Why the Administration's Stockpile Stewardship Will Harm the U.S. Nuclear Deterrent

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Why the Administration's Stockpile Stewardship Will Harm the U.S. Nuclear Deterrent

October 7, 1999 15 min read
Baker Spring
Baker Spring
Former Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy
Baker is a former Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy

In the coming days, the Senate may vote on ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). If the treaty enters into force, it would bar the United States from conducting explosive tests on nuclear weapons.1 The Clinton Administration asserts that it has a program in place, called the Science-Based Stockpile Stewardship (SBSS) program, which will allow the United States to maintain its nuclear deterrent without testing. Further, the Administration states that a series of "safeguards" announced in August 1995 establishes a process for withdrawing from the treaty and resuming nuclear testing if the U.S. nuclear deterrent is jeopardized by the testing prohibition.

Both the SBSS program and the safeguards policy are seriously flawed. This is because, first, the SBSS program is merely a procedure for ensuring the safety and reliability of the weapons in the stockpile and, second, the safeguards policy envisions the resumption of testing only when the safety and reliability of those nuclear weapons in the stockpile cannot be certified. Together, they do not account for the necessity of maintaining the military effectiveness of U.S. nuclear weapons. The ratification of the CTBT, therefore, is likely to lead to a U.S. nuclear arsenal that is completely inadequate for the military missions for which it is intended.2

An appropriately designed SBSS program, however, would be charged with ensuring the military effectiveness of the weapons in the stockpile, as well as their safety and reliability. Likewise, a properly designed safeguards policy would allow for the resumption of testing if the military effectiveness of nuclear weapons in the stockpile were called into question. The problem is that including an effectiveness standard in the SBSS program and the safeguard process would be contrary to the intent and spirit of the CTBT. The CTBT is designed to severely constrain nuclear weapons modernization programs. Retaining military effectiveness, however, inherently requires an unfettered modernization program. This is the case particularly when technological advancements require changes in the approach for meeting existing military requirements or when the requirements themselves change. For example, if the military establishes a new requirement for countering nuclear missiles deployed on mobile launch vehicles, the CTBT would effectively bar the United States from developing and deploying a new weapon to meet this new requirement because the weapon could not be tested.

The Senate needs to keep the question of military effectiveness firmly in mind as it prepares to debate CTBT ratification. The U.S. military does not retain a nuclear arsenal to threaten civilians who have the misfortune to reside in a country dominated by a hostile dictator. Rather, the military retains an arsenal of sophisticated and modern nuclear weapons to hold at risk such targets as enemy missiles, deeply buried command bunkers, biological weapons production facilities, and enemy forces.

If the Senate were to consent to the ratification of the CTBT, these military requirements, over time, could not be fulfilled. The military forces of potentially hostile states will advance over time and an aging U.S. nuclear arsenal will not be able to meet new military challenges. The inevitable outcome under the CTBT is that the U.S. nuclear arsenal will have as its sole purpose the targeting of civilians because eventually that is the only mission the weapons will be able to fulfill. The desire to outlaw nuclear testing should not be allowed to drive the United States toward consolidating a questionable policy of societal destruction called mutually assured destruction (MAD). This, however, is what will result if the Senate approves ratification of the CTBT.


In anticipation of the CTBT, the Clinton Administration established a policy to maintain the U.S. nuclear deterrent absent testing and under certain circumstances. The Administration announced this policy on August 11, 1995.3 The announcement set forth specific standards for resuming nuclear testing that were tied to a process for certifying annually to the safety and reliability, but not the effectiveness, of nuclear weapons in the stockpile. The announcement stated in part:

[I]n addition to the new annual certification procedure for our nuclear weapons stockpile, I am also establishing concrete, specific safeguards that define the conditions under which the United States will enter into a CTB [comprehensive test ban]. In the event that I were informed by the Secretary of Defense and Secretary of Energy, advised by the Nuclear Weapons Council, the directors of the Energy Department's nuclear weapons labs and the Commander of U.S. Strategic Command that a high level of confidence in the safety or reliability of a nuclear weapons type which the two Secretaries consider to be critical to our nuclear deterrent could no longer be certified, I would be prepared, in consultation with Congress, to exercise our supreme national interest rights under the CTB in order to conduct whatever testing might be required.4

