Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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May 27, 2008
By: Cheryl Rofer

DOE/NNSA Mission.....Tbw asked for my opinion on the mission of the DOE/NNSA complex. In that regard, optical weenie suggested I look at the NNSA website.

For those joining in the middle of this conversation, the NNSA (National Nuclear Security Administration) is the part of the Department of Energy that deals with nuclear weapons.

I don't see an explicit statement of mission at the NNSA website, although I would be surprised if a government agency didn't have such a group of words somewhere.

One can be obvious and say that the mission of NNSA is to maintain and certify the nuclear stockpile. But that doesn't tell us much of what I suspect tbw is asking about.

The mission of the nuclear weapons complex during the Cold War was to keep ahead of the Soviets. That meant more and better. When Gorbachev became First Secretary of the Communist Party, and it turned out that Ronald Reagan was a closet nuclear abolitionist, that got toned down. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the potential uses of nuclear weapons were no longer obvious.

The military never was all that crazy about nukes, either. The Air Force liked that they justified fancy missiles and bombers, but the other services tended to see them more as a liability to themselves. Too much standoff distance for the Army if you wanted to lob one at the other guy.

So who are we going to use nuclear weapons against now? Where is the threat that would justify the use of a nuclear weapon?

Both the United States and Russia have been decommissioning their nuclear weapons. They have agreed to get down to 2200 each by 2012. The numbers now are something under 10,000 for the US, a few thousand more for Russia. Congress has refused to fund the RRW until they get a clear statement of what it will be used for.

The DOE/NNSA mission is inextricably tied to national policy on nuclear weapons. There are three ways it could go, it seems to me.

1. Nuclear weapons become much more important in the US's defense strategy. In this case, DOE/NNSA gets a new lease on life. Complex 2030 (or whatever they are calling it this week) gets fully funded. The RRW becomes real. The labs hire a bunch of eager young designers and the economy of New Mexico blooms. I put the probability of this scenario at less than 10%.

2. The next president signs on to the program proposed by George Schultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn. Agreement with Russia opens up Pantex and the Russian equivalents to the IAEA and regular reports are issued on how many weapons have been disassembled and how many are left. Britain, France and China join the rush. Israel admits it has nuclear weapons. India and Pakistan decide to think about it. Probability: somewhere between 20 and 50%, higher if Obama becomes president.

3. Business as usual. Nukes are disassembled at the current rate. National policy remains muddled. We hoot and holler at various other nations who hoot and holler back. Probability: around 50%, more if Clinton or McCain becomes president.

[Whoops! Got to change those probabilities with McCain's speech today. So let's add McCain to scenario 2 and subtract him from scenario 3, while decreasing the probability of scenario 3.]

Cheryl Rofer 5:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (14)

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Try clinking the links that run across the header bar on the NNSA website. You will find 7 mission statements for the 7 featured departments of NNSA - Defense Programs, Nuclear Nonproliferation, Naval Reactors, Emergency Ops, Nuclear Security, Infrastructure and Environment, and Manglement.

And btw - AF is not the only ones that likes their nukes, the Navy is partial to them too.

Posted by: optical weenie on May 27, 2008 at 5:28 PM | PERMALINK

Thanks Cheryl. What is interesting, I think, is that these weapons figure so strongly in the popular imagination, while the government is a mix of neglect and disdain.

Posted by: tbw on May 27, 2008 at 5:28 PM | PERMALINK

You might want to re-revise your probabilities. McCain neglected to mention whether he was going to propose cooperating with the Russians before kicking them out of the G8 or afterward.

His general and consistent tone has been to up the confrontational rhetoric vis-a-vis both the Russians and Chinese.

Posted by: ammonite on May 27, 2008 at 5:51 PM | PERMALINK

After WWII the Air Force used nukes as a means to build its budget and conversely, limit the funds spent by the Army and the Navy. Carriers of the time could not launch aircraft large enough to carry the nukes of the time (the Mk. 17, the first operational H-bomb weighed 42,000 lbs), and the Air Force worked hard to keep it that way. The Army built the Atomic Cannon, but it just wasn’t the same. Then after the ballistic missile sub came along, the shoe was on the other foot. The Navy was lobbying for eliminating land based (Air Force) missiles as too vulnerable and destabilizing. It does appear that the military forces have slowly moved toward the realization that real warriors don’t use nukes. We still have all the junior Strangeloves at Livermore and Los Alamos looking for a way to justify their existence, along with various right wingers in government and industry who just think nukes are one righteous weapon. Their last big nuke initiative was the Reagan/Teller effort to build a neutron laser for missile defense, which fortunately for all, turned out to be a collossal dud.

Posted by: fafner1 on May 27, 2008 at 6:46 PM | PERMALINK

Good point, ammonite. Now that I've done this analysis, I'm inclined to come down somewhere between my original scenarios and the revision.

The Navy is ambivalent about nukes. They sort of like them on cruise missiles and submarines, but recognize that nukes are perfect for taking out carrier groups. (BTW, optical weenie, how did Inkblot's navy suit play?)

There are indeed several mission statements at the NNSA site. As I implied earlier, such words are required within the government. I was looking more to the politics and the realities that the weapon complex faces.

