America must resume underground nuclear weapons testing as rapidly as possible. The lives of millions of Americans, and the continued existence of the United States, may depend upon it.
We developed nuclear weapons through testing, and they ended World War II. During the next five decades of the Cold War we developed and tested new nukes continually, and they ended that dangerous conflict decisively with the defeat and breakup of the Soviet Union. What’s more, we did this through the overwhelming deterrent superiority of our nuclear weapons, without a shot being fired.
When the Cold War ended in 1992 our leaders declared a nuclear freeze. President Bush signed a moratorium forbidding nuclear testing. This situation has now continued for a quarter century. No research on advanced weapons has been conducted. We have not designed, tested, or produced a single new nuke. Even worse, none of our existing weapons — long past the end of their design lives — has been tested to see if it’s still effective and reliable. Nuclear test history is replete with discovery of unanticipated minor faults which would disable an entire class of weapons.
However, for the past 25 years, the scientists, engineers, and technical specialists in our nuclear weapons labs have attempted to use computer simulations to substitute for underground nuclear testing. But this is fatally inadequate for two reasons. One, the science of nuclear detonations is still a long way from being perfectly understood. Those who write the computer programs simply cannot replicate the immense interplay of energy forms and forces taking place in a millionth of a second. Two, the hundreds of Cold War physicists, chemists, metallurgists, and others, who went through decades of humbling experiences of having their best designs fail in testing are no longer with us; and their replacements have not been able to truly understand nuclear physics without testing.
We’re running the gravest of risks. If, in a time of ultimate crisis, we had to use a nuke in deterrence, or as a show of force, and it did not detonate, Russia, or China, or both, might instantly demand our unconditional surrender. If our following missiles also failed, the destruction of a U.S. city a week would soon cause us to hand over the nation, and our children and grandchildren would henceforth be speaking Russian or Chinese. These nuclear weapons are the most complex systems imaginable. What complex household electronics item would you trust your life to, after it lay unused for 25 years?
The need for nuclear testing is incontrovertible, undeniable, and immediate. To illustrate how far behind we’ve fallen in a quarter century, and how urgent and broadly based the need for testing is, here is my personal priority list of critical immediate tests:
1. Test the W76 warhead of our Trident submarine-launched ballistic missiles. This is the most survivable element of our Triad of delivery systems. Choose, at random, one of the oldest warheads currently at sea in the fleet, and detonate it underground in as realistic a test as possible.
2. Test the W78 warhead of our Minuteman III ICBMs. This is a different, but also very large, class of warheads ready for immediate launch. Again, a random choice of an old warhead.
3. Test the B61 bomb, America’s only “tactical” nuke, based in five European nations. It is now undergoing massive changes in a life-extension program, and we must be sure the changes haven’t altered basic performance.
4. Conduct low-yield tests exploring greater use of fusion, less of fission. Russia is now 20 years ahead of us in advancing this vital frontier of nuclear science. This is tomorrow’s tactical nuke, possibly leading to pure fusion weapons.
5. Conduct tests of the most prominent approaches for destroying hard and deeply buried targets with reduced residual radiation, leading to certified design and production. Critical targets of this type are proliferating worldwide, and we must be able to kill them.
6. Test, to certify for production, the final design of a modern, high-yield strategic deterrent weapon. This might well be a variant of the Reliable Replacement Warhead program, terminated in 2009.
7. Conduct tests of optimum nuclear designs for destruction of chemical and biological agents. When attacking chem-bio production facilities, weapon stockpiles, or weapon launch sites, it’s important to neutralize the agents as well.
8. Conduct tests of much-advanced intrinsic security systems, to ensure it would be impossible for any enemy to detonate a U.S. warhead they might acquire. We must be sure that incorporation of such systems do not impact warhead performance.
But what about the downside of America’s resumption of nuclear testing? Won’t this cause proliferation? Absolutely not. American testing has never caused a single instance of proliferation. Proliferation is caused by irresponsible and belligerent states (name two), or aggressive nuclear states (name one), who cause neighboring or target states to go nuclear in self-defense.
But what about Russia and China? Glad you brought that up. The only way the world, in the long run, can be saved from nuclear horror and chaos is if the five nuclear weapons states approved by the 1970 Nonproliferation Treaty (U.S., U.K., France, Russia, and China) assume the role of safeguarding the world from proliferation. They are the permanent members of the Security Council of the U.N. Nonproliferation requires enforcement. These five large, generally responsible states must collegially enforce nonproliferation. To do this, they must have unchallengeable nuclear force. At the same time America resumes nuclear testing we must publicly invite the other four to do so also. This will start America’s crusade to save the world.
• Retired Vice Adm. Robert R. Monroe was director of the Defense Nuclear Agency.