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Presented at the National Defense University Congressional Breakfast Series - Remarks On Maintaining A Nuclear Deterrent

May 13, 2008

Thanks for the opportunity to speak today before this group on some of the technical challenges associated with the ongoing nuclear deterrence debate.  My remarks today focus on what it takes to maintain an effective nuclear deterrent and the infrastructure and institutional challenges we are faced with that are often misunderstood in the political sphere.  A good portion of this relates to the need to move forward with studying new ways of managing the stockpile, including potentially the reliable replacement warhead (RRW), a program that has been dubbed “controversial” and has been debated fairly significantly in Congress.

Let me back up for a moment.  It is the Administration’s and my view that to meet its own security needs and those of its allies, the United States will need a safe, secure, and reliable nuclear deterrent for the foreseeable future.  Will we need this capability forever?  Who knows, but given the state of the world, it seems reasonable to me that nuclear weapons are not going away any time soon.

However, the ultimate decision on our deterrence strategy is not mine to make.  My job is to sustain the safety, security and reliability of the nuclear weapons stockpile and to ensure that this can be certified on an annual basis.  My goal, as well as the Administration’s, is to seek to achieve this with the smallest nuclear stockpile consistent with our nation’s security.
In this regard, this Administration has done a good job; it has effected the largest reduction of our nuclear forces by any President.  By the end of 2007, it had reduced by more than half the total stockpile inventory it inherited in 2001.  This achievement was followed by the Administration’s announcement in December of last year that a further fifteen percent reduction to the stockpile would be completed by 2012.

Even while these reduction efforts are continuing, there are some fundamental challenges that test our ability to maintain the existing stockpile today – let alone into the future.

One challenge is that our infrastructure is old and decrepit, with many of our critical facilities dating back to the Manhattan project.  We are seeking to address this with a complex transformation initiative that would shrink the overall size of the infrastructure by more than 9 million square feet, while modernizing and maintaining key capabilities.  Part of this effort is to transform the Cold War nuclear weapons complex into a 21st century national security enterprise that is more responsive to the customer, the Department of Defense, as well as other national security agencies that rely on our technical and intellectual capability in the areas of non-proliferation, nuclear counterterrorism and forensics, and intelligence.

Another challenge is the fact that we have not fielded a new warhead design in over 20 years and many of our key systems are over 30 years old.  While these weapons remain safe and secure today, they will present some real difficulties in keeping them certified for stockpile use in the future.

A third challenge is that we are trying to maintain weapons which are composed of internal dynamics – consisting of plutonium, uranium, other chemical components, sensitive electronic fuses, and other materials – that were designed to last 20 years before being replaced.  These weapons were certified using underground nuclear tests, which we no longer perform.  We have been fortunate to some degree to offset this absence of testing capability by working with Congress to build a cadre of new scientific tools and advance computing capabilities that make up the Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP).  However, while we have increased our overall scientific capability, we cannot escape the fundamental fact that we are working on Cold War-aged weapons with dynamic properties.  We continue to see increased risk in our approach, absent nuclear testing, in assuring the long-term reliability of today’s legacy stockpile.

To manage this risk, even while we shrink the overall size of the stockpile, we would like to explore the potential of developing and fielding modern replacement warheads for the legacy stockpile that are less sensitive to component aging or to manufacturing variances.  These replacement warheads would have enhanced safety and security features appropriate for today’s security environment that cannot be introduced in older weapons.  This effort would also facilitate our ongoing transformation to a smaller, more efficient and more responsive nuclear enterprise, which, in turn, would provide opportunities for further stockpile reductions. 

Of course, it is our view that we would only move forward on such a concept if it could be done without underground nuclear tests and would fully comply with our obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

Let me get a bit more specific on RRW, because there is much confusion surrounding this program. 

Following the Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, in 2003 we “took stock” of ten years of the SSP and came to some important conclusions regarding our legacy stockpile.  The assessment proved that the SSP is working and today’s stockpile remains safe, reliable and does not require nuclear testing.

However, concerns have been raised by our laboratory directors that our current path – successive refurbishments to existing warheads developed during the Cold War to stringent Cold War specifications – may pose an unacceptable risk to maintaining a high level of confidence in warhead performance without conducting nuclear testing.  These concerns are founded in the progressive evolution away from weapon designs certified with underground nuclear tests during the Cold War.  Specifically, laboratory directors point to the inevitable accumulations of small changes from the original composition of these systems due to the continuous process of aging and refurbishment.

It therefore seems prudent to explore alternate means to manage risk in order to ensure long-term stockpile reliability.  This is the impetus for our work on RRW:  to examine how we better ensure the long-term sustainment of the military capabilities provided by the existing stockpile, not to develop new warheads for new or different military missions.

Additionally, if Cold War design specifications were relaxed, the opportunity would exist to design replacement warheads that:

  • are easier and less costly to manufacture,
  • are safer and more secure,
  • would eliminate most environmentally dangerous materials, and
  • would increase design performance margins.

Thus, we believe the RRW would offer means to facilitate our ongoing transformation to a more efficient and responsive, smaller, and less costly nuclear weapons R&D and production infrastructure.

Despite the obvious benefits of the RRW in terms of increased efficiency and cost-reduction for our nuclear program, we are often asked:  if today’s stockpile is safe and reliable, why start on RRW now?  Why not wait for when Congress has completed its Strategic Posture Reviews in 2009 and 2010? There are four main reasons.

