Los Alamos National Laboratory
Lab Home  |  Phone
Strategic Weapons in the 21st Century


  • National Security Office, LANL
    Bryan Fearey
    (505) 667-6120
  • Center for Global Security Research, LLNL
    Ron Lehman, Director
    Eileen Vergino, Deputy Director
    (925) 422-3907
  • Conference Logo
Strategic Weapons in the 21st Century

SW21 2009
Roundtable Discussion: the Path Forward

Larry Welch

Moving towards an enduring, reliable, safe nuclear deterrent that promotes international security demands that we be clear about what we are asking of deterrence, the nuclear weapons stockpile and associated nuclear forces.

For deterrence, we seek an enduring concept providing assurance that rational adversaries will see the cost of attack as higher than any benefits. Yet there is uncertainty in the range of adversaries today, and it is hard to know what is in their minds. When we don't know intent, we have to deal with capabilities. Conventional weapons have great destructive power and offer a greater range of options than do nuclear weapons, but they are not equivalent. They can be stabilizing insofar as they offer great reach and responsiveness. During the Cold War, the object of deterrence was not to destroy the Soviet Union, but never to have to.

Drawing the numbers in the nuclear stockpile down to zero is not really a feasible destination, and advocacy for zero can be counterproductive. Reductions to date have come from attainable goals. We can all agree on a goal of the smallest number of nuclear weapons that provide a safe, secure and reliable deterrent, and that can be maintained without nuclear testing. Significant further reductions are difficult in the face of uncertainty over the durability of the stockpile in the long term. Today's weapons cannot be maintained indefinitely. We should develop weapons with greater performance margin and that are more sustainable. Plutonium may last 85 years, but not a pit or a weapon. An alternative path of replacement warheads does not involve new military capability and is not inimical to nonproliferation goals.

Among our nuclear forces, the roles of SLBMs haven't changed much if at all, and they remain secure and survivable. The roles of bomber forces have changed drastically, but they maintain our ability for highly controllable response without prior commitment to attack. ICBM roles have also changed. They were an attractive first strike target, and therefore destabilizing. However, they are now fielded with only a single warhead and there is no adversary with overwhelming numbers. ICBMs are always on alert, but not on what has been called ‘hair-trigger alert.' There is a long history of reliable communication and control with no incidents.

John Hamre

The new administration has a number of priorities in the national security arena. It wants to reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism, and enhance controls on the nuclear fuel cycle, reducing the likelihood of diversion. The nuclear stockpile should be reduced while sustaining it through stockpile stewardship. There is no urgency for RRW as other approaches are adequate for now. We do not need new military capabilities in the nuclear arena, but we do need conventional options. Other nuclear threats are not imminent. We should revive arms control with a follow-on to START and should remove non-strategic weapons from Europe. In terms of numbers, something like 1000 may make sense. In terms of nuclear policy, progress towards consensus in the political community is not as far along as it is in the technical community.

Some key questions remain. Should we retain the triad? How do we sustain the intellectual and production resources for the future? Can we sustain a shrinking intellectual base split between two cabinet departments? In the arms control arena, how do we shift from a launcher regime to a warhead regime? How can the U.S. have credibility in shaping a nuclear control regime?

Open Discussion

Two general issues seemed to draw most of the discussion. One centered on RRW, and the general tenor was that the program as originally pursued was not packaged well and its objectives were not sufficiently clear. The FY2008 House Appropriations report laid out conditions for the program but did not forbid work. Many felt that RRW offers an unequivocal path to smaller inventories. If properly packaged RRW can be understood as not being contrary to nonproliferation objectives, particularly if the U.S. is seen as taking strong steps supporting Article VI. It might be dangerous to speak of a tradeoff of CTBT ratification in return for support of RRW, but a good ‘package' should articulate how RRW would make a future need for testing less likely.

Other discussion revolved around different aspects of Russian nuclear posture. For example, it was questioned whether the push toward de-alerting was being driven by concern over Russian command and control weaknesses, and if so, then one should deal with those weaknesses directly. Some expressed concern that Russian political and military posturing vis-à-vis neighboring countries was destabilizing, leading to a commonly held European view that nuclear weapons ‘are important and dangerous.' The U.S. needs to engage in serious discussion with allies over such matters. With respect to arms control objectives, perhaps some not too large asymmetry could be acceptable. The current production asymmetry between the U.S. and Russia should be noted, however. It should also be noted that smaller inventories can raise concerns over missile defenses.

One commonly held view among participants was that the profile of nuclear weapons could well be reduced in the U.S. national security posture. However, it will continue to be important to care for them well.

Operated by Los Alamos National Security, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy's NNSA

Inside | © Copyright 2010-11 Los Alamos National Security, LLC All rights reserved | Disclaimer/Privacy | Web Contact