A Different Approach to Nonproliferation (2005)

A Different Approach to the 2005 NPT Conference

By Robert R. Monroe*

This paper develops an “outside the box” approach to the 2005 Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference.  It first examines the current degraded state of theU.S.nuclear weapons enterprise, a condition which results largely from the moratorium on nuclear weapons testing.  It then discusses the increasing importance of preventing proliferation and summarizes the ineffective nature of most international nonproliferation efforts.  The paper concludes by outlining aU.S.approach to the 2005 NPT RevCon which will enable our nuclear arsenal to perform its essential deterrence function and will significantly strengthen proliferation prevention.




The most dominating “fact of life” in theU.S.nuclear weapons world today is the continued existence of a moratorium on underground nuclear testing.

The U.S. announced the moratorium in 1992, in the general euphoria over the Cold War’s end.  There was a perceived absence of serious threats to our nation and a vision of peace for the foreseeable future.  The moratorium was one of a series of unilateral disarmament actions taken at that time, which included the 1993-94 legislation prohibiting design of low-yield nuclear weapons and the 1995-96 agreement on a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).  Today it’s clear we overshot the mark in that era.  A decade later the nuclear threat levels are high and diverse, with dangers that are quite different in nature and much less predictable.  The law prohibiting low-yield weapon design has been repealed, and the CTBT has been shelved after the Senate refused–by a wide margin–to advise and consent to its ratification.  However, the testing moratorium is still in effect, and our twelve-year experience without nuclear weapons testing provides convincing proof that this limitation is an unsound practice, unsustainable for the long term.  In the absence of testing, U.S. nuclear weapons capability has deteriorated–across the board–to a significant degree.  A few examples:

  • Our ageing nuclear weapons stockpile, designed during the Cold War to deter Soviet attack by threatening massive retaliation, is ill-suited to deterring the more diversified–but still deadly–threats we now face.  It simply lacks credibility of use against today’s threats.  Deterring rogue states and terrorist groups from using weapons of mass destruction is still possible, but only with nuclear weapons designed for these new threats–weapons with greatly increased accuracy, much lower yield, reduced collateral damage, specialized capabilities (such as deep earth penetration), and tailored effects (such as ability to neutralize chemical and biological agents).  Achieving these capabilities will require testing.
  • Moreover, our confidence in the reliability and performance of our existing, overage, high-yield weapons is declining.  Ageing causes changes, and our ability to judge their seriousness, in the absence of testing, is uncertain.  When we do replace components, as in life-extension programs, we cannot be sure, again without testing, that the weapons will perform as designed.
  • In this age of terrorism it is of utmost importance thatU.S.nuclear weapons incorporate the very best and latest in safety, security, and controllability features.  Yet in a great many cases this cannot be done without testing.  Only one of the nine warhead designs in our current stockpile incorporates all available safety and security systems.  And, during the twelve years (to date) of the test moratorium, much advanced development on improved surety systems was simply not done because there was no prospect of doing the essential testing.
  • Since the dawn of the nuclear age no nuclear weapon design has entered the stockpile without having the pit (the plutonium core) certified through underground nuclear testing.  New-design pits will surely be required in the future, and despite years of work during the moratorium there is still no agreed method–other than testing–to certify new pits, or today’s pits manufactured by different processes.
  • The NNSA scientists, designers, engineers, and test personnel on whom we depend for continuity of experience are ageing and retiring.  The luster of a nuclear weapons career has been so diminished that recruiting outstanding new graduates into a lab and plant career is much more difficult.  And, without testing, effective training for this next generation of designers is highly questionable.  Today, very few active designers atLos AlamosandLivermorehave ever gone through the enlightening–and humbling–experience of having their designs tested underground.
  • For over a decade the ability of our nuclear weapons scientists to pursue a robust, wide-ranging, forward-looking research program into advanced nuclear weapons concepts has been brought to a virtual halt by administrative, legislative, and funding restrictions.  In this era of mushrooming technological advance in virtually all fields of science, the test moratorium has denied us not only the knowledge of “what’s possible?” but also an understanding of the diverse and growing threats we may face from known and unknown adversaries.
  • U.S.capability to field a full design-test-production team for rapid, efficient management of a new nuclear weapons system from concept to stockpile is seriously doubtful.  We have lost much of our experience in the complex and hazardous business of testing; and we have no capability to manufacture new pits in quantity (a situation which cannot be corrected for some fifteen years).  Our nuclear warhead manufacturing complex is antiquated and deteriorated, and modernization is experiencing serious capital shortfalls.
  • DOD’s central nuclear weapons infrastructure in the former Defense Nuclear Agency  and in the military services has largely been disassembled.  Few young officers in the Army, Navy, and Air Force are motivated to seek advanced degrees in nuclear physics/engineering, or to become nuclear weapons specialists.  Within DOD as a whole, little attention is given to education and training in nuclear weapons employment, to strategic thinking about use of nuclear weapons, to development of nuclear weapon tactics, and to strategy games involving nuclear weapons use.
  • Without nuclear testing, the survivability of DOD’s conventional and nuclear weapons systems and C4ISR systems to nuclear weapons effects is largely unproven.  Scientific research into nuclear weapons effects has atrophied to a great extent, and laboratory simulation facilities have significantly declined, resulting in our having little ability to testU.S.systems against nuclear effects.