Trump’s approval on US nuclear posture will usher in new age for nuclear weapons

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For the past six months, a few of the nation’s top military strategists have been closeted in the Pentagon writing the most important military document of our era: the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). Once President Trump approves it, key strategic decisions on nuclear weapons will all have been made for the duration of his presidency.

The number, types and purposes of nukes will be outlined, as will key issues like the resumption of underground nuclear testing, design and production of a new stockpile of weapons, as well as the continuation (or not) of our triad of nuclear delivery systems. The NPR could certainly change if major events occur, such as war or nuclear detonations. But the three previous NPRs (Clinton 1994, Bush 2002, Obama 2010) have held fairly firm.

The prospects for significant changes in this NPR are higher than in the past, because the nuclear threats the U.S. faces have increased markedly in the last few years. Russia and China are improving and expanding their nuclear arsenals and becoming much more aggressive. Rogue states North Korea and Iran are on the verge of producing deliverable nukes and selling them to willing buyers or passing them to terrorist proxies for use, respectively. Other new nuclear threats abound. 

{mosads}Two very significant changes in this NPR seem most needed. They deal with the science of nuclear weapons. To understand them, one must be aware of the history of the nuclear era. In 1939 Einstein wrote a letter to FDR about nuclear weapons science. FDR created the Manhattan Project, which, in six years, created nuclear weapons. The Manhattan Project, led by General Leslie Groves, had two parts, military and scientific.


The Cold War — the world’s first nuclear war — began in 1946, and in 1947, the Manhattan Project was divided into two parts. The basic atomic science (plus nuclear weapons design and production) became the Atomic Energy Commission (now the Department of Energy). The military part (the military science of “nuclear weapons effects”) became the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project (AFSWP).

During its twelve-year lifespan, AFSWP became a huge Department of Defense organization. It owned and operated all U.S. nuclear weapons, it established all nuclear weapons requirements, it conducted nuclear weapons tests, it advanced the science of nuclear weapons effects, it developed all our nuclear weapons strategy and tactics, etc.

Over these twelve years AFSWP trained the Army, Navy, and Air Force in nuclear weapons, and turned over the weapons themselves. But AFSWP retained the leadership and management of the military science functions, and it became the Defense Nuclear Agency (DNA) after a transition period. DNA was headed by a military three-star general who reported directly to the secretary of Defense and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. The DNA had a staff of about 1,500, and it was at the head of the nuclear weapons pyramid in the Defense Department.

DNA housed the national laboratory for nuclear weapons effects, and conducted the underground nuclear tests that are the life blood of the nuclear weapons effects science. Each new weapons system, conventional or nuclear, is born with its own hidden vulnerabilities to the effects of nuclear weapons, and these must be discovered and corrected by underground tests. DNA established “hardness” and survivability standards for all weapons systems. On the offensive side, DNA established the nuclear warhead capabilities and tactics for defeating every type of military and industrial target.

DNA also managed the thousands of nuclear weapons specialists and subspecialists, military and civilian, many with advanced degrees, who served in every headquarters, command, staff, agency, lab, and nuclear unit worldwide. DNA oversaw every nuclear issue in the Defense Department. Those included, for instance, safety, security, survivability and accountability.

The Cold War lasted 46 years. Our cold warriors in the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Department of Defense (DOD) fought this war for every one of those years. We won the Cold War for several reasons, but one of the most paramount was our superiority in advancing and adapting nuclear science in DOE and DOD every day of those years.

The people who really learned the Cold War’s lessons best were the arms controllers and anti-nuclear activists. What did they do when the Cold War ended in 1991? They killed two activities. In DOE, they killed underground nuclear testing (the heart of the scientific method). In DOD, they killed the Defense Nuclear Agency, and with it the military science of nuclear weapons effects. For the past quarter-century, U.S. nuclear weapons capability has been rendered scientifically unsustainable.

Nuclear weapons were a creation of science, and they depend wholly upon science for advancement. America must remember the lessons of the Cold War fast if we are to survive. The bottom line is that this Nuclear Posture Review should resume underground nuclear testing through the Department of Energy, and secondly, re-establish the Defense Nuclear Agency and resume its underground testing program in the Department of Defense. 

The DOD, after all, is in a much deeper hole than the DOE. The Pentagon still has its three labs. DOD’s only lab is gone.

Robert R. Monroe, vice admiral, U.S. Navy (Ret.), is former director of the Defense Nuclear Agency.

Tags Department of Defense Department of Energy Donald Trump Nuclear power Nuclear warfare Nuclear weapons Pentagon Robert Monroe

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