Biden locks horns with Gates and Clinton over the monster that won't die

deproliferatorTHE DEPROLIFERATOR — In the eighties it became more and more difficult to kill movie monsters dead. They’d re-surface again and again like your favorite musical artist in live performance with encores upon encores. Neither were monsters, supposedly dead once and for all, immune to resurrection. In one installment of the Friday the 13th series, Jason Voorhees was brought back to life via telekinesis.

But the entire premise of the 1985 film Reanimator was reviving the dead, a subject which has also been on the mind of Joseph Cirincione, who, as the president of the Ploughshares Fund, is as able as he is visible a spokesperson for disarmament. He was recently quoted in a Global Security report (thanks to Armchair Generalist for the heads-up):

“RRW is dead but RRW supporters are looking to revive this corpse. … They are scheming and maneuvering to. . . convince the White House that the only way to get the test-ban treaty ratified is to get a new warhead.”

If you’re like me, you find the Web over-run with not only spyware but what are commonly called acronyms. Few are true acronyms (initial caps which attempt to spell or sound out a word); most are garden-variety abbreviations. That said, RRW is short for Reliable Replacement Warheads, a proposed Department of Energy project to replace aging nuclear warheads. Global Security reports:

Vice chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Gen. James Cartwright, formerly a top Marines nuclear weapons commander “expressed concern that today’s arsenal incorporates vacuum tubes and other outdated technologies that should be replaced.”

Vacuum tubes? Like those old black and white TV sets on which people watched the Milton Berle Show? Doesn’t that make the case for replacing the warheads cut and dried? Uh, not so fast:

Nuclear-weapon experts have cast doubt on the notion that the vintage technology constitutes a valid basis for a warhead-replacement program, because it is used sparingly in the arsenal and could easily be tested and replaced, if needed.

Besides nuclear warheads are already maintained through the Life Extension [sic, points out Ron Rosenbaum (see below)] and Stockpile Stewardship programs. Besides, according to many experts, they may not need — as if nuclear warheads were actually “needed” at all — replacement for 20 years.

Of course, there’s a certain urgency to those advocating RRW. In a couple of decades, with the momentum that disarmament is building, there may be not be enough nuclear warheads left by then to make it worth anyone’s while to replace them.

But with the backsliding President Obama has demonstrated on bail-outs and health-care reform, the expectation that his disarmament overtures will be spared that fate might be wishful thinking. (“Will the Pentagon Thwart Obama’s Dream of Zero?” asks Ron Rosenbaum at Slate.) Still, RRW’s proponents, whether it’s the Pentagon or congresspersons seeking to score programs for their constituencies, aren’t letting up.

Before we proceed, you might be asking yourself, “What’s with the ‘reliable’?” Since when have new weapons programs been prefaced by a laudatory adjective? Imagine adding such phrases to other defense programs that are twisting in the wind, such as the Trusty F-22. Or Old Faithful Future Combat Systems. Hyping the replacement warheads system by calling it “reliable” is yet another sign of its proponents’ desperation.

To return to Global Security’s story, in early June. . .

Defense Secretary Robert Gates raised the idea of reinstating the controversial Reliable Replacement Warhead effort during a secret “Principals’ Committee” meeting convened by the National Security Council.

However, Vice President Joe Biden, in charge of the administration’s nonproliferation initiatives, opposed Gates’ proposal. He contested that modernizing by. . .

. . . building replacement warheads could undercut the Obama administration’s nonproliferation goals [which include] international consensus against Iran’s suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons and North Korea’s maintenance of its nascent arsenal.

Biden, famous for not mincing words, had previously “alleged the warhead-replacement project had been ‘hijacked’ by those seeking to maintain a bloated nuclear arms establishment.”

But Secretary of State Hillary Clinton came down on Gates’s side. In fact, “behind closed doors in Obama’s administration, senior appointees and others have begun lining up behind one or the other policy goal, and the two sides are beginning to clash.” Her reasoning:

. . . it might be necessary for the Obama administration to embark on an ambitious warhead modernization effort if it is to win enough Republican support for Senate ratification of the START replacement pact, according to sources. [As well as] for Senate approval of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, another objective Obama laid out in his Prague speech.

Much as we disarmament types would hate to admit it, does Secretary of State Clinton have a point? To the contrary, according to Cirincione, who finds it. . .

. . . particularly galling. . . that many in Obama’s own appointed national security team are selling the president short by pushing for a replacement warhead.

“Ironically, in their effort to look strong, they’re displaying weakness,” he said. “They’re offering concessions up front that should only come down to the last resort.” [A bad habit of the president. — RW]

“The president has to have the guts to say no,” said one RRW opponent who asked not to be named. “Almost everyone else is inclined to Clinton-vintage political triangulation.”

Yikes! Anything but that. Worse, at least from the point of hawks, when it comes to deterrence, RRWs may not even “add value.” In response to the Global Security report, an Arms Control Wonk commenter named Yousaf writes:

If anything, untested new warheads may hold marginally less deterrent value in the eyes of a potential adversary. … Would you fly on an airliner that had never had a test flight, even though its aerodynamics may be well understood? So why would you — or more importantly our enemies — believe untested new weapons would work better than the tested ones we have?

Actually, writes Rosenbaum in his Slate article, it’s not inconceivable that we would test them. RRWs “would probably require underground testing. . . and thus continued U.S. refusal to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test Ban treaty.” 

What makes it all the more frustrating is that not only do RRWs keep getting up off the mat, but we’ve also got to grapple with that other monster that won’t die — missile defense.

First posted at the Faster Times.

7 replies »

  1. Why is it that “Clinton” and “wrong side of the issue” go together like peanut butter and jelly? And how wrong do you have be to out wrong Joe Biden?

    I want to see real movement towards nuclear disarmament; if Obama could do that and screw everything else up, i’d give him an historical pass. But i’ll be keeping my guard up. The man has to stand up for something…shit, anything.

  2. “Vice chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Gen. James Cartwright, formerly a top Marines nuclear weapons commander ‘expressed concern that today’s arsenal incorporates vacuum tubes and other outdated technologies that should be replaced.’”

    “Arsenal” seems to be a highly versatile word there. The implied-but-not-quite-stated, if you bother to read at all carefully, notion that we have nuclear warheads that use “vacuum tubes” certainly is a remarkable suggestion.

    Only a highly ignorant and gullible person could believe such a thing, but the gall of implying the claim is impressive.

    (Re-Animator is based on an H. P. Lovecraft story, “”Herbert West: Reanimator”, incidentally.)

    If the report is correct that Gates is pushing the RRW, shame on him.

    “Biden raised the notion that an ambitious nuclear modernization effort that includes building replacement warheads could undercut the Obama administration’s nonproliferation goals, according to these sources.”

    Good for Biden!

  3. The idea that old warheads might be controlled with vacuum tubes isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. Vacuum tubes are much harder to radiation than transistors, especially the transistors of several decades ago.

  4. “The idea that old warheads might be controlled with vacuum tubes isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds.”

    Let me be specific: I have no problem whatever with an assertion that vacuum technology was used in connection with nuclear warhead technology. Again, this is an assertion that covers immense territory.

    I’m questioning the notion that warheads were constructed with vacuum tubes inside the warheads themselves.

    If that’s true, I’d certainly like to read more detail about this technical design, and would appreciate any pointers that could better inform me about this. Thanks if you can provide me with any.

    • I have no information on that whatsoever. I wouldn’t be surprised, depending on the age of the warhead we’re discussing, but neither would I be surprised if there were some other exotic (or once exotic, anyway) technologies in use instead.

  5. Vacuum tubes are much harder to radiation than transistors

    I’ve heard this from others too, Brian.

    Thanks for weighing in, Gary. Please visit again.