America Racing Toward Nuclear Obsolescence
By Peter Pry
President Trump’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is making heroic efforts to reverse decades of neglect by advancing Life Extension Programs (LEPs) for U.S. nuclear weapons — all designed and built 30-40 years ago.
But the U.S. nuclear scientific-industrial base is so “hollowed-out” that America may never be able to catch-up with Russia and China in modern, new-generation, offensive nuclear weapons that deter Moscow and Beijing and enforce peace.
U.S. nuclear weapons are Cold War relics, now long past their original service lives, being refurbished to serve as re-sharpened teeth of America’s nuclear deterrent:
- The B61-12 gravity bomb (variable yield 0.3, 1.5, 10, and 50 kilotons: 1968.)
- The W80-4 cruise missile warhead (variable yield 5-150 kilotons: 1979.)
- The W87 warhead for the Minuteman III ICBM (475 kilotons: 1986.)
- The W88 warhead for the Trident SLBM (475 kilotons: 1988.)
- The W76-1 warhead for the Trident SLBM (90 kilotons: 1978.)
- The W76-2 warhead (5-7 kilotons) modified from the W76-1 to serve as a tactical nuclear weapon for the Trident SLBM, entered service in February 2020.
President Trump’s greatest gamble to rescue the U.S. nuclear deterrent from obsolescence is the recently announced W93 warhead — which will be the first genuinely new U.S. nuclear weapon designed and manufactured in decades.
The W93 warhead breaks the longstanding self-imposed prohibition on the U.S. building new-generation nuclear weapons, genuinely modern weapons, designed and built using the best science and technology currently available. The so-called “modernization” of U.S. nuclear weapons has meant patching-up Cold War antiques.
In 1993, during the Clinton Administration, congressional Democrats passed the Spratt-Furse Amendment that in effect made it illegal for NNSA and the U.S. nuclear weapon labs to design or build new-generation nuclear weapons. Congressional Republicans repealed this prohibition a decade later, in 2003, but failed to dispel the “penumbra” of Spratt-Furse by mandating and funding new-generation nuclear weapons.
In contrast, Russia, China, and North Korea are deploying new-generation nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Russia’s Defense Minister, General Sergei Shoygu, boasts 80% of Russia’s nuclear deterrent is modernized.
While the U.S. has not tested nuclear weapons since 1992, 28 years ago, in observance of the unratified Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), Russia has conducted low-yield and hydrodynamic nuclear tests to develop new-generation nuclear weapons. (See former senior Defense Department official Dr. Mark Schneider, “Yes, the Russians Are Testing Nuclear Weapons” Center for Security Policy, 14 August 2019).
For example, Russian officials credibly claim to have advanced “third-generation” nuclear weapons that are “clean” and produce little or no radioactive fallout, including very low-yield tactical nuclear weapons for land, sea, and air combat; nuclear weapons for specialized effects like neutron, X-rays, and gamma radiation; and monster very high-yield 100-megaton nuclear weapons designed to inflict a radioactive Doomsday.
Even North Korea probably has Super-EMP nuclear weapons that could blackout North America and potentially win a nuclear war with a single blow.
The U.S. has no advanced new-generation nuclear weapons to deter these new threats with an equivalent and proportional response.
Indeed, even the W93 will take NNSA 14 years to design and build, and not be available until 2034.
The Congressional Strategic Posture Commission warned 11 years ago in “America’s Strategic Posture” (2009) that the U.S. nuclear scientific-industrial base is obsolete and needs reconstruction.
For example, no scientist currently serving in U.S. nuclear weapon labs has ever designed, built, and tested a nuclear weapon. Defense industries for making tritium, enriched-uranium, and plutonium have so atrophied that the U.S. must scavenge these and critical parts from stockpiled nuclear weapons.
NNSA is making heroic efforts to rebuild U.S. capability to make plutonium pits (nuclear weapon triggers) hoping to make 80 pits per year by 2030. Today, Russia can make 4,000 plutonium pits annually.
The president’s FY2021 NNSA budget request includes $850 million for Sandia to design electric capacitors suitable for U.S. nuclear weapons. Capacitors are so fundamental, necessary, and simple their lack is especially alarming — like carpenters having to re-invent the nail.
Drs. John Hopkins and David Sharp — former chief scientists in the Los Alamos nuclear stockpile program — in “The Scientific Foundation for Assessing the Nuclear Performance of Weapons in the U.S. Stockpile Is Eroding” (Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 2019) warn that the safety and reliability of weapons is increasingly doubtful without nuclear testing.
Unfortunately, the Cold War bipartisan consensus that the U.S. nuclear deterrent should be “second to none” is broken. Future Democrat Presidents and Congresses are unlikely to support rebuilding the U.S. nuclear scientific-industrial base or developing new nuclear weapons (cost $700 billion).
President Trump should supplement our aging nuclear deterrent with crash programs to deploy active and passive defenses now.
Brilliant Pebbles space-based defenses (cost $20 billion) could be deployed in 5 years and make nuclear missiles obsolete. EMP hardening electric grids and other life-sustaining critical infrastructures could be accomplished in less time, paid for with private money, and neutralize the easiest to execute and most dangerous nuclear threat.
Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) may become a fact unless we revolutionize defensive military technologies to ensure Strategic Assured National Existence (SANE).
Dr. Peter Vincent Pry is the executive director of the Task Force on National and Homeland Security. He served on the Congressional EMP Commission as chief of staff, the Congressional Strategic Posture Commission, the House Armed Services Committee, and the CIA. He is the author of “Blackout Wars.” For more of his reports, Go Here Now.