Budget cuts and extra bombs

  • This artwork by Paul Tong relates to recent strategic arms talks about reduction and proliferation.

General belt-tightening, followed by more belt-tightening with sequestration, is forcing the nation's multibillion-dollar nuclear weapons complex to realize that the free-spending days of the Cold War are over.

"The job of delivering nuclear defense was a job everybody took seriously. .<TH>.<TH>. And in a given year we spent our time concerned with achieving that and less with, I would argue, understanding the cost of things because of the imperative to deliver during the Cold War." That's how Neile Miller, acting administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, explained the almost cavalier attitude over the past 20 years toward spending on nuclear weapons. She said this during her appearance at a Feb. 14 hearing of the House Appropriations energy and water development subcommittee.

Miller told the panel: "So you might rightly ask, 'It's been a long time since the end of the Cold War. What gives?'<TH>" What gives is that for the most part the NNSA, and to a degree the Defense Department, must get serious about how they look at the nuclear threat since they are not going to have unlimited cash for nuclear deterrence. It's not just that money for nukes is no longer unlimited — it's also that policymakers are realizing the nation doesn't need as many nuclear weapons as it has.

In the crazy Cold War days, we and the Soviets made it a numbers game, both sides building up to some 30,000 bombs and warheads for intercontinental strategic delivery systems and shorter-range weapons, supposedly for the tactical battlefield.

Bilateral treaties between Washington and Moscow have lowered both nations' stockpiles by more than 85 percent. But as Don Cook, NNSA deputy administrator for defense programs, told the Exchange Monitor's Fifth Annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit on Feb. 21, the last official number released by the U.S. government in 2009 was still 5,113 warheads and bombs.

Cook said that the U.S. total has dropped to "a bit under 5,000 warheads" as the nation works toward the limit set by the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1,550 deployed warheads by 2018. The treaty sets no limit on non-deployed warheads.

Remember, 68 years ago just two very low-yield — by today's standards — atomic bombs all but destroyed two Japanese cities and ended a war.

At the Exchange Monitor session, Ellen Tauscher, former undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs, said her opinion was that 1,000 deployed warheads and an additional 1,500 as a hedge would be "enough for deterrence or threats." But she said she had been out of government for a year and did not know what President Barack Obama has approved in his as-yet unreleased interagency study, completed last fall.

One thing she said she was certain of, given the atmosphere here and abroad: "No reductions with Russia at least through 2014." Another Exchange Monitor speaker, retired Gen. Larry D. Welch, former Air Force chief of staff, explained how the number of nuclear warheads needed for deterrence has gone down over the years because of "smarter targeting." Welch said at one time four nuclear bombs or warheads were aimed at one target, what he called "overkill." Now it is two weapons to one target.

Welch also said the 12 types of older warheads and bombs are being reduced to five as part of the stockpile's life extension program. Most of today's nuclear weapons were designed in the 1970s and produced in the 1980s. Some are being retired and eventually will be dismantled. Those that go through the LEP have non-nuclear components tested; in some cases, modernized parts will be added while the nuclear package remains untested.

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