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Cold War-Era Nuclear Debate Returns

Prepared by: Michael Moran
August 1, 2007

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Underneath the Iraq war debate and other more celebrated issues, a showdown looms between the Bush administration and Congress over a plan to modernize the nation’s arsenal of strategic nuclear warheads. President Bush has asked for $88 million to fund the “Reliable Replacement Warhead,” a program meant to ensure the aging point of the thermonuclear sword remains sharp. The philosophical and scientific argument, laid out in this widely read 2005 paper (PDF) and endorsed by the leaders of U.S. nuclear research labs, holds that the U.S. nuclear deterrent, without modernization, will become increasingly unreliable and even dangerous over the next decade.   

To date, the Reliable Replacement Warhead exists only on paper and had received less than $10 million in funding, rendering it almost nonexistent in the realm of defense budgeting. The Senate in June approved a $66 million expansion (DefenseNews). But the House cut the funding completely. “Currently there exists no convincing rationale for maintaining the large number of existing Cold War nuclear weapons, much less producing additional warheads,” the House Appropriations Committee said in a report following its vote. The disagreement sets up a classic “conference committee” clash between House and Senate negotiators, who each year have to reconcile differing approaches before submitting a final budget for the president’s signature.

Yet disagreements on the wisdom of the Bush administration’s approach don’t follow national-security typecasts. Scientists diverge, as a paper from the Naval Postgraduate School notes, on the question of whether modernization is needed for safety reasons. A recent Congressional Research Service report (PDF) says that even the Defense Department appears split on the issue. Leaders of U.S. Strategic Command endorse the new warheads. But the CRS report notes that “DOD’s 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review gave it only a mild endorsement.”

Outside the military, the idea that the U.S. nuclear arsenal needs a comprehensive—and expensive—redesign has stirred deep controversy (NYT) in some realms. Administration strategists say the age of these weapons, none of which were built after 1990, renders them less and less reliable. Some go so far as to intimate they might pose a danger of accidental detonation—though even advocates of the modernization plans agree that is far-fetched. Others believe the Bush plan too timid: The Heritage Foundation’s Baker Spring argues modernization should focus on innovation, not retrofitting outdated weapons.

On the other side, a variety of former top policymakers, along with defense budget watchdogs, view the “next generation” debate as an excuse for failing to take arms control to the next level. In January, this argument took full voice in a Wall Street Journal op-ed signed by Henry J. Kissinger, George P. Schulz, William J. Perry, and Sam Nunn. “Reassertion of the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons and practical measures toward achieving that goal would be, and would be perceived as, a bold initiative consistent with America's moral heritage,” they wrote. The Union of Concerned Scientists lays out its arguments against the Reliable Replacement Warhead in this briefing, while the Center for Defense Information offers this resource page. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists features a package of stories on the RRW in its August edition.

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