Posted by: Cheryl Rofer on May 27, 2008 at 7:32 PM | PERMALINK

Russians who lived behind the Iron Curtain in the 1980's are not shy about telling who they looked up to, who represented the freedoms they didn't have but yearned for- that same president of the United States.

I don't know why you keep popping up with this fantasy. My wife grew up in the Soviet Union/Russia, her large extended family lives there, I've visited extensively and speak the language, and NOBODY says things like this. Even the kooks, since they tend to be the ardent Communists. The whole "Tear Down This Wall" speech wasn't even really noted by the diplomatic or security services; they considered it more of the normal rhetoric, so it had no effect to my knowledge on Soviet policy.

Everyone hates Gorbachev, though, which tends to surprise Americans. The worrisome thing is that the support for Putin and his flunkies is real.

Posted by: ericblair on May 27, 2008 at 7:51 PM | PERMALINK

Well, the "atomic canon" took 3 days to assemble in order to shoot it at the target, so it was completely useless except as a weapon of terror for a beseiged city.

I'm reading Boyd, which is the biography of John Boyd, and one of the things that made him mad was that the AF wanted to be able to bolt a nuke onto every single aircraft.

After watching Fog of War (which is an interview with Robert Macnamara), I'm even more astounded that the world survived the Cuban Missile Crisis. Apparently, there were more than 190 warheads inside Cuba, and that they'd have launched every launchable one if they were attacked or invaded. I must say that after watching that movie/interview, I have a new appreciation for that guy, and no longer see him as the one of the most evil dudes of the 20th Century. But I'm still pissed off that he ordered the tooling for the SR71 - the most beautiful aircraft ever - to be destroyed.

Everyone hates Gorbachev, though, which tends to surprise Americans. The worrisome thing is that the support for Putin and his flunkies is real.
That's also the experience I have with all the Russians (ex-Soviet, if you prefer) that I have met. Posted by: Tangurena on May 27, 2008 at 8:08 PM | PERMALINK

When I was in the Field Artillery in Germany in 1974, our eight-inch howitzers were capable of firing a "special weapons" tactical nuclear round. IIRC, the dummy round with which we trained was so much heavier than the usual HE ordnance that we had to use special "white bag" powder, and even then the maximum range was considerably smaller.

Posted by: joel hanes on May 27, 2008 at 8:40 PM | PERMALINK

NNSA does actually have several missions. The naval nuclear program and international non-proliferation programs do operate independently from the nuclear weapons complex.

But those other programs are a budgetary drop in the bucket compared to "stockpile stewardship," which has always been seen by NNSA as the way to keep the capability to designing, testing, and building new nuclear weapons.

The problem, of course, is that no reasonable defense policy should involve building such things. The US, with the strongest conventional military in modern history, is safer in a world in which nuclear weapons are de-emphasized.

RRW is a weapons complex modernization program that presumes a defense mission that hasn't existed for 20 years, and is unlikely to return. In a rare moment of sanity, some in Congress have recognized this and blocked it from moving forward.

NNSA's mission ought to turn towards deconstruction of the vast majority of the nuclear stockpile, and the shutdown of most of its production capacity. This presumes some long-needed sanity gets injected into the next nuclear posture review...

The other question at that point is whether there will be the political will to begin to shut down the defense nuclear facilities and transition them into full cleanup mode. Lots of jobs at stake in New Mexico, South Carolina, and Tennessee. I wouldn't expect the nuclear weapons complex to roll over willingly, even though that would be in the nation's best interest.

Posted by: squashy on May 27, 2008 at 11:33 PM | PERMALINK

I would just as soon see ALL of the nukes moved off this planet.

Posted by: Mike Meyer on May 28, 2008 at 1:27 AM | PERMALINK


At LANL, at least, a lot of the folks used to be apocalyptic/fundy-minded Mormons.

And, I've seen "Atomic Annie" at Fort Sill.

Posted by: on May 28, 2008 at 1:52 AM | PERMALINK

We still have all the junior Strangeloves at Livermore and Los Alamos looking for a way to justify their existence

Not so much any more. Much of the research at those labs is unclassified and non-military - I'm about to start collaborating with a biochemist at LANL, and Livermore even does some genomics research. They still have nuclear weapons programs AFAIK, but because of the test ban, the closest their scientists get to blowing anything up is running simulations on massive supercomputers. And scientists at these labs don't have a ton of influence, especially after multiple security fuckups. If anyone is lobbying for continuing the nuclear program to stay in business, it's probably IBM's supercomputer division.

I don't have any detail on this, but I've also read that the continuation of the nuke programs is (at least partly) oriented towards ensuring that our existing nuclear stockpile remains operational, rather than developing new weapons. They'd probably prefer to do this by blowing up a randomly selected warhead every year or so, but they're stuck with computers and I don't think even the Bush administration (and certainly not McCain) is stupid or crazy enough to unilaterally renounce the test ban(s). Especially not after we've spent the entire decade in one prolonged, violent freak-out over nuclear proliferation.

Posted by: Nat on May 28, 2008 at 3:33 AM | PERMALINK

Hi Nat - untrue about "most" of the R&D being non-military. You are seeing the thinnest of veneers.

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