NBC Weapons: How Old Is Too Old




January 17, 2009: The U.S. currently spends $50-60 billion a year on nuclear weapons (the exact figure is classified). The U.S. currently has 7,000 nuclear warheads. There are another 8,000 out there (most of them Russian). Over 15,000 warheads (mostly Russian and American) have been taken out of service in the last fifteen years. The U.S. and Russia had so many because both nations had developed tactics that included attempting to knock each others land based missile silos out of action. Any exchange of that many warheads, even if only ten percent of them actually went off, would have destroyed Eurasia and North America. Those tactics are no longer popular, thus you only need a few hundred warheads to pose a credible nuclear threat. The U.S. and Russia have agreed to get try and get each of their warhead inventories down to 2,000 or fewer.

No new warheads have been built since the end of the Cold War (in 1989, when the communist governments of the Soviet Unions East European allies collapsed). Designing and building new ones is expensive ($30-40 million each), and nearly all the money spent on nuclear weapons each years goes to maintaining the available nukes. Those who maintain the current nuclear arsenal are eager to get some new ones, but are being told to just keep the old ones working. The case for a new warhead is that this would provide a nuclear weapon that is more reliable, less likely to go off by accident, cheaper to maintain and more difficult to use if one is stolen by terrorists.

Many of the existing warheads were manufactured in the 1970s. These are old, but like any piece of expensive machinery, they are carefully maintained. Parts wear out and are replaced. Most importantly, these warheads have been tested. So you can be sure that these weapons will explode when ordered to. Because of a 1992 treaty, nuclear weapons may no longer be tested, even underground. The new warhead designs would have to be "tested" via simulation. That is not a major obstacle. Simulation of complex systems is now quite common, and reliable. It's one of those unseen technologies that make life so much better for everyone. The nuclear weapons designers, however, believe they have discovered several flaws in the older designs, things that could be eliminated with a new warhead, even one that will never actually be detonated.

There are two other factors, that don't get mentioned as much in this debate. First, the labs and manufacturers who design and build nuclear warheads would like the work. Times have been tough for the nuclear weapons crowd since the Cold War ended. Since then, several treaties have been signed that reduce the American nuclear arsenal. Thus it is bad politics to try and get lots of money for new warheads. This is especially true because most people would like for there to be even fewer warheads. It's the old debate over "how many warheads do you need to get the job done." Most people agree that the answer is, "not many."


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