' Frank J. Gaffney, Jr.
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Jewish World Review Jan. 7, 2003 / 4 Shevat, 5763

Frank J. Gaffney, Jr.

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Nuclear meltdown

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Ever since North Korea's dictator, Kim Jong-Il, broke bad -- acknowledging cheating on his promises to forego nuclear weapons and then doing so openly and in earnest -- government officials and others have been speculating about how fast the "Dear Leader" will be able to build up his stockpile. If he has two weapons now, will he have five or ten by this time next year? Some think Kim might be able to build as many as fifty over the next few years.

Lost in the discussion to date is a dirty little secret: Whatever the number Pyongyang's weaponeers can churn out in the months ahead, it will almost certainly be larger than the number of nuclear weapons the United States could build during a similar period. The truth is that the U.S. cannot produce any new weapons at the moment, having shut down some years ago its only facility for manufacturing the heart of such weapons: plutonium "pits."

Now, the argument will be made that the United States has thousands of nuclear weapons and does not need to produce additional ones just because North Korea does. Still, it is an extraordinary thing that the world's sole superpower lacks the capability to augment its arsenal -- a capability that not only North Korea but every one of the other declared nuclear powers (Britain, France, Russia, China, India and Pakistan) has maintained.

This situation may prove to be far more than a bizarre anomaly, however. What if it turns out that the weapons currently in the U.S. inventory (most of which were designed twenty or thirty years ago with a very different strategic environment in mind) are not only obsolescent, but are of very limited or no utility -- and, therefore, incredible as deterrents -- in the present environment? For example, is it acceptable that no weapon in the stockpile today can reliably hold at risk the sorts of deeply buried and assiduously hardened command centers and weapons bunkers in which Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong-Il have invested heavily?

Worse yet, America's present inability to manufacture new nuclear weapons in any quantity is but a symptom of a far larger problem: the dismal state of the industrial and technological infrastructure that the Department of Energy is charged with maintaining to support the U.S. deterrent.

This state of affairs is the predictable, and intended, product of a decade of neglect -- or worse -- of this nuclear weapons complex. The House Armed Services Committee once described the combination of policies and spending aimed during this period at hobbling, undermining and ultimately dismantling the complex as "erosion by design."

Thanks largely to this legacy, we not only lack the ability to replace or modernize the nuclear weapons currently in the U.S. stockpile. There is also growing uncertainty about their safety and reliability. Today, we cannot address those uncertainties in the only proven and most cost-effective manner, since we are unable at the moment to conduct underground nuclear tests. None of the other, as-yet-unvalidated and much-more-expensive technologies that have been held out as substitutes for testing will be available for years to come; some may never pan out technically or be funded to fruition.

If anything, the problems may be even more acute on the personnel side of the complex. Last week's resignations by the top two officials of the Los Alamos National Laboratory is but the latest evidence of the difficulties confronting the national labs. Their people, who are absolutely critical to the technical excellence and operation of the Nation's nuclear weapons infrastructure, have for much of the past ten years been poorly led, demoralized and, in many cases, profoundly alienated by their treatment from higher-ups in Washington.

As a result, there has been an acute brain-drain from the labs. This is particularly true among the small cadre of physicists who have actually had first-hand experience with the extremely esoteric business of designing, testing and maintaining the nuclear weapons in our stockpile today -- arguably, the most complex pieces of equipment ever produced by man.

The good news is that President Bush and his national security team have brought the sort of fresh and more responsible perspective to these matters that has been so sorely needed. Their 2002 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) for the first time gave equal importance to the nuclear stockpile and the infrastructure necessary to sustain it.

The NPR explicitly recognized that our aging arsenal may be inadequate to today's and tomorrow's deterrent requirements. It underscored the need to have in place the technological and industrial capacity by which fixes could be implemented. And the NPR signaled, at least implicitly, that underground testing will have to be resumed in order both to assure the safety and reliability of the present inventory and to upgrade and modernize that arsenal.

It is not enough, of course, simply to recognize the problem. Real leadership must be brought to bear to take corrective action. An opportunity to provide such leadership now looms, thanks to the reassignment of Gen. John Gordon, who previously ran the Nuclear National Security Administration, the openings at Los Alamos and the possibility of competing the contract to run that laboratory -- a job that has, from the lab's founding, been the exclusive responsibility of the University of California.

In particular, a key test will be the Administration's replacement for Gen. Gordon. Clearly needed is a leader with: a demonstrated ability to manage large, technically sophisticated government organizations and industrial facilities; first-hand familiarity with the weapons complex yet, ideally, independence from it; and an established commitment to the President's ambitious agenda of ensuring the long-term viability of the U.S. nuclear deterrent. With the help of such an individual, Mr. Bush and Energy Secretary Spence Abraham have a chance to halt and reverse the meltdown of America's nuclear weapons infrastructure, and the self-inflicted "erosion by design" that is all-the-more ill-advised in light of proliferation in North Korea and elsewhere.

