New Nukes

Even the most advanced weapons systems get old, and our nuclear arsenal of about 6,000 warheads has been decaying for quite some time. As they age they become harder to maintain (i.e., it takes more of our tax dollars) and military officials worry about reliability. (Wouldn’t it be embarrassing if we lobbed a missile at military base in China — and it turned out to be a dud?)

So in 2004 an initiative was launched to design a reliable replacement warhead (RRW) composed of new components that are “more robust, easier to manufacture, safer and more secure, while at the same time not requiring new underground testing.”

The “no testing” requirement means we are going to produce a nuclear weapon, deploy it by replacing current warheads, and, God forbid, someday use one or more — all without having actually setting one off to see if it works. That’s thanks to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty which we signed in 1996 but never ratified. (Still, no need to piss of the neighbors if we don’t have to.)

Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Los Alamos National Laboratory have been in a competition to win the contract to design the next nuclear warhead. The LLNL design is an updated, “more robust” version of an old idea — the W89 warhead that was designed in the 1980s but canceled in 1991. The LANL design is totally new, but uses components that have been tested.

In January 2007, it was rumored that bureaucrats were going to direct that a hybrid design be implemented that would combine “well-tested elements from an older design with new safety and security elements from a more novel approach.”

The most likely reason for this decision is seen as a measure to save jobs and retain experience at “losing” laboratory. But in mid-February John Pedicini, design leader at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, warned:

A hybrid design by inexperienced personnel, managed by committee, is not the best approach, and even provoked negative comment at the JASON review. The best appellation I have seen for such an approach is “frankenbomb.”

But the hybrid idea has been canned, as last Friday the LLNL design was accepted. Production should start as early as 2012. Not only will the new design replace the old, the total number of warheads may be reduced to as few as 2,000.

That is, if the new warheads are built at all. Democrats in Congress are less than pleased with the idea.

Posted March 4th, 2007 Filed in Military Stuff