Sunday, August 02, 2009

Deep in the Nuclear Weeds

Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) offered an amendment that would have made it difficult to ratify a followon START treaty, once it is negotiated. The amendment was greatly watered down and passed. A number of people in the blogosphere have opined both on the original amendment and the version that passed. Jeffrey Lewis is one, and he links to others.

My take is different. This is a political warning: Kyl and other opponents of improved relations and arms control between the United States and Russia will continue to come up with monkey wrenches to throw in the START machinery. It is essential to keep watch for attempts to John Bolton-ize the process.

Jeff gets pretty deep in the weeds by considering the meaning of modernization. There are a couple of assumptions in his discussion; one has marked too much of the discussion of, er, modernization and has avoided a rational discussion of what is needed in the nuclear complex, and the other is an interesting manifestation of a related concept that is part of the “New Triad,” but never explicated to my satisfaction. So I guess I’m headed even deeper, among the soil grains and slime molds. Or maybe I’m backing off to look at the whole meadow.

Perhaps the first is less than an assumption: if the nuclear weapons complex needs buildings, people, funding, modernization, what it needs depends on what the nuclear weapons complex should be doing. Should it be keeping the nuclear weapons in the stockpile usable and credible as a deterrent? (I keep asking what it means to have a nuclear deterrent, but we’ll let that ride for now.) Should it be disassembling the nuclear weapons that are being taken out of service and communicating with the appropriate parties about the results? Should it be developing new, er, modernized weapon designs?

Should it be standing by, alert and ready, to provide underground testing and other activities that would increase deterrence? This now begins to get into that “New Triad” question. One of the three corners of that triad is a nimble and capable nuclear weapons complex, ready to do all those things.

The bottom line is that the shape of the complex depends on what the complex is supposed to do. Jeff cites a letter signed by senators on both sides of the aisle:
We believe that when the START treaty is submitted, you should also submit a plan, including a funding estimate for FY11 (and out years across the next decade), to enhance the safety, security and reliability of the nuclear weapons stockpile, to modernize the nuclear weapons complex (i.e. improve the safety of facilities, modernize the infrastructure, maintain the key capabilities and competencies of the nuclear weapons workforce — the designers and the technicians), and to maintain the delivery platforms.
Nice generalities, like the generalities that Congress has spouted so many times before. Congress appropriates funding for the complex, a program here and a program there, another program and a program taken away, while providing those nice words. Occasionally a big program gets a big facility, like Livermore’s National Ignition Facility. But never a look at the big picture.

The Department of Energy is supposed to do some of that, of course, and they will provide the report required by the watered-down amendment. The DOE has come up with vast dreams for a new nuclear weapons complex, without cost figures or options for various sizes of stockpile. Congress, to its credit, has been leery of funding such open-ended plans. Modernization is likely to mean whatever the DOE wants it to mean at that time, slightly modified by its trip through the administration to the President.

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