On Tuesday, May 23, the Trump administration released its Fiscal Year 2018 (FY2018) budget request. I am doing a three-part analysis of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s budget. That agency, a part of the Department of Energy, is responsible for developing and maintaining US nuclear weapons. Previously we focused on The Good and The Bad, and today we have The Ugly.
NNSA’s “New” Warhead a Sign of Things to Come?
The NNSA’s FY2018 budget request includes what might seem to be a relatively innocuous statement:
In February 2017, DOD and NNSA representatives agreed to use the term “IW1” rather than “W78/88-1 LEP” to reflect that IW1 replaces capability rather than extending the life of current stockpile systems.
In other words, rather than extending the life of the W78 and W88 warheads via a life extension program (or LEP), the NNSA will develop the IW1 to “replace” those warheads.
To my mind, that is an admission that the IW1—short for Interoperable Warhead One–is a new nuclear weapon, as UCS has been saying for quite some time.
The Obama administration was loath to admit as much, arguing that the proposed system—combining a primary based on one from an existing warhead and a secondary from another warhead—was not a “new” warhead. That reluctance stemmed from the administration’s declaration in its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) that the United States would not develop new nuclear warheads or new military capabilities or new missions for nuclear weapons. Declaring the IW1 a new warhead would destroy that pledge.
That semantic sleight of hand by the Obama team was somewhat ugly: the IW1 is a new warhead. (For a lot more detail on the IW1 and the misguided “3+2 plan” of which it is part, see our report Bad Math on New Nuclear Weapons.)
However, what might be coming from the Trump administration is truly ugly.
The fact that the FY2018 NNSA budget admits the IW1 is a new warhead may be signal that the Trump team—which is doing its own NPR—will eliminate the Obama pledge not to develop new weapons or pursue new military capabilities and missions.
That change would send a clear message to the rest of the world that the United States believes it needs new types of nuclear weapons and new nuclear capabilities for its security. This would further damage the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which is already fraying because the weapon states are not living up to their commitment to eliminate their nuclear weapons. Deep frustration on the part of the non-nuclear weapon states has led to the current negotiations on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons. New US weapons could also damage our efforts to halt North Korea’s nuclear program and undermine the agreement with Iran that has massively reduced their program to produce fissile materials for nuclear weapons.
Moreover, a likely corollary of withdrawing that pledge would be to pursue a new type of nuclear weapon, or a new capability. Some options have already been suggested:
- The Defense Science Board recommended developing weapons with “lower-yield, primary-only options” (because the B61 bomb and the air-launched cruise missile already have low-yield options, this was presumably for missile warheads, though the report does not specify).
- The author of the Obama NPR—Jim Miller—and Admiral Sandy Winnefeld (USN, retired) have proposed reviving the submarine-launched nuclear-armed cruise missile that was retired in the Obama NPR.
Those options are contrary to US security interests. Nuclear weapons are the only threat to the survival of the United States. Given that, and because there will not be a winner in a nuclear war, the US goal must be to reduce the role that these weapons play in security policy until they no longer are a threat to our survival. Continuing to invest in new types of nuclear weapons convinces the rest of the world that the United States will never give up its nuclear weapons, and encourages other nuclear-weapon states to respond in ways that will continue to threaten the United States.
Make no mistake, the United States already has incredibly powerful and reliable nuclear weapons that would deter any nuclear attack on it or its allies, and it will for the foreseeable future.
But the idea that the United States should pursue new types of weapons? That is truly ugly.