We write today because we read a headline in The New Mexican on May 6: “Official: U.S. must move ahead with nuclear weapons work,” written by Susan Montoya Bryan of the Associated Press.
This disturbing headline highlights another misguided direction by the hawks and hard-liners in the Pentagon.
The Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration and the Department of Defense divide responsibilities for the nation’s nuclear weapons. The National Nuclear Security Administration is responsible for the research, development, production and dismantlement of the nuclear warheads, while the Department of Defense manages the development and deployment of warhead delivery systems, such as missiles, aircraft and submarines.
The president’s nuclear goals, as laid out in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, state a desire to reinforce deterrence with Russia. In pursuit of this goal, the Department of Defense decided to pursue additional low-yield nuclear capabilities to counter perceived Russia’s willingness to further lower the nuclear threshold. Los Alamos National Laboratory produces the triggers (plutonium pits) for new weapons such as the low-yield tactical warhead W76-2, which is a modification of the W76-1 warhead.
This lowers the threshold for starting a nuclear war.
If the U.S. launches a low-yield six-kiloton weapon against an enemy, the enemy will not stop to analyze the damage by the W76-2 to determine whether it was a low-yield or high-yield nuke. They will retaliate with a full-blown response.
In the last 75 years, the world has purportedly avoided nuclear war due to the doctrine of mutual assured destruction. Carl Sagan paraphrased MAD like this: “The nuclear arms race is like two sworn enemies standing waist deep in gasoline, one with three matches, the other with five.” MAD specifically applies to nuclear weapons and goes by the term “deterrence,” as in nuclear deterrence, which means “military strategy under which one power uses the threat of reprisal effectively to preclude an attack from an adversary power.”
The U.S. nuclear arsenal (6,185 nuclear warheads) is divided into three levels of stockpile readiness:
- Operationally deployed weapons are in the active stockpile and mated with delivery systems ready to be used in combat.
- The active stockpile consists of fully operational weapons, available for immediate use regardless whether they are operationally deployed.
- The inactive reserve consists of weapons that are kept intact but are not maintained in operational condition.
One pressing issue with the stockpile is whether the weapons will be reliable. LANL technical expertise is needed for this. Thom Mason, the director of LANL, has stated, “We want the stockpile to work so it can continue to provide deterrence to Russia and China.”
Between 1940 and 1996, the U.S. government spent at least $9.49 trillion in present-day terms on nuclear weapons, including platforms development (aircraft, rockets and facilities), command and control, maintenance, waste management and administrative costs. It plans to spend an estimated $1 trillion over the next 30 years to rebuild the nation’s nuclear facilities and modernize nuclear weapons. Imagine where we would be today if these amounts had been spent on education, health care and building the U.S. infrastructure.
In summary, we support the work of LANL nuclear scientists and engineers to maintain the nuclear weapon expertise and keep weapons safe and secure. In addition, we recognize LANL expertise is needed to verify treaty agreements. However, we oppose the production of new plutonium pits at LANL. These pits are not necessary and will not enhance national security.
Maintaining the U.S. nuclear stockpile should be accompanied by a focus on international diplomacy to reduce the global number of nuclear weapons.
Former director of Los Alamos, Norris Bradbury, once stated, “We don’t build nuclear weapons to kill people. We build them to buy time for our political leaders to find a better way.”
We are waiting for our leaders to find a better way, starting with arms control.