I had been mildly warming to the idea of keeping Robert Gates on for a time as Secretary of Defense under a hypothetical Obama administration; he’s done a credible job, and what with the general collapse of the global financial system, the administration will have a lot on its hands in the first months of 2009. And then Gatesy comes out and says something like this:
“To be blunt, there is absolutely no way we can maintain a credible deterrent and reduce the number of weapons in our stockpile without resorting to testing our stockpile or pursuing a modernization program,” Gates says, according to his prepared remarks.
In other words, fund this thing, motherfuckers, or we start testing. The United States concluded the last full-scale underground test of a nuke in 1992, and declared an official moratorium two years later; a return to testing would be a really big deal. In a speech last month on the limits of U.S. power, he alluded — briefly — to the importance of RRW. That part of the speech earned few headlines, but for nuke-watchers, it was a telling moment.
Gates is also teasing out a novel argument for RRW: Everyone else is doing it.
“Currently, the United States is the only declared nuclear power that is neither modernizing its nuclear arsenal nor has the capability to produce a new nuclear warhead. The United Kingdom and France have programs to maintain their deterrent capabilities. China and Russia have embarked on ambitious paths to design and field new weapons”
Um… no. We’ve been through this before. At any plausible size, the US nuclear force will be more than sufficient for the purposes of deterrence. There are very good reasons to believe that US warheads will explode when we want them to, and in any case it doesn’t really matter if 100% of our warheads detonate, 75%, or 50%. With conventional munitions duds are a real problem, since they substantially reduce effectiveness. With nuclear weapons, not so much. With apologies to Matt Duss, I’ve written a short play to illustrate this point:
Setting: Moscow, Kremlin
Vladimir Putin: I have a fever, Dmitri, and the only cure is the reconquest of the former territory of the Soviet Union. Let’s start with Estonia.
Dmitri Medvedev: Couldn’t hurt; the price of oil is down, and Ivan the Plumber is getting restless. But what of the Americans?
Putin: Have they pursued modernization of their nuclear deterrent?
Medvedev: Why, no; I don’t believe that they have.
Putin: Well, then, no problem. If they launch thousands of nuclear missiles at us in response to our attack on NATO, odds are that some of the warheads won’t detonate.
Medvedev: That’s what I call an in-credible deterrent!
Putin: Heh. Good one. Send in the tanks!
Medvedev: Wait; I thought that was my line.
Putin: We’re not fooling anyone here, Dmitri.
As to whether “everyone else is doing it”, I’d like to see the details of the French and British plans. I’d also like to see some recognition that France and the UK have much smaller nuclear arsenals than the United States, which changes the deterrent equation. Chinese nuclear weapons remain a generation behind their US counterparts, which may explain why China is pursuing modernization. I don’t know much about the Russian program, but given that nuclear warheads don’t actually fight one another, I can’t say I’m all that concerned.
RRW, in my view, remains a waste of time and waste of money. The deterrent logic doesn’t make sense, the “need to keep the laboratories up and running” argument is absurd, and the “everybody else is doing it” case ignores geopolitical reality. Bad idea, Gatesy.