The first is stockpile diversity.  The W76 SLBM warhead comprises an increasingly large fraction of the operational force, and currently there is no W76 “backup.”  We need to manage the risk of a catastrophic failure to this warhead by diversifying our stockpile with reliable, effective alternatives like the RRW.

Second, there are increased concerns, after 9/11, about the security of nuclear warheads and fissile materials.  Major enhancements in security are not easily available in conjunction with our current efforts to extend the operation life of our existing warheads.

Third, we must ensure the transfer of nuclear design and engineering skills to the next generation.  In five years, nearly all of the generation which developed and honed these design and engineering skills via nuclear testing will be retired or dead.  Yet U.S. nonproliferation/threat reduction/emergency response efforts will still rely on these same skills in order to maintain our deterrent and support newly developing defense programs, such as nuclear counterterrorism.  Developing these skills in our younger generations now is critical to transforming the nuclear weapons complex to a 21st century national security enterprise.

Finally, the effort to study the RRW and the information and knowledge learned from this effort will help inform the debate and efforts to understand what is possible in the future as it relates to a re-examination of our nuclear posture.

Some argue, however, that the RRW clashes with our current nuclear posture on non-proliferation as it would encourage other actors to move towards building nuclear weapons.  However, our efforts to study the RRW are not in any way inconsistent with non-proliferation.  In fact, they may be critical to non-proliferation in the long run.

I would remind the group that the United States has not designed or fielded a new nuclear weapon in nearly three decades, a fact which has done little to stop various nations that seek nuclear weapons from doing so.  In addition, other declared nuclear weapon states are now currently modernizing.  Both the UK and France have announced modernization efforts, coupled with announcements to reduce the size of their respective nuclear arsenals.  Russia continues active modernization and R&D programs for warheads, missiles and delivery platforms.  And China is introducing a new generation of SSBNs and silo-based and road-mobile ICBMs. 

The activities of these countries, whose modernization programs currently exceed those of the United States, have not produced roadblocks to our common efforts to press increasingly robust non-proliferation initiatives.  Thus, a similar U.S. program of nuclear modernization embodied in the RRW should have little impact on international non-proliferation efforts.  We are assured of this fact because the RRW does not, in any capacity, provide a new role for nuclear weapons or new military capabilities.  It is rather a means to more effectively sustain the military capabilities of the existing stockpile. 

In addition, the RRW also bolsters our non-proliferation efforts in that:

  • concurrent with our efforts to transform to a more responsive infrastructure, it will likely facilitate further U.S. stockpile reductions and thus will thus bolster our commitment to NPT Article VI,
  • improved performance margins will reduce the possibility that the U.S. might ever need to conduct a nuclear test,
  • by incorporating modern security features, RRW will strengthen security of U.S. nuclear weapons against unauthorized use by terrorists, and
  • allies confident in U.S. extended nuclear deterrence guarantees will not be motivated to acquire their own nuclear forces.

The point of this discussion is that beyond the policy and theoretical discussion on the need for nuclear deterrence, or the vision of a world without nuclear weapons, that fact remains that it is a significant part of our existing strategy and it will likely be so for the foreseeable future given the nuclear nature of the world today.  If we are going to maintain such a policy of deterrence, the instruments used to maintain that policy must be credible and managed in a manner that are sustainable for the future. 

That doesn’t necessarily mean more.  In fact, it likely means a lot less, but getting there will not be possible without fundamentally changing how we do business.  Two critical components of that are our complex transformation efforts and the need to study systems based on reliable replacement concepts.  So where do we go from here?

In terms of transforming from the Cold War weapons complex to a smaller and more efficient 21st century national security enterprise, we are in the midst of completing an over 2 year long programmatic National Environmental Policy Act Analysis.  This analysis has examined the effects of our proposed actions.

Our other element of change, the RRW study, made significant progress in 2007.  However, this program was not funded in FY 2008 in part due to concerns expressed that the Administration had not fully communicated its policies which guide nuclear forces, posture and programs, including the RRW program.

In response to these concerns, the Department of Defense and we at NNSA have been much more active congressionally and publicly in discussing these issues.  

Just last month, the Administration provided Congress with a second white paper intended to accompany the original white paper on nuclear policy transmitted to Congress in July 2007 by Secretaries Rice, Gates and Bodman.  This second white paper outlines in detail the overall strategy which guides nuclear weapons programs including:

  • the size of the nuclear stockpile and operationally-deployed strategic forces, and
  • how we manage the risk of a less-than-sufficient warhead production infrastructure.

Our ultimate goal with the RWW study is two fold:

  • First, to transform the infrastructure to a smaller but more efficient, modern and responsive enterprise; and
  • Second, to restore a consensus with Congress to seriously examine the RRW as a means to ensure that the next Administration, as mandated by Congress, can complete a timely review of its nuclear posture.

So what I hope that you take away from here this morning is that both the concepts of nuclear deterrence and nonproliferation are not mutually exclusive.  They can, and in fact they do, work together to support our broader national security objectives.  As long as we maintain a deterrent, the United States must continue to have a nuclear weapons enterprise that supports that deterrent.  But it should be one that supports the science and knowledge needed for the growing areas of nonproliferation, counterterrorism and nuclear forensics, intelligence analysis and emergency response.  As we maintain our nuclear deterrence, we will continue to shrink our stockpile and dismantle unneeded nuclear weapons, as well as look towards a future debate on the role of nuclear weapons in our national security policy.

Thank you.  I'll be happy to take your questions.

National Defense University Congressional Breakfast Series