In addition to the annual certification process, the policy announcement set out six specific safeguards, upon which U.S. participation in the CTBT would be based. It also defined the parameters for the Science-Based Stockpile Stewardship program. The safeguards speak only to the safety and reliability of U.S. nuclear weapons, not to their effectiveness.5 Likewise, the SBSS program is designed to maintain the safety and reliability of nuclear weapons, but not their effectiveness.6

This is a serious error of omission. Both the safeguards policy and the SBSS program should seek to preserve the effectiveness of the nuclear weapons in the stockpile, as well as their safety and reliability. To define this as an error of omission, however, is not to imply that the decision to exclude the effectiveness standard was unintended. The Clinton Administration made its announcement concerning the safeguards and the future of the SBSS program in 1995, in the context of seeking a complete ("zero yield") ban on nuclear testing from the CTBT negotiations, which were then underway. The cause of the shortcoming in the safeguard policy and the SBSS program is the treaty itself.

The CTBT is designed to severely constrain nuclear modernization programs. Maintaining the military effectiveness of nuclear weapons, however, requires an unfettered modernization program. If the Clinton Administration had included the effectiveness standard in the safeguards policy, it would have been forced to admit that the United States eventually would have to withdraw from a treaty it had not yet even signed. If the SBSS program included the same effectiveness standard, the nuclear weapons laboratories would have had to manage the program in ways directly contrary to the requirements of the CTBT. It would have required designing and developing entirely new types of nuclear weapons, and most important, testing them prior to deployment. Ultimately, maintaining a stockpile of militarily effective nuclear weapons is incompatible with the CTBT because of the constraints the treaty imposes on modernizing the stockpile. Indeed, such constraints are among the treaty's most important goals, as stated in its preamble.


In the natural course of its activities, the U.S. military reviews and establishes or revises the military requirements that its forces are expected to meet. The weapons that the military procures and upgrades, therefore, are designed to allow its forces to meet existing or new requirements more effectively. This process of designing and procuring new weapons and upgrading existing ones is generally referred to as modernization. A proper modernization program will employ a rigorous process of designing, testing, and upgrading to ensure that new and existing weapons are capable of fulfilling the requirements assigned to them. The process is both dynamic--because military requirements and technologies change over time--and disciplined, because the weapons must be effective.

In the case of nuclear weapons, the military effectiveness requirements are derived from the targets the weapons must be capable of destroying. Although the list of these targets is classified, it is presumed to include missile silos, nuclear command and control centers, military bases, nuclear weapons storage facilities, hostile military forces, and similar military and military-support facilities.7 In the past, nuclear forces have been modernized to meet the requirements derived from the targeting list. Whether the modernization involved upgrading an existing weapon, as when the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) received a new warhead in 1979, or fielding a new a weapon, like the MX missile in 1986, these weapons underwent a series of rigorous tests prior to being fielded. These tests have included explosive tests to confirm the capabilities of the nuclear warheads.

The only exception to this rule was the recent effort to upgrade the B61-7 nuclear bomb to the B61-Mod 11. This upgrade reportedly made the weapon suitable for destroying deeply buried bunkers by maintaining the same explosive package while altering other components of the weapon.

This upgrade took place under a moratorium on nuclear testing enacted by Congress and continued by the Clinton Administration. The last U.S. nuclear explosive test took place in 1992. Proponents of the test ban argue that this upgrade demonstrates that the U.S. nuclear arsenal can be modernized, absent testing, because the SBSS program allowed the certification of the upgraded weapon without testing.8 It is important to point out, however, that the certification was only to the safety and reliability of the B61-Mod 11, not its effectiveness. It is far from certain that this untested weapon will be effective in destroying deeply buried bunkers. Further, the approach taken in this case was the only one available in the context of the testing moratorium. Given the choice, weapons designers might have designed and tested an entirely new weapon. Only nuclear testing would allow them to determine with high confidence that the upgraded weapon or an entirely new weapon would be effective in destroying deeply buried bunkers.

