23 Nov 2008

US Nuclear Weapons Program Currently Moribund

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General Kevin Chilton, in the Wall Street Journal, has alarming news about the state of America’s nuclear arsenal. Two American presidential administrations have responded to the end of the Cold War by completely abandoning the modernization and replenishment of the US stockpile of nuclear weapons.

Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. nuclear weapons program has suffered from neglect. Warheads are old. There’s been no new warhead design since the 1980s, and the last time one was tested was 1992, when the U.S. unilaterally stopped testing. Gen. Chilton, who heads U.S. Strategic Command, has been sounding the alarm, as has Defense Secretary Robert Gates. So far few seem to be listening.

The U.S. is alone among the five declared nuclear nations in not modernizing its arsenal. The U.K. and France are both doing so. Ditto China and Russia. “We’re the only ones who aren’t,” Gen. Chilton says. Congress has refused to fund the Department of Energy’s Reliable Replacement Warhead program beyond the concept stage and this year it cut funding even for that. …

“We’ve done a pretty good job of maintaining our delivery platforms,” the general says, by which he means submarines, intercontinental ballistic missiles and intercontinental bombers. But nuclear warheads are a different story. They are Cold War legacies, he says, “designed for about a 15- to 20-year life.” That worked fine back when “we had a very robust infrastructure . . . that replenished those families of weapons at regular intervals.” Now, however, “they’re all older than 20 years . . . . The analogy would be trying to extend the life of your ’57 Chevrolet into the 21st century.”

Gen. Chilton pulls out a prop to illustrate his point: a glass bulb about two inches high. “This is a component of a V-61” nuclear warhead, he says. It was in “one of our gravity weapons” — a weapon from the 1950s and ’60s that is still in the U.S. arsenal. He pauses to look around the Journal’s conference table. “I remember what these things were for. I bet you don’t. It’s a vacuum tube. My father used to take these out of the television set in the 1950s and ’60s down to the local supermarket to test them and replace them.”

And here comes the punch line: “This is the technology that we have . . . today.” …

The general stresses the need to “revitalize” the infrastructure for producing nuclear weapons. The U.S. hasn’t built a nuclear weapon in more than two decades and the manufacturing infrastructure has disappeared. The U.S. today “has no nuclear weapon production capacity,” he says flatly. “We can produce a handful of weapons in a laboratory but we’ve taken down the manufacturing capability.” At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. produced 3,000 weapons a year. …

these already-old weapons aren’t going to last forever, and part of the general’s job is to prepare for their refurbishing or replacement. “Think about what it’s going to take to recapitalize or replace those 2,000 weapons over a period of time. . . . If you could do 10 a year, it takes you 200 years. If you build an infrastructure that would allow you to do 100 a year, then you could envision recapitalizing that over a 20-year-period.”

There’s also the issue of human capital, which is graying. It’s “every bit as important as the aging of the weapon systems,” the general says. “The last individual to have worked on an actual nuclear test in this country, the last scientist or engineer, will have retired or passed on in the next five years.” The younger generation has no practical experience with designing or building nuclear warheads.

Read the whole thing.

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