The Cold War was the world’s first nuclear war. It was all about nuclear weapons. The United States won this war because we managed our nuclear weapons enterprise in a superb manner. Our supremacy in nuclear weapons science was the key factor. We out-thought, out-planned, and out-performed the Soviets in every aspect of this difficult business.
It took 46 years, but we achieved total victory. The USSR and the Warsaw Pact ceased to exist, communism was regarded worldwide as a failure, and not one nuke was ever detonated.
But when that war ended in 1991, the United States made a terrible decision. The world was rejoicing in peace, no major threats were visible, so our leaders — supported by the American people — established an unannounced nuclear freeze. All nuclear weapons projects were stopped, nuclear and defense budgets were slashed, and a peace dividend was declared.
Within a few years the American people lost interest in nuclear weapons, considering them an artifact of a past war; and when the people lose interest, so do the Executive Branch and Congress.
Soon the arms controllers and anti-nuclear activists took over. Future peace and security required downgrading our nuclear weapons. President Bush I was pressured into declaring a moratorium on underground nuclear testing (the principal source of nuclear science). Advanced research went unfunded. Virtually all of our “tactical” nukes were retired. Design of low-yield weapons was prohibited. Our nuclear weapons infrastructure deteriorated.
This freeze lasted for 17 years, and it was followed by eight more years of President Obama’s major dismantlement actions in pursuit of his “world without nuclear weapons” dream.
The only element preserved was our strategic deterrent: our aged weapons stockpile (hugely reduced), and our Triad of delivery systems (ICBMs, bombers and submarines).
One would think that the lessons learned the hard way in the Cold War would have been remembered, but this was not the case. The element most essential to maintaining an effective nuclear weapons capability — science — was the one most thoroughly exorcised. Testing was targeted because it’s the heart of the scientific method.
During our half-century of nuclear testing (about a thousand tests), the small group of nuclear weapons scientists who designed and tested the weapons maintained firmly that they did not yet understand all the mysteries of nuclear detonation. Many times the designs in which they had the greatest confidence failed to detonate properly.
Notable leaders of this cadre ridiculed the idea that a computer code could be developed which would accurately simulate a nuclear detonation. Yet, that is exactly what our nuclear weapons enterprise did in the mid-1990s. They replaced nuclear testing with computer code-building. Far worse, for decades our national leaders have staked the existence if the United States upon this false premise.
The Russians, however, remembered the lesson from the Soviet defeat in the Cold War. They redoubled their scientific efforts and focused on designing and testing very low-yield nukes. They emphasized fusion and reduced fission, possibly reaching pure fusion weapons (which we have not). They combined conventional and nuclear in a single spectrum of weaponry (while we separated the two and widened the gap to the extent that our nuclear deterrence is largely ineffective).
They also changed their military strategy to emphasize early use of nukes even in small conflicts. At the top end of the spectrum, they’re threatening us with new mega-yield concepts.
China, having become a global power, is decades into a huge strategic modernization program, shrouded in great secrecy: more advanced nukes with longer range and greater combat capability.
Both nations are behaving aggressively throughout the world, making nuclear threats with increasing frequency, often focused on the United States. And both have many geographic aspirations which would involve us.
In short, America must break out of our nuclear freeze and bring science back into the forefront of our nuclear enterprise. The Department of Energy’s three nuclear weapons labs must resume underground nuclear testing in the science of nuclear weapons design.
The Department of Defense has a much tougher challenge. The DOD had only one nuclear weapons lab, the Defense Nuclear Agency, which was shut down in 1997. The DNA had led the DOD into a deep understanding of the military science of nuclear weapons effects.
The DNA must be re-created. It must resume underground nuclear testing in nuclear weapon effects, and — further — it must rebuild a team of thousands of nuclear weapons specialists who, deployed to nuclear units worldwide, will train our military how to fight and win on a nuclear battlefield.
Fortunately, vital help has just arrived. Two distinguished senior nuclear weapons scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory have just written the first scientific paper to point out exactly why we cannot have confidence that the nuclear weapons in America’s stockpile will detonate if called upon. These two nuclear scientists have spent their lifetimes designing and testing nukes.
Attesting to the importance of this paper, the National Academy of Sciences has just published it in their “Issues in Science and Technology” Winter Issue, 2019.
So why is underground nuclear testing needed? Most urgently, to ensure that key warhead types in our stockpile are reliable and effective.
Also, to research advanced technologies to avoid surprise by adversaries; to develop very low-yield weapons to deter Russia; in view of hypersonics, to evaluate nuclear options for missile defense; to accelerate our defense against electromagnetic pulse (EMP); to test each warhead type that has undergone an intrusive life-extension program; to educate our nuclear scientists (currently quite inexperienced); prominently, to strengthen our nonproliferation capability; and many other reasons. In short, to save America.
President Trump should immediately terminate the 1992 moratorium on nuclear testing. Notably, the 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review states: “The United States will not resume nuclear explosive testing unless necessary to ensure the safety and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear arsenal .” He should further direct the urgent rebuilding of the Nevada National Security Site and direct rapid resumption of underground nuclear testing.
• Robert R. Monroe, a retired U.S. Navy vice admiral, is the former director of the Defense Nuclear Agency.