The experience with B61-Mod 11, therefore, presages the future of the U.S. nuclear weapons modernization program under the CTBT. It is a future in which confidence in the effectiveness of U.S. nuclear weapons declines with each change made to military requirements. It is a future in which the arsenal of effective nuclear weapons atrophies and the weapons' capabilities, or lack thereof, will drive the policy of targeting instead of targeting policy driving weapons development and the procurement process. Over time, the lack of testing will cause the U.S. military to adopt a targeting policy that is focused on destroying civilian targets because they are "soft," or relatively easy to destroy.


Because nuclear testing--something that is prohibited by the CTBT--is necessary to maintain a nuclear stockpile of militarily effective weapons, it is appropriate to examine how both existing and future military requirements may go unmet under the treaty. It must be stressed that even existing military requirements can go unfulfilled because of force modernization in potentially hostile states. It also must be emphasized that military requirements are not static and will change over time. The ways in which existing and future military requirements may be compromised under the SBSS program and the safeguards policy include:

  • The inability to field entirely new nuclear weapons could cause even existing military requirements to go unmet.
    It is widely assumed that destroying enemy missile silos is an existing military requirement for U.S. nuclear weapons. This requirement could go unmet in the future under the SBSS program if, for example, a potentially hostile state developed new methods for hardening missile silos. The SBSS program, as a direct result of limits placed on the program by the CTBT, will be barred from designing and testing an entirely new nuclear weapon for the purpose of destroying a new hardened silo. Further, the safeguards policy would not prevent the loss of the ability to meet this existing military requirement. It addresses only questions of safety and reliability, not effectiveness.

The same problem pertains to nuclear delivery systems. In the past, new nuclear weapons were designed and built for specific delivery systems; likewise, delivery systems were built for specific types of warheads. Some of these delivery systems are becoming outmoded. The Minuteman III ICBM, for example, was first deployed in the early 1970s. Destroying enemy missiles in new hardened silos may require designing, building, and deploying an entirely new missile, even if the warhead remains the same. Under the SBSS program, the delivery systems would have to be designed and built to the requirements of the warheads, as opposed to the hand-in-glove fashion used earlier. This process of reverse engineering could lead to deployed weapons systems that are less capable of holding enemy missile silos at risk.

  • The military may have established a new requirement for destroying enemy chemical and biological forces and facilities for which new weapons are not being built and tested.
    According to press accounts, the Clinton Administration's November 1997 nuclear targeting directive allows the military to use nuclear weapons in response to chemical and biological attacks.9 The directive would imply that the military spent most of 1998 drawing up new nuclear target lists that include chemical and biological weapons targets. This in turn would imply that the military needs nuclear weapons that are designed to destroy deadly chemicals and biological agents without dispersing them. Indeed, the high heat generated by a nuclear explosion may be ideal for consuming these agents.10

If this new requirement has been established, it is appropriate that the military ask the nuclear weapons labs to design, build, and test one or several new nuclear weapons for meeting it. The CTBT, if it is ratified, would bar this approach. Neither the SBSS program nor the safeguards process would be of any help in the development and testing of such new weapons.

  • The military may need to establish new requirements for deterring regional adversaries, which may require new weapons.
    During the Persian Gulf War, the Iraqi government did not escalate the conflict by attacking U.S. and allied forces or Israel with biological and chemical weapons because the Bush Administration did not publicly rule out a nuclear response.11 This experience should lead U.S. military leaders to consider what kinds of nuclear weapons are best suited to deterring regional aggressors like Iraq. The answer may well be a family of new low-yield tactical nuclear weapons for attacking concentrations of enemy military forces and even the command and control facilities used by an enemy state's political leaders.