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JWR contributor Frank J. Gaffney, Jr. heads the Center for Security Policy. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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12/03/02: Defining 'regime change'
11/26/02: With friends like the Saudis...
11/19/02: The Jayna Davis files
11/12/02: Could Israel die of thirst?
11/04/02: Against us
10/22/02: Too clever by half?
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10/08/02: The temptations of George Bush
10/01/02: Return of the San Francisco Dems
09/24/02: The next crusader?
09/17/02: It is no accident that advocates of coercive inspections have opposed prez's goal of regime change
09/10/02: A model for Iraq
08/27/02: Beware 'consensus leadership'
08/20/02: To Iraq or not to Iraq?
08/13/02: Trading with the 'enemy'
07/30/02: Who's trashing Ashcroft?
07/23/02: Wall Street's 'poisoned apples'
07/16/02: Back on the China front
07/09/02: See no evil?
07/02/02: Rethinking peacekeeping
06/25/02: Political moment of truth on defense
06/19/02: Inviting losses on two fronts
06/12/02: Make missile defense happen
06/04/02: The next 'Day of Infamy'?
05/29/02: Bush's Russian gamble
05/21/02: The 'next war'
05/15/02: Ex-presidential misconduct
05/07/02: When 'what if' is no game
05/02/02: Careful what we wish for
04/24/02: The real 'root cause' of terror
04/02/02: First principles in the Mideast
03/26/02: 'Renounce this map'
03/20/02: The inconvenient ally
03/12/02: Adults address the 'unthinkable'
03/05/02: The Saudi scam
02/26/02: Rumsfeld's 'now hear this'
02/19/02: Where's the outrage?
02/12/02: Post-mortem on 'Pearl Harbor II'
02/05/02: Spinning on the 'Evil Axis'
01/29/02: A challenge for the history books
01/22/02: Who pulled the plug on the Chinese 'bugs'?
01/15/02: No 'need to know'
01/08/02: Sentenced to de-nuclearize?
12/18/01: Missile defense mismanagement?
12/11/01: Is the Cold War 'over'?
12/04/01: A moment for truth
11/29/01: Send in the marines -- with the planes they need
11/27/01: 'Now Hear This': Does the President Mean What He Says?
11/20/01: Mideast 'vision thing'
11/13/01: The leitmotif of the next three days
11/06/01: Bush's Reykjavik Moment
10/30/01: Say it ain't true, 'W.
10/23/01: Getting history, and the future, right
10/16/01: Farewell to arms control
10/05/01: A time to choose
09/25/01: Don't drink the 'lemonade'
09/11/01: Sudan envoy an exercise in futility?
09/05/01: Strategy of a thousand cuts
08/28/01: Rummy's back
08/21/01: Prepare for 'two wars'
08/14/01: Why does the Bush Administration make a moral equivalence between terrorist attacks and Israel's restrained defensive responses?
08/07/01: A New bipartisanship in security policy?
07/31/01: Don't go there
07/17/01: The 'end of the beginning'
07/10/01: Testing President Bush
07/03/01: Market transparency works
06/27/01: Which Bush will it be on missile defense?
06/19/01: Don't politicize military matters
06/05/01: It's called leadership
06/05/01: With friends like these ...
05/31/01: Which way on missile defense?
05/23/01: Pearl Harbor, all over again
05/15/01: A tale of two Horatios
05/08/01: The real debate about missile defense
04/24/01: Sell aegis ships to Taiwan
04/17/01: The 'hi-tech for China' bill
04/10/01: Deal on China's hostages -- then what?
04/03/01: Defense fire sale redux
03/28/01: The defense we need
03/21/01: Critical mass
03/13/01: The Bush doctrine
03/08/01: Self-Deterred from Defending America
02/27/01: Truth and consequences for Saddam
02/21/01: Defense fire sale
02/13/01: Dubya's Marshall Plan
02/05/01: Doing the right thing on an 'Arab-Arab dispute'
01/30/01: The missile defense decision
01/23/01: The Osprey as Phoenix
01/17/01: Clinton's Parting Shot at Religious Freedom
01/09/01: Wake-up call on space
01/02/01: Secretary Rumsfeld
12/27/00: Redefining our Ukraine policy
12/19/00: Deploy missile defense now
12/12/00: Sabotaging space power
12/05/00: Preempting Bush
11/28/00: What Clinton hath wrought
11/21/00: HE'S BAAAACK
11/14/00: The world won't wait

© 2001, Frank J. Gaffney, Jr.