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"Forget the Rest" blog


November 8, 2016

Re: Today begins a time when significant reforms in nuclear policy can be made without significant political backlash

  1. Nuclear weapons and their modernization: we believe the beginning of the new administration is a good time for cutting programs, downsizing, and stronger oversight
  2. The nuclear weapons ban treaty of 2018.
  3. NNSA plutonium pit production strategy

Dear colleagues --

We have known some of you for several years; others we have not met. I have known many of your predecessors, and many of their predecessors. Together we have tried (and are still trying) to reform the warhead labs and plants run by the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Defense Programs (DP) and its successor the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). A lot of other folks have tried to do this also.

We have had very mixed success.

We can do better. I submit to you that now is the time. The stakes (national security, fiscal, foreign policy, management, environmental, nonproliferation) are rising. Decisions made now will have lasting and expensive consequences.

I think we really do need to reach deeper, think more creatively, and finally break through some of the excuses that seem so weighty in hothouse Washington. (Some of them can appear weighty out here in the colonies as well.)

has to lead back there. Somebody has to stick their neck out a millimeter or two.

(We are unimpressed with de-alerting or "no first use" as a possible policy reforms, the chances for which have apparently evaporated anyway. Some of the reasons are here.)

My biggest gripes are not with our collective failures, but with the fact that so many in Congress and at the top of the bureaucracies rarely seem to even try these days. Few congresspersons and senators and executive branch appointees even articulate significant reforms, let alone expend political capital to get them. Sometimes it does happen, of course. But somehow almost everybody seems spooked these days about thinking outside an increasingly narrow box. Appropriations "success" seems to have been defined downward almost to the level of "avoiding government shutdown."

Many of us would prefer government shutdown to the sleepwalking we have now. That is the biggest reason why 40% [hindsight: 47 - 48%] of the country is voting for Trump today. They are sick of the status quo and understand that it is very dangerous. They are willing to "take a flyer" on an agent of change, even if he is repugnant. This mood will not be purged from the citizenry by tomorrow morning. (We are Jill Stein voters here.)

I am writing because today, for the first time this year, there is no longer any electoral downside to actually doing something significant about our excessive nuclear arsenal.

Most of the political backlash for whatever good the President does from now on will ride with him into the sunset.

I don't think it's easy to see from the perspective of military-dominated Washington that Obama could make significant cuts in the arsenal, or in NNSA programs and facilities, and for the most part only those directly affected would care one way or the other for more than a day or a week. Polls show that most Americans think we have far too many nuclear weapons anyway. They would be thrilled if the president cut back significantly, as George W. Bush and his father both did.

If a senator or congressman wants to mount an effort to cut a dumb and wasteful program, surely now is as good a time as ever.

Viewed from a great height, it seems we are coming to a moment of crisis in the nuclear security field.

In part this is because our nuclear weapon systems are aging. Aging itself is not taking down systems, but decisions about the future do have to be made soon, as you know.

"We" -- meaning you and your bosses and very few others -- have to decide whether to modernize everything, and if so when. Can some programs be canceled? Can some be delayed? Can some systems be retired without replacement? Can some downsizing steps be taken unilaterally, without the Russians? (Or in that case would "we" -- as I heard the other day -- thereby be sacrificing "bargaining chips" for hypothetical future negotiations? Please.)

In nuclear security issues, it is a time when past failures to reform and downsize the "deterrent" and its supporting infrastructure are superimposed upon the mistake of buying too many conventional weapons as well. The conventional military is also too large to be fully modernized, if other critical federal priorities are to be served. As you know better than I, there are large hidden (not yet booked) future costs in the conventional military.

But many say, "the Russians are coming." No, they are not. There is not a shred of evidence to support that narrative. We have huge blind spots, false narratives, and outdated myths in our foreign policy, which seem tailor-made to support our nuclear spending spree. The now-shriveled foreign policy desks of the mainstream media now amount to little more than a hall of mirrors, uncritically reflecting what the foreign policy establishment and White House want. What one reads in the New York Times is very seldom altogether true, as Robert Parry has masterfully pointed out.

We have, in short, a military-industrial-pork-barrel-congressional complex which spends too much money and has too much influence over policy [and our public discourse.] This has been, and is, "disastrous" to our national security, exactly as Eisenhower warned.

This nexus of government failure (ordinary people call it "corruption") is colliding with existential realities we have not faced in climate change and associated energy policy, to pick just two of what could be several other critical national security issues.

We now have, in other words, florid national security failures being presided over by the mandarins of "defense," including your committee members.