As with new weapons for countering biological and chemical forces and facilities, the CTBT will effectively bar the deployment of new nuclear weapons for regional deterrence. The SBSS program and safeguards policy, likewise, could not be applied to the development and testing of new weapons. Therefore, this possible military requirement for nuclear weapons will go unmet if the CTBT is ratified and the SBSS program and the safeguards policy remain under their current constraints.

  • The military should establish a new requirement for nuclear weapons to counter nuclear missiles deployed on mobile launch vehicles.
    The Persian Gulf War revealed that the U.S. military has a serious deficiency in countering enemy missiles deployed on mobile launch vehicles. There was not one confirmed kill of an Iraqi mobile Scud launcher during the war. Today, Russia has three kinds of strategic nuclear ICBMs deployed on mobile launch vehicles: a version of the SS-24 (which is mounted on trains), the SS-25, and the new SS-27. In the future, mobile ICBMs could well become the backbone of the Russian strategic nuclear force.

Despite this, the Clinton Administration continues to assert that there is no need to field a new kind of nuclear weapon. In reality, the military should be working with the weapons labs to build a new kind of nuclear weapon system designed to counter this threat. This is a very taxing technological demand and would certainly require that an entirely new nuclear weapon, with highly sophisticated targeting capabilities, be built and deployed. This weapon would certainly require explosive testing. Such testing, of course, would be barred by the CTBT and the SBSS program is not designed to handle it. All outward indications are that the Clinton Administration is simply ignoring the threat posed by the SS-24, SS-25, and SS-27.


The fact that the SBSS program for maintaining nuclear weapons in the U.S. stockpile under the CTBT and the safeguards policy for considering withdrawal from the treaty and for resuming testing excludes the effectiveness standard is a glaring deficiency in the Clinton Administration's nuclear policy. The reason for this deficiency is that the Administration chose to conform the SSBS program and the safeguards policy to requirements of the CTBT. This fact leaves the Senate little choice about the future of the U.S. nuclear deterrent and ratification of the CTBT. Insisting that the United States maintain, as it should, a stockpile of militarily effective nuclear weapons, will require that the Senate not allow the SSBS program and safeguards policy to be constrained by the CTBT.

Baker Spring is a Research Fellow in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis International Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

1. For a summary description of the negotiating history and content of the CTBT, see Baker Spring, "The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and U.S. Nuclear Disarmament," Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1330, October 6, 1999.

2. The SBSS program and the safeguard process are also, for technical reasons, inadequate for ensuring the safety and reliability of nuclear weapons in the stockpile. For a further discussion of this issue, see Spring, "The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and U.S. Nuclear Disarmament."

3. The CTBT was not signed by President Clinton until September 24, 1996.

4. The White House, "Press Briefing By Special Assistant to the President for Defense Policy Robert Bell," August 11, 1995.

5. The White House, "Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Safeguards," Fact Sheet, September 22, 1997.

6. Nadine Shea, ed., Nuclear Weapons Technology: Focus on the Stockpile (Los Alamos National Laboratory, 1997), pp. 8-9.

7. President Clinton signed a new classified targeting directive in November 1997. According to press accounts, the directive continues the policy of targeting U.S. nuclear forces on the kinds of targets described here. See R. Jeffrey Smith, "Clinton Directive Changes Strategy on Nuclear Arms," The Washington Post, December 7, 1997, p. A1.

8. Christopher Paine, "Facing Reality: Resuming Nuclear Test Explosions Would Harm U.S. and International Security," The Natural Resources Defense Council, January 1999, p. 4.

9. Smith, "Clinton Directive Changes Strategy on Nuclear Arms."

10. Kathleen C. Bailey, "The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty: The Costs Outweigh the Benefits," CATO Institute Policy Analysis No. 330, January 15, 1999, pp. 4-5.

11. Keith B. Payne, President, National Institute for Public Policy, "Testimony Before the Senate Armed Services Committee's Strategic Forces Subcommittee," March 31, 1998.


Baker Spring
Baker Spring

Former Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy