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Crisis in the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex: Part 1—Unintended Consequences of Decades of Federal Government Budget Failures

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Erik Devereux
May 20, 2022

This is my first in a series of columns for the PA Times regarding the unfolding and unprecedented crisis in the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex (NWC). I have taught the course, “Nuclear Weapons Technology,” in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University since 2017, which has afforded me access to some top experts on the NWC and motivated me to develop a database that references every site within the Complex (feel free to email me for a copy and you also might look at the NWC map provided by the Atomic Heritage Foundation). My commentary on the NWC is built on this experience.

As I will detail in this series, the NWC is in such poor condition that the United States could become the first major nuclear weapons power to denuclearize through its inability to manufacture new weapons, while older weapons rapidly age out of service. This column provides some important historical background information about the NWC. Future columns will delve into how current conditions in the NWC are likely to undermine any United States effort at weapons modernization.

This series is not just about the NWC; more broadly it is about the unintended consequences of decades of failures in federal government budgeting dating back to 1981. Ironically, while much of that failure has been the result of unresolved political struggles over federal social welfare spending amidst concerted attacks on the government’s tax base, one of the victims is what should be a “jewel in the crown”—the facilities that ensure the United States can maintain a credible strategic nuclear deterrent. If the current tragic situation unfolding in Ukraine can have any benefits, one of those should be reinforcing why that deterrent continues to matter. The prospect of the United States deterrent decaying because of the budget problems afflicting the NWC should be deeply unsettling.

The history of the NWC may be divided into six distinct period as follows:

  • 1942–1945: The Manhattan Project
  • 1946–1954: Start of the Cold War and the race for the H-bomb
  • 1955–1968: Weapons refinement and stockpile manufacturing
  • 1969–1992: NWC consolidation amidst détente and arms control
  • 1993–2008: Stockpile stewardship and the reduction in arsenals
  • 2009–present: Weapons modernization and next generation weapons.

Within that chronology, two crucial junctures are 1969 and 1992. Beginning in 1969, the NWC no longer had carte blanche regarding its budget and had to compete for the first time with other federal budget priorities. In 1992, the United States tested and deployed its last major nuclear weapon—the W88 warhead for the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines. Since 1992, the NWC has gone 30 years since building a new strategic warhead. The graphic accompanying this column, provided by the Federation of American Scientists and the Natural Resources Defense Council, shows how the United States built, and then substantially dismantled, a stockpile of over 35,000 warheads during the period from 1945 to the present.

Without free reign for its budget, and deprived of its primary mission to build warheads, the NWC has struggled to fund re-capitalization of its core facilities since 1992. Consequently, decades of deferred maintenance have taken a toll, while personnel retirements have resulted in the loss of the specialized workforce necessary to build new strategic weapons. Compounding this has been the problem of compliance with worker safety and environmental regulations that the NWC substantially ignored for most of its history. In the early 2000s, the NWC explored further consolidation and realignment of its core sites and decided against that option on cost grounds related to regulatory compliance. Instead, the NWC kept its dilapidated legacy sites that can operate grandfathered without expensive upgrades related to safety and environmental protection. I will have more to say about this in detail in future columns within this series.

One functional area where all these issues intersect is in the production of new plutonium fission triggers (often called “pits”). Recent Nuclear Posture Reviews have suggested building nearly 1,000 new warheads both for the land-based and sea-based portions of the nuclear “triad.” Bluntly stated, the NWC at this time appears incapable of building the plutonium pits required to do that. (To get a taste of why, please read this sobering Washington Post article about issues at Los Alamos National Laboratory.) If the NWC cannot build these bomb triggers, then the United States very well may not maintain a reliable nuclear deterrent. And that is only one part of a much larger mess.

How much is it going to cost to fix the NWC? Estimates generally run in the many of trillions of dollars. With the national debt now exceeding annual GDP, continued attacks on the federal government’s tax base, the lingering effects of the COVID pandemic and numerous other domestic policy demands, the timing of that possible expenditure request bodes poorly for the future. This is how many decades of budget failures come around to undermine the basic needs of the country regarding national security. This is also why, as I have argued in other columns for the PA Times, the failures of the federal budget process are so inappropriate and destructive.

Author: Erik Devereux is a consultant to nonprofits and higher education and teaches at Georgetown University. He has a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Political Science, 1985) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (Government, 1993). He is the author of Methods of Policy Analysis: Creating, Deploying, and Assessing Theories of Change (available for free here). Email:[email protected]. Twitter: @eadevereux.

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