The cold war warrior, and author of NSC 68, Paul Nitze, observed that there are two types of nuclear weapons policy what he called “declaratory policy,” which is for “political-psychological effects,” and “actual policy,” which are the secret nuclear weapons employment plans to be used in times of conflict.
Usually “declaratory policy,” good critiques of which are made by realists, is made on the basis of extensive reviews, high level inter-agency debates, public discussion and so on.
But now it appears that a tweet from the blue on twitter suffices.
We had two examples of this over the festive period, one from the master of twitter, President elect Trump, and the other from Pakistan’s defence minister directed toward Israel in response to a “fake news” story.
I’ll concentrate on Trump’s tweet.
The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.
Many analysts observed that the Trump tweet represents a sharp break from the Obama era, given Obama’s “dream,” enunciated in his Prague speech, of a world without nuclear weapons.
That claim is false. There is a good measure of continuity in the Trump tweet. The Obama administration has an extensive and expensive nuclear modernisation programme, which includes the modernisation of nuclear warheads, their production and maintenance, in addition to the modernisation and replacement of their delivery vehicles.
The Obama “dream,” like much of that “hopey-changey thing,” was never to be taken seriously. The purpose of the “dream,” largely “political-psychological” to borrow from Nitze, was to help the United States achieve preferred outcomes at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference and the Nuclear Security Summits without changing the basic contours of actual US nuclear weapons policy.
It worked like a charm. Liberal arms controllers, when not berating Republican voters for their cluelessness, still believe that Obama’s dream was a real one.
The Obama warhead modernisation plan has some features in common with George W Bush’s more ambitious Reliable Replacement Warhead programme, and can be seen as a more rational version of the Bush programme.
We might say this on two grounds, firstly the Obama programme is more politically rational. RRW encountered real problems in congress, especially because RRW was a clear break from stockpile stewardship which had bipartisan support from the end of cold war onward. Majority support for a break from stockpile stewardship could not be garnered in congress, and the fallacious claims made about plutonium aging hardly helped matters. Secondly, RRW, in being a break from stockpile stewardship, envisaged the development of new nuclear warheads not just in the planned out years of the programme, the most innovative period from a design perspective, but right from the get go.
The technical risks associated with RRW was illustrated by the eventual choice for the first RRW warhead, to replace the W76 known as WR-1. There was a competition between the two weapons labs, Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore, and in an inversion of the traditional pattern, Los Alamos came up with a design that was more radical than Lawrence Livermore which adopted a more conservative approach. The Livermore design was based on a plutonium pit developed for the W89 warhead in the 1980s that did not go into production, however it was tested.
The Bush administration, toward the end of its term, picked the Livermore design doubtless because it was politically and technically less risky. We are heading toward nuclear weapons becoming a theoretical science rather than a mixture of theory and phenomenology, but we are not there yet.
The Obama administration decided to adopt a programme that could be described as being RRW-lite, ot stockpile stewardship plus as most have termed it, and, no doubt in part due to the dreamy-hopey-changey-thing, political agreement was successfully reached for RRW-lite. Some aspects that made the Obama programme RRW-lite are that the Obama programme does not have the same commitment to innovative warhead replacement design over the long term, but that could not be precluded, and over the short term the idea is to consolidate to fewer warhead types, just like RRW, but through consolidating the technical features of current warhead designs, especially the plutonium pits through refurbishment and reuse rather than overt replacement.
One might argue that RW-1 although replacing the W76 was a type of refurbishment and reuse.
So, what could happen, if Trump follows through on the sentiments expressed in his tweet, is revive the Replacement Warhead Programme. This would be to go a step beyond Obama’s RRW-lite approach. RRW is not the only warhead programme that the Bush administration could not get political agreement for. There has long been talk in the nuclear weapons labs and among nuclear strategists regarding the feasibility of an earth penetrating nuclear warhead and the Bush administration did have a proposal for one, namely the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP).
That too Trump could put on the cards, especially because the RNEP was sold as being for rogue state, rather than Russian, contingencies.
One might also recall that the RRW programme included rejuvenating the US nuclear weapons complex so that it could “surge” the production of nuclear weapons to cold war era levels, if needed by some unexpected revival of great power conflict involving a peer or near peer power, especially the production of plutonium pits.
That too could be on the Trump cards. The Obama administration is already committed to the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility.
The Trump tweet could well be a foreshadowing of a return to Bush era nuclear policies. There is good analysis of what the Trump tweet might mean from the New York Times, and if you read this analysis carefully you can see that a revival of the Bush nuclear strategy of “dissuasion,” discussed very early in his term and which featured prominently in the controversial National Security Strategy of the United States document that preceded the invasion and occupation of Iraq, is also in play particularly with reference to China.
Don’t forget that George W Bush and Vladimir Putin had good political relations, especially after 9/11, and that period of good political relations did not preclude the Bush administration from adopting the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review that provided the framework for much of the programmes discussed here.
So, with Trump it could be the works; RRW, RNEP, Dissuasion, space based Ballistic Missile Defense.
However, we are talking about a tweet by an RWNJ for RWNJs. Maybe we are taking it a bit too seriously. Maybe it was a tweet for “political-psychological effects,” to show that he could be tough on Putin when need be. After all the Trump tweet followed a statement from Putin regarding Russia’s nuclear weapons policy.
But then again…