Debunking Conservative Lies On Nuclear Modernization

A common refrain from those looking to oppose the START treaty, the newly released nuclear posture review, and more broadly Obama’s nuclear agenda, is that it is reckless to cut nuclear weapons when our nuclear arsenal is aging and deteriorating. Statements from Jon Kyl, John McCain, and Joe Lieberman all throw out this argument.

John Bolton and friends take this argument to the next level, asserting that Obama is leaving America exposed by not spending enough to maintain existing US nuclear weapons. Bolton wrote in the National Review that the administration is “drastically limiting programs to ensure the safety and reliablity (sic) of our existing nuclear stockpile, the president is risking our security and obtaining nothing in return.” It is a great talking point for conservatives — except that it is just not true.

First, the Obama administration announced massive funding increases to the nuclear infrastructure — a 10 percent increase over what the Bush administration spent. Biden wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal:

For almost a decade, our laboratories and facilities have been underfunded and undervalued… The budget we will submit to Congress on Monday both reverses this decline and enables us to implement the president’s nuclear-security agenda. These goals are intertwined… To achieve these goals, our budget devotes $7 billion for maintaining our nuclear-weapons stockpile and complex, and for related efforts. This commitment is $600 million more than Congress approved last year. And over the next five years we intend to boost funding for these important activities by more than $5 billion.

Conservative’s newfound concerns about the state of the nuclear infrastructure reek of duplicity. The Obama administration is spending significantly more on maintaining nuclear weapons and labs than the Bush administration, especially compared to when John Bolton was Undersecretary for Arms Control. If Obama is “risking our security” than Bolton and the Bush administration were practically a second-coming of Benedict Arnold based on the comparatively puny amount that was spent on modernizing our nuclear infrastructure.


Second, the nuclear weapons are completely reliable. The JASON advisory panel, which is made up of actual rocket scientists, concluded that the nuclear weapons were in fine shape:

Lifetimes of today’s nuclear warheads could be extended for decades, with no anticipated loss in confidence, by using approaches similar to those employed in LEPs [Life Extension Programs] to date.

The right is now attempting to make some hay out of a letter from some nuclear lab directors that said the JASON study was too positive and that more funding was needed for the labs. Conservatives are just shocked, shocked, to find out that the heads of an organization want more money for their organization. Nevertheless, these lab directors, despite having a significant interest in receiving more funds, still did not contradict the fundamental point that was communicated in the unclassified executive summary of the JASON report — that the nuclear weapons are fine as long as we continue the modernization programs that are already on the books.

Third, we are modernizing our nuclear weapons. Conservatives like Bolton desperately want the US to build an entirely new nuclear warhead and they claim that our weapons are really old and increasingly unreliable. They must not watch any home renovation shows, because they seem to have no understanding that it is possible to renovate or modernize something, without starting from scratch. If Bolton were on This Old House he would tell Tom Silva to just tear down the house they are renovating and start from scratch. This is a foolish and costly approach. The fact is that the US is constantly refurbishing and modernizing its nuclear weapons. As Stephen Pifer of the Brookings Institution explained:

We [the US] take a missile frame and we modernize it, and we refurbish it, whereas the Russian practice is to take a missile, they use it for 15 years and then they replace it completely. So you’ll see new numbers coming up on the Russian side and you may think that, gosh, the Americans are still deploying these 1970s missiles. I suspect when they retire the last Minuteman III in 2030, it may have three of the original bolts on it from 1970 but it’s going to be a very different missile.

The reality is that our weapons are the best in the world and conservatives who attack the state of our nuclear arsenal need to answer a question posed by Kingston Rief in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists:

So those who continue to argue that Washington doesn’t show enough interest in modernizing its nuclear weapons should be forced to answer a simple question: If given the choice, would they trade the U.S. nuclear arsenal for the Russian or Chinese nuclear arsenals? Clearly, the answer is no.