A US plan for simpler, safer nuclear arms
US nuclear weapons are among the most sophisticated scientific devices on the planet. Through the years of the cold war, US designers labored to make warheads that were frighteningly powerful, yet so small that as many as 10 could fit on top of a single missile.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Now the nation's nuclear bureaucracy believes the time has come to start replacing these complex weapons with simpler ones. Last week the Department of Energy announced the selection of a design for a new Reliable Replacement Warhead, meant to be safer, easier to manufacture, and more robust than current models.
If approved by Congress, development of this warhead could set the course for the US nuclear arsenal for decades to come.
But when it comes to nuclear weapons, does the US really need to swap Cadillacs for Fords? Critics say the current arsenal is reliable enough – and that any new US bomb would send the wrong message to potential nuclear proliferators such as Iran and North Korea.
"Other countries are going to look at this, and they are going to keep their warhead development and production options open," says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.
The current US nuclear stockpile is the legacy of decades of scientific and military competition with the Soviet Union. Driven by what they felt was a need to counter an existential threat to the nation, US scientists perfected methods of extracting enormous explosive yields from weapons that were also as small as possible.
That meant designing weapons with little margin for engineering or manufacturing error. For example, the W-88 submarine-launched warhead is crammed into a dart-thin reentry vehicle to decrease its susceptibility to wind and thus increase its accuracy. The W-76, an older Navy weapon, has a uranium radiation case the thickness of a soda can. That case must remain intact for a microsecond upon detonation if the warhead is to fully explode.
Throughout the cold war, US scientists also treated plutonium as a scarce and valuable resource and made weapons whose fissile hearts were relatively small.
But today's geostrategic world is vastly different than the one of decades ago. The US has no need to counter a large nuclear adversary move for move.
"We still have the same missiles, but they carry far fewer warheads, so there's no particular premium on making those warheads light. And I'm spending money to get rid of plutonium, not conserve it," said Linton F. Brooks, then-administrator of the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration, in a discussion on the future of nuclear weapons last year.
According to current and former US officials, the US can take advantage of change in the world and to redesign existing warheads so that they have more margin for error, are easier to manufacture, and may be secure against terrorists if they are ever stolen.
Enter the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW). The RRW design project began three years ago. Per congressional order, it is supposed to produce only replacements for existing warheads – not to create additional warheads for new missions such as attacking underground bunkers. The US has an arsenal of about 6,000 deployed warheads and has previously said it would reduce the number to 1,700 to 2,200 by 2012.