These failures occur against a backdrop of rapidly rising consumer and corporate debt, declining labor force participation, declining real wages, and rising austerity and inequality across society. This list of domestic policy failures could be extended very far.  Meanwhile, culturally, there are few unifying ideas holding our society together in the face of this rapid erosion in security. To our ears, almost no unifying ideas have been articulated by major candidates over this long campaign season. Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein excepted.

In the face of severe internal crises, demonization of an external enemy, often leading to war, is a common recourse of declining empires. We see this demonization now to a previously unimaginable degree. Gratuitous enemy-making is a story that doesn't end well. Doing it for the sake of a political campaign is a harbinger of terrible things to come.

  1. Nuclear weapons and their modernization: we believe the beginning of the new administration is a good time for cutting programs, downsizing, and stronger oversight

I am not going to rehearse here all the arguments you have seen about downsizing and delay in the legs of the triad, so-called. You know them and so do we, in great detail. There will be time for that later. But knowledge does not seem to be the problem. The frame of reference used seems closer to the mark.

You are very familiar with the bow-wave of military procurement that is now starting, which will crescendo in the 2020s. The chief argument in favor of the premise that we can afford to modernize everything nuclear, is that the cost of doing so is a relatively small fraction of our gargantuan and growing military budget. But we won't be able to afford that either. We need to spend many trillions on renewed and in many cases altogether new domestic infrastructure. The arguments I could make here for non-military spending are also fairly familiar to you so I won't rehearse those either, with one exception.

Congress and the departing administration are not at all apprised of the need for speed as regards climate protection and renewable energy transition and related issues (methane not a bridge fuel, grid investments for renewables, energy storage demonstrations, energy conservation, urban and suburban transport redesign, the relative transience of light tight oil from fracked fields, and others).

Basically, the existential threat of climate change cannot be solved without moving trillions of dollars out of so-called "defense" and into major new domestic industries on a wartime footing -- which would draw much larger private capital and have a major net economic, social, and political benefit. Some congressional districts highly dependent on military spending would of course experience a modicum of Schumpeterian "creative destruction" -- or if we and they aren't "creative," just plain unalloyed "destruction." Well, easy come, easy go. Labor will move on to new jobs, as they teach in economics departments.

We can't use nuclear "weapons" in war, period -- any of them, at any time. Robert McNamara advised Kennedy and Johnson that they should never, at any time, conduct even a retaliatory nuclear strike. So McNamara told some of us once.

So we need to start getting rid of these things, starting with the dumbest and most destabilizing [like the LRSO and ICBMs]. "Atomic bombs aren't weapons," as Harry Truman once said. I think you may know the rest of the quote.

And we can cut back the warhead labs, especially the duplicative physics labs. Once (in 1992) the Chair of the then-named House Science Committee, George Brown, recommended cutting these labs by about 60%, about right for the time. Since these labs are still sized more or less as they were for the Cold War, when they were designing and testing new warheads at a rapid clip, that's still about right today. Their demographic problems are a function of bloat. 

  1. The nuclear weapons ban treaty of 2018.

The 2018 date is a guess; it could be as early as 2017. You can read more about this process here and especially here. We think it likely that this process will succeed. This could occur in a number of alternative ways, raising our confidence. The State Department has been trying to block progress but has utterly failed so far. The reality of a nuclear ban treaty would introduce a new factor into congressional and administration deliberations -- not at once, but over time. Congress and the new administration need to take this movement on board now, and see the nonproliferation benefits of quietly letting the process go forward.

  1. NNSA plutonium pit production strategy

As you know, Interoperable Warhead 1 (IW-1) is very weakly justified, to say the least. Even if IW-1 is not canceled, which would be the right thing to do right now as I have explained in more detail elsewhere, there is no reason to make new pits for the stockpile, let alone at some politically-determined pace. A careful examination of the formerly-classified justification for the present statutory production rate reveals circular reasoning, i.e. "This is the rate LANL told us would be possible in the new facilities planned; higher and lower rates don't make financial sense given these plans; so this is the rate we should choose." And so Congress did.

We anticipate providing a more detailed analysis (again) but the basic argument for increased pit production is so weak, and plans so secretive, one hardly knows how to begin. As Rudy Barnes, formerly of the House Armed Services Committee put it to me once, "The reason we need a new pit factory is because the Russians have a big factory and we don't."

What NNSA will never say is that the agency's dogged but dumb pursuit of successive grand multibillion-dollar plans since 1989, all of which failed, have weakened its basic capability to make pits at all.

Thank you for reading this. Godspeed in your deliberations this month. I hope to see some of you next week.

I or others in our small staff may be able to answer questions you may have.


Greg Mello, for the Study Group

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