Early Warning (USA)

Disassembling, and Talking, Nuclear Junk


Is the Bush administration accelerating the retirement of old nuclear warheads in order to pave the way for a consensus to build new ones?
Today's Post reports plans by the Department of Energy to dismantle a greater number of "non-operational" warheads, an ongoing program that they admit has grown lethargic over the years. The United States has as many as 6,000 non-operational warheads in the stockpile.
The DOE say that the plan to speed up dismantlement is "in part to counter any impression that the United States is starting a new arms race with its work to develop a new generation of more reliable nuclear arms," the Washington Post's Walter Pincus writes.
"Dismantlements are a key element of our strategy to ensure that stockpile and infrastructure transformation is not misperceived by other nations as 'restarting the arms race,' " DOE Deputy Secretary Clay Sell told the House last week.
It is a laudable goal.
Perhaps those well meaning folk at the DOE should speak to the President when he leaves the nuclear option on the table. Perhaps they should coordinate with the rest of the U.S. government, where the program of "global strike" and post 9/11 nuclear strategies is actually increasing nuclear options and conveying a far more damaging and countervailing "impression."
And -- gentle prod -- perhaps my old friend Walter Pincus (and the Post) should expunge the use of old language from his writing, a slip that I think just lets the old warriors perform a deceptive numbers game.
An "arms race" as we knew it in the Cold War is no longer in the cards. In fact, numbers aren't the issue today at all. Nuclear advocates in the Pentagon and at U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) could do everything they wanted to do against say, an Iran, with just a handful of nuclear weapons.
But silly me: The target here is really the U.S. Congress. More than anything else, DOE and the Defense Department would love to convince skeptical members of Congress that they should support the production of new "boutique" nuclear warheads. They are hoping that their willingness to throw out old junk they've been hoarding just for this purpose will be successful in getting the go ahead.
The United States has not produced a new nuclear warhead in more than a decade, that is, since production of the last W88 Trident II warheads. From the Reagan administration's attempt to build the "neutron bomb" to this current administration's interest in various bunker busters and mini-nukes, the body politic (and the Congress) has rejected new warheads.
As the U.S. nuclear arsenal has shrunk from tens of thousands to just thousands of warheads (applause), the ridiculous, obsolete and impractical warheads have been retired: gone are the nuclear land mines, the bazookas, the anti-submarine warheads, the coastal cruise missiles, the air defense missiles ringing American cities, the air-to-air missiles, nuclear artillery, short-range missiles on the battlefield, bombs on aircraft carriers, the multi-megaton behemoths.
Our nuclear arsenal today is downright streamlined. There are only -- umm -- 10,000 warheads in today's stockpile. According to my good friends Stan Norris at NRDC and Hans Kristensen at the Federation of American Scientists, today there are 5,735 active or operational warheads, with approximately 4,225 additional warheads held in the reserve or inactive stockpiles.
DOE has already announced plans to dismantle a larger number of the inactive warheads. If all the plans were implemented, by sometime in the next decade, the poor United States would be left with only about 2,700 available strategic and non-strategic nuclear warheads.
Speaking at the House hearing last week, Dale Klein, the top Pentagon nuclear official, said: "We're reluctant to give up a lot of the nuclear weapons in the stockpile unless we see the capability to manufacture new ones."
Even where progress has been made in actual deployments and practices, the Bush team seems intent on going in the opposite direction and signaling a greater relevance for U.S. nuclear weapons.
Take the Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missile, for instance. The first Bush administration decided to remove the long-range nuclear armed Tomahawks from routine carriage on attack submarines, and since the early 1990's, only a small number of select Los Angeles class and some Virginia-class submarines have retained nuclear certification and capability to reload the missiles should there be a reversal of fortunes.
The full up nuclear Tomahawk missiles with W80 nuclear warheads are kept in storage at two submarine facilities, one on the east coast in King's Bay, Georgia, the other on the west coast at Bangor, Washington. In total, the United States has about 300 W80 warheads.
Under an almost billion dollar program, the Navy plans to refurbish the missiles (DOE will update the warheads), extending the service life to around 2040. Rep. David L. Hobson (R-OH) has been pushing the government to give up the W80 altogether, dangling the possibility of a new warhead if it can see itself to spending its money elsewhere.
The hiccup here is that the Tomahawks were never really fully retired. After Bush I decided to remove the missiles, two-thirds were place in the "inactive" stockpile. But the other one-third (100 nuclear missiles) were kept in the "active" stockpile. This means that they have Tritium loaded and ready for immediate use. Within days or certainly within weeks, the nuclear Tomahawks could be reloaded.
As I said, it was a good thing to get them out of the water, to not have them going into foreign ports, to not burden submariners and the military with the day-to-day headaches of possessing and planning for the use of nuclear weapons.
But as for a strategy of avoiding "misperceptions"? As a way of creating fine "impressions" out there in the world? We just have thousands at the ready, with hundreds of others still on hair trigger alert, racing to nowhere.

Von: 5.5.2006 By William M. Arkin, blog.washingtonpost.com

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