NUCLEAR, BIOLOGICAL AND CHEMICAL WEAPONS
January 2, 2014: The U.S. is spending $23 billion a year on nuclear weapons. The biggest chunk (42 percent) goes to build and maintain the missiles, silos, submarines and aircraft that deliver the nukes. Another 36 percent goes for all purely “nuclear” activities (designing, building and maintaining the nukes as well as the nuclear reactors used in ships and subs). The other 22 percent goes for early warning, communications and control systems. There are related costs of $21 billion a year, of which a third is for cleaning up old nuclear weapons development and manufacturing facilities, 15 percent for arms control (mainly money to help clean up after the dismantling of most Soviet era nukes) and the remaining 50 percent for defenses against nuclear weapons (aircraft and missile defense systems).
The military is still using Cold War era nukes and associated equipment. The military wants to upgrade all this stuff but the money is not there. Even upgrading the Cold War stuff is expensive. Because of this there is a lot of support for continuing to shrink the number of nukes and delivery systems.
An example of the difficulty in replacing Cold War nukes can be seen in what it took over the last decade to refurbish the elderly W76 nuclear warheads. It wasn’t just money problems, the refurbishment was also held up by difficulties in manufacturing several components. The warheads were originally manufactured three decades ago. Since that time, it was discovered that the necessary details for manufacturing some of the unique components had been lost. One of those items, a chemical codenamed Fogbank, could not be created using surviving documents. This problem was eventually overcome but then similar problems were discovered with some other components. This sort of thing was largely the result of manufacturing details being so highly classified that crucial details were sometimes lost. Normally manufacturing details for older items can afford to be a little vague because unclassified components have lots of similar items either still in production, or many people and documents you can consult to quickly reconstruct the needed materials and process details. Not so with classified components for nuclear weapons.
This began in 2007 when there was a proposal for a new warhead for the navy's sea-launched Trident D5 ballistic missiles. This involved replacing 3,000 W76 warheads that currently equip 336 missiles. That would cost about $100 billion. The navy preferred to refurbish the existing W76s and save a lot of money rather than coming up with a new design.
The case for a new warhead is that this would provide a nuclear weapon that is more reliable, less likely to go off by accident, cheaper to maintain and more difficult to use if one is stolen by terrorists. The navy insisted that the current W76 warheads, produced between 1972 and 1987, were adequate. The W76s are old, but like any piece of expensive machinery, they are carefully maintained. Parts wear out and are replaced. It was components that don't wear out quickly that caused the problem with the refurbishment. These items have been out of production for over two decades.
Most importantly, the W76 has been tested. It was certain that a W76 will explode when ordered to. Because of a 1992 treaty, nuclear weapons may no longer be tested, even underground. The new warhead would have to be "tested" via simulation. That is not a major obstacle. Simulation of complex systems is now quite common, and reliable. It's one of those unseen technologies that make life so much better for everyone. The nuclear weapons designers, however, believe they have discovered several flaws in the W76 design, things that could be eliminated with a new warhead, even one that will never actually be detonated. One of the flaws is apparently the difficulty of reviving the manufacture of key W76 components like the mysterious fogbank chemical.
Times have been tough for the nuclear weapons crowd since the Cold War ended in 1991. Since then, several treaties have been signed that reduce the American nuclear arsenal. Thus it is bad politics to try and get lots of money for new warheads. This is especially true because most people would like for there to be even fewer warheads. It's the old debate over "how many warheads do you need to get the job done." The U.S. and Russia each have about 2,200 usable warheads and a new treaty in 2010 pledges to reduce that to at least 1,550. The U.S. actually has 7,700 and Russia 8,500 warheads but most are disassembled or partially disabled.
Over 15,000 warheads have been taken out of service in the last two decades. The U.S. and Russia had so many because both nations had developed tactics that included attempting to knock each other’s land based missile silos out of action. Any exchange of that many warheads, even if only ten percent of them actually went off, would have destroyed Eurasia and North America. Those tactics are no longer popular, thus you only need a few hundred warheads to pose a credible nuclear threat. As a result of all this, getting $100 billion for a new generation of warheads was not going to happen. The decision was made to refurbish.
Just maintaining existing warheads costs over a billion dollars a year, with or without crises like lost manufacturing knowledge. That includes money needed for maintaining and upgrading facilities, as well as work on the warheads themselves, and research and development of maintenance requirements and techniques. Nukes are still a big business. But they are not likely to get a lot bigger. A new treaty is proposed that will reduce the nuclear arsenal even further.