NBC Weapons: Maintaining MAD

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NUCLEAR, BIOLOGICAL AND CHEMICAL WEAPONS

July 29, 2016: The U.S. currently plans to spend about $30 billion a year to replace aging nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. This will take until the late 2030s to complete. About a third of this is for new nuclear weapons. The rest is for new ballistic missiles (ICBMs launched from land and SLBMs launched from subs), new SSBNs (nuclear powered subs to launch SLBMs) and new long range bombers. The expense could been a lot higher were it not the aftereffects of the Cold War ending in 1991.

In the 1990s a lot of nuclear weapons and delivery systems were retired and scrapped or recycled. But by 2009 the U.S. still had 7,000 nuclear warheads. There were another 8,000 out there, most of them Russian. Since the 1990s over 15,000 warheads, mostly Russian and American had been taken out of service. 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. After the Cold War ended those tactics were no longer popular, thus you only need a few hundred warheads to pose a credible nuclear threat (“MAD” for “Mutually Assured Destruction”). The U.S. and Russia agreed to get each of their warhead inventories down to 2,000 or fewer.

There was another problem. The remaining warheads were getting older. Thus it became more and more important to refurbish older nukes and design some new, safer and cheaper to maintain, weapons. No new warheads have been built since the end of the Cold War in 1991. Designing and building new ones is expensive ($30-40 million each), and meanwhile it costs more to maintaining the existing nukes. Those who maintain the current nuclear arsenal are eager to get some new ones, but are being told to just keep the old ones working. 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.

Many of the existing warheads were manufactured in the 1970s. These are old, but like any piece of expensive machinery, they are carefully maintained. Parts wear out and are replaced. Most importantly, these warheads have been tested. So you can be sure that these weapons will explode when ordered to. Because of a 1992 treaty, nuclear weapons may no longer be tested, even underground. The new warhead designs would have to be "tested" via simulation. That is not a major obstacle. Simulation of complex systems is now quite common, and proven 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 older designs, things that could be eliminated with a new warhead, even one that will never actually be detonated.

There are two other factors, that don't get mentioned as much in this debate. First, the labs and manufacturers who design and build nuclear warheads would like the work. Times have been tough for the nuclear weapons crowd since the Cold War ended. 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." Most people agree that the answer is, "not many."

But these weapons need a way to get delivered and that should be less of a problem because these are not nukes but they are even more expensive than the nukes they carry. Cost is more of a problem because the defense budget is continuing to decline and nukes and their delivery systems were never very popular, especially since the Cold War ended. But Russia is upgrading its nukes and delivery systems as is China. Suddenly the United States is no longer the leader in developing tech for nukes and delivery systems. The U.S. Air Force is in big trouble here because it’s delivery systems; heavy bombers are the most vulnerable to interception and seen as much less of a priority than ICBM. The navy’s SSBNs and SLBMs are seen as the most effective nuclear weapon delivery systems.

 


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