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Nukes Resurgent?

One issue in Defense Secretary Robert Gates' speech at the National Defense University was almost completely overlooked but it will doubtless be one of the mostly debated defense issues during the next administration -- what to do about the next generation of nuclear weapons.

A National Defense University student from the Department of Energy -- Tim Evans -- raised the issue with Gates, thanking him for his support of the program known as the Reliable Replacement Warhead. "I don't think many people know about that. But we think it's important to maintain our nuclear deterrents," Evans said.

So far, most Democrats have consistently opposed the RRW program, arguing that building a new nuclear weapon might be provocative and isn't really needed as long as the massive DOE program to model the performance of existing nuclear weapons without actually testing them continues to reassure that the stockpiles are sufficiently stable and reliable.

So when an interested party to the debate -- a congressional aide who supports the RRW program -- sent me a copy of the declassified version of "National Security and Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century," arrived in the mail two days ago, I was intrigued. The report was co-authored by Gates and Samuel Bodman the Secretary of Energy whose department designs, builds and maintains the weapons.

The conclusion about the way ahead is put pretty clearly in the report: "The RRW concept is both promising and fully consistent with U.S. Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty commitments. Ultimately, a reliable replacement warhead will be needed to sustain nuclear force capabilities, revitalize the nuclear infrastructure, and reduce the nuclear stockpile in a manner that is consistent with U.S. security objectives, including alliance commitments."

The report may reach a bit when it argues that providing the nuclear umbrella over US allies is actually helpful to limiting proliferation. "U.S. nuclear weapons deter potential adversaries from the threat or use of weapons of mass destruction against the United States, its deployed forces, and its allies and friends. In the absence of this “nuclear umbrella,” some nonnuclear allies might perceive a need to develop and deploy their own nuclear capability," the authors argue.

But Gates is clearly committed to maintaining what the French wonderfully call the force de frappe and believes it is absolutely essential to American power and prestige. The technical argument for RRW is that confidence in the weapons stockpile will decrease "as the warheads deviate further from baseline designs which were originally validated using nuclear test data." Since no one is likely to start blowing up new or existing nuclear warheads any time soon to validate those changes supporters of RRW say building a new design "would have advanced safety and security features, be less sensitive to manufacturing tolerances or to aging of materials, and be certifiable without nuclear testing."

If Gates were to try and really influence the outcome of the RRW and boost the profile of the nuclear enterprise before he leaves office (in this administration or the next one...) he could reshape the strategic debate for years to come. I think it's something he might try, especially in the wake of the various nuclear goofs the country has recently suffered.

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