional points were raised or elaborated. It was noted that a transparent footprint for production capacity could be an even more effective hedge than capacity alone. It was also suggested that while strategic stability may be a primary objective, it is not immediately obvious how to get there in today's complex and in some ways more dangerous world without appearing provocative. In trying to move towards zero while maintaining stability, it is important to understand what conditions must be established for progress, what structures must be put in place and what are the first steps to be taken. In counterpoint, it was suggested that the world is not more dangerous, that terrorism is not more dangerous than nuclear annihilation, and that proliferation has not run amok. Zero is not just a place in which some might want to be, but a direction in which to go.

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