Nuclear Drama

There is nuclear drama.  Not the kind of drama where weapons are seconds from being launched.  Nothing quite that dramatic.  But there is political drama in the world of nuclear weapons.

First up, W93.  Very dramatic.  What’s a W93, you ask?  Nothing yet, but when the design is done, it will be a ‘new’ submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) warhead for the Navy.  Congress has been saying ‘no new weapons’ for a long time, even as every other nuclear power has developed new weapons.  Because of that mandate, the US has been limited to ‘life extension programs’ for old weapons.  The original W76 warheads became W76 modification 1 (for short, W76-1) and some became W76-2.  Sticking to old designs can put the developers in a bind.  Some engineering decisions are made in advance, because the new weapon has to fit where the old weapon fit, and communicate (warhead to missile, bomb to aircraft) like the old weapon did, and use parts from the old system.  A new warhead would remove some design constraints that life extension programs could suffer, and may mean a better design.  But will it survive the drama on Capitol Hill?

There’s drama around the sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM) capability that will return to the US Navy.  As I noted in my post Nuclear Posture, the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review called for a return to this old capability that had been terminated years ago.  Development will take years, of course.  Right now they are just starting with a formal analysis of alternatives.  So what’s the drama?  We’re bringing back the capability, and critics are not happy.  They say our use of conventional SLCMs will lead to confusion on the enemy’s part, because they won’t know whether conventional or nuclear cruise missiles are involved. So far, that has not been a problem.  We have used conventional warhead Tomahawk cruise missiles against Iraq, Syria, and others, without fear of nuclear retaliation from these non-nuclear states.  The issue only comes up if we launch a bunch of cruise missiles against nuclear states.  On radar, a cruise missile looks just like an airplane anyway, so it’s not clear how the target country would know it’s under cruise missile attack until after detonation.

The aforementioned W76-2 is a low-yield SLBM warhead.  It brings its own drama: How dare we create a nuclear warhead that’s less destructive?  We might actually use it in a crisis!  Which just makes it more effective as a means of deterrence.  But, the complainers argue dramatically, If Russia or China saw it coming, they wouldn’t know it was a low-yield weapon!  Dude, it’s still a nuke.  If those countries knew it was coming, our assurances that it was low-yield would not alleviate their concerns.  Also, it would not necessarily be used against Russia or China.

Nuclear burden sharing is a term for the NATO policy to station some US weapons in NATO countries in Europe, for use by both US and European NATO forces in case of war.  Risks, responsibilities, and costs are thus shared by the US and other NATO countries.  Some parties of the left want to end burden sharing.  Their success in one country would encourage similar leftist parties in other countries, and the whole arrangement could fall apart.  They want American nuclear weapons to protect NATO, but they don’t want those icky weapons to actually be stored in their countries, or really any other NATO countries.  They want American nukes to be out of sight, out of mind, etc., as long as the Americans pay all the bill and take all the risks.  These European leftist politicians are like a bunch of ungrateful young adults living with their parents.   They complain about how Mom does the laundry (for free) and cooks the meals (for free), while they refuse to take the garbage out and wash dishes.  Whenever we think things are going well in nuclear sharing, with NATO nations modernizing their delivery systems, there is always the threat that a leftist party will ruin everything.

Along with the drama comes bad diplomatic arguments.  In unrelated posts I have covered bad scientific arguments, and here I discuss their diplomatic counterparts, that are often seen in the relevant media.

An argument is made that NATO nuclear sharing violates the ‘spirit’ of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  So, which nations signed the ‘spirit’ of the NPT?  I’m pretty sure none did.  Lots of nations have signed the text of the NPT.  The text of a treaty is what is agreed, and is binding on signatories.  Arguments about the ‘spirit’ of a treaty are what you hear when there’s no violation of the text, and thus no violation of the treaty.

So, what about the text?  Is nuclear sharing a violation of NPT?  Simply, no.  Sharing  existed before NPT and was accepted at the time NPT was signed.  The Soviet Union accepted burden sharing in the negotiations and when they signed it.  The Soviets signed NPT as a way of eliminating the proposed NATO Multilateral Force and preventing any sort of German possession of their own weapons.  NATO hosting of US weapons under US control was an acceptable position in comparison.  The Soviets never claimed NPT was violated.  It wasn’t until 2015 that their successor state Russia complained, disingenuously.  Burden sharing was not a NPT violation in Russia’s view from 1991 until 2015.  In short, it never was and is not now a violation.

EDIT September 2020: The Soviets did a little burden sharing of their own, in Bulgaria, in Poland under the Vistula Program, and possibly in other Warsaw Pact countries.  The CIA thought they did; see page 10 and paragraph 81 on page 44.

Setting the treaty aside, does burden sharing harm non-proliferation?  No, it’s the opposite.  NATO sharing prevented proliferation in West Germany and Italy, and may have taken the urgency out of the Swiss and Swedish nuclear programs.  A loss of confidence in German capability and US guarantees to NATO is leading to a new drama.  A respected German strategist says Germany should consider developing its own nuclear weapons.  The reason Germany did not do so decades ago was burden sharing.

EDIT August 2001: Spain started on a path to developing its own weapons as well.

EDIT March 2022: Norway worked with Yugoslavia on a nuclear program that could have (and for Yugoslavia, did) become a weapons program.  What was Norway’s goal here?  The more I read, the more it seems every nation on Earth had a nuclear weapons program at one time.

Meanwhile Asian and Pacific countries want their own NATO-style burden sharing, and if they don’t get it, they would consider developing their own weapons.   Australia, Japan, and South Korea want us to have a variety of nuclear weapons available to stabilize the region.  And by stabilize, they mean deter aggression from China and North Korea.

Analysts suggest that Japan and South Korea need a NATO-style nuclear sharing program.  A South Korean politician says his country needs its own deterrence.  Analysts suggest Australia needs nuclear sharing as well, with US or British weapons.   Australia considered developing its own weapons in the past, but has always stopped short.  If the US crafts a nuclear sharing program that includes Japan, South Korea, and Australia, potential proliferation in all of these countries can be avoided.

EDIT March 2002: These US allies in the Asia-Pacific region had nuclear weapon programs at one time:  Taiwan, South Korea, Australia.

In addition to non-proliferation, the US has an interest in reducing its nuclear weapon stockpile.  We need to be careful that as numbers of nuclear weapons are reduced, we do not make the world safe for conventional war.   Warfare has killed fewer people worldwide since nuclear weapons made war more dangerous for our enemies.  See figure 6 of this document.  The US needs to ignore all the drama and maintain nuclear strength so we don’t have to fight another war like those of the early 20th Century.


3 thoughts on “Nuclear Drama

  1. So….let me make certain I understand this…

    A new warhead…that uses all of the same components (except for the PAL) as the old warhead? And this is going to cost billions?


    1. Without knowing all the details, I expect the new warhead will have new safety and security features. That may include a change from conventional high explosive to an insensitive version. The change of explosives can drive other changes. Some of the old parts need refurbishment. Others will be replaced with new-built parts to old designs, and some (safety and security components most likely) will be new designs. Everything has to be tested to prove all the safety and security features work as advertised. So, should that add up to billions? I have no idea.


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