Op eds

This op-ed by Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.)  first appeared in the July 2023 edition of Newsmax magazine.

When the United States built much of its nuclear stockpile, the Cold War was raging and the Soviet Union was our only major adversary with a sophisticated nuclear stockpile.  Our nuclear power deterred Soviet aggression and ensured that the Cold War never escalated.

But today, we no longer face just one threat.  Russia still maintains the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, but China’s nuclear stockpile is growing rapidly.  North Korea continues to threaten our allies with its collection of nuclear weapons.  And, thanks to the disastrous Iran nuclear deal, Iran is marching ever closer to developing nuclear weapons of its own. 

The United States must now counter nuclear superpowers in both China and Russia while also deterring the itchy trigger fingers of unstable dictators like Kim Jong Un and the Ayatollah in Iran.  We should be innovating and preparing our nuclear arsenal for this new global dynamic, but instead, our nuclear stockpile remains stuck in the Cold War. 

Simply put: America’s nuclear stockpile is old and shrinking.  And while modernizing our nuclear arsenal should be a top priority, our effort to restart nuclear weapon production has been riddled with delays and poor planning.  And we don’t have time to waste. 

The United States has not built a single nuclear warhead since the close of the Cold War.  Instead, we’ve focused on “life extension programs” to keep our old weapons operational by refurbishing them.  Those that aren’t refurbished are destroyed.  From 1994 to 2020, the U.S.  dismantled 11,683 total nuclear warheads.  This total does not include the 2,000 other warheads that have been “retired” while awaiting their own demolition, too.

Most of our nuclear warheads are decades old.  The facilities where we built and store these are even older.  As recently as 2019, the computer system controlling our nuclear weapons ran on floppy disks.  Today, we are so far behind in our nuclear revitalization that we cannot even produce plutonium pits – an essential component of every nuclear weapon. 

Plutonium pits sit at the center of a warhead – not all that different than the pits in a peach.  The pit is essential because it triggers the nuclear explosion.  Plutonium pits do not last forever.  They can only sit inside a weapon for roughly 100 years before we must replace them.  And the clock is ticking on many of our Cold War-era weapons.  

During the Cold War, the United States could produce more than 1,000 pits per year.  But the United States has not regularly manufactured plutonium pits since 1989.  In fact, the United States has not produced a single warhead-ready plutonium pit since 2012.  And as you’d imagine, our nuclear engineers cannot just stop by the hardware store to pick these up.  Pit production is a complex and time-consuming process.

But our adversaries never stopped.  China, Russia, North Korea, and Pakistan all continue to produce plutonium pits to ready their arsenals.  Yet the United States fell asleep at the wheel and let our plutonium pit production die off entirely. 

Keeping our nuclear arsenal in shape is sort of like keeping your body in shape.  If you stop exercising altogether, it will be very painful when you start it up again.  The United States is learning this the hard way.  

In 2014, the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense determined that it would need at least 4,000 new plutonium pits to replace the aging pits in our current weapons as part of our larger refurbishment strategy.  New pits are also needed for any new weapons we hope to build.  Department officials determined that the United States would need to produce a minimum of 80 pits per year by 2030 to be able to reach our national security goals by 2080. 

To meet this goal, Congress passed a bill instructing the National Nuclear Security Administration (known as the NNSA) to resume plutonium production in two separate facilities in 2015.  Congress tasked the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico with a goal of 30 pits per year.  The Savannah River Site in South Carolina is responsible for the remaining 50 to achieve the 80-pit-per-year capacity. 

But that hasn’t happened.  Instead, pit production has been postponed repeatedly.  Most recently, NNSA Administrator Jill Hruby estimated that the United States will hit its production goals sometime in 2036 – six years later than projected.   

The delays are so significant that, in 2021, the commander of the U.S.  Strategic Command testified that no amount of funding would have been enough to get the NNSA to its production capacity goal by 2030. 

These new pits are not just “nice to have.” They are essential for developing new weapons to deter aggression from hostile nations.   

Consider the W87-1 Modification Program.  Under this program, the United States is developing a new warhead to ride atop the next generation of ICBMs – intercontinental ballistic missiles.  But these weapons cannot run on the old pits.  They require a new design.  The delayed pit production means these warheads – and our ability to deter China’s growing arsenal – is delayed, too.  

Now, I understand that plutonium pit production is not simple.  And like many other workplaces in the United States, supply chain issues and a shortage of qualified workers created unexpected problems for our capacity goals.  But there is a difference between encountering unexpected challenges and simply failing to prepare.  And investigations show the NNSA has not taken its preparation seriously enough.

The Government Accountability Office determined that the NNSA lacked both a comprehensive schedule and a cost estimate for its plutonium projects.  Importantly, the NNSA also lacked an integrated master schedule that can be used to coordinate everything from production to staffing.  Administration officials recently announced more concrete schedules and cost estimates, but that cannot make up for the valuable time we’ve already wasted.  And concerningly, the NSSA remains on the Government Accountability Office’s list of organizations that are at high risk for “fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement” because of its practices. 

Modernizing our nuclear stockpile is essential for maintaining our national security and affirming our position as a global leader.  Our weapons don’t only protect Americans; they protect our allies, too.  As part of our Extended Deterrence Strategy, we’ve agreed to help defend our allies who don’t have nuclear weapons of their own.  But our allies see our antiquated stockpile and wonder if we can follow through on that promise.  

Our friends in South Korea, for example, announced their doubts earlier this year.  South Korea considered developing its own weapons because its leaders do not know if America’s arsenal is ready to answer the call if South Korea ever faces an imminent nuclear threat.  After some recent negotiations, South Korea reaffirmed its commitment to work with the United States, but the situation shows the severity of our problem.  The people of South Korea are our friends.  If they’re doubting our capabilities, our adversaries are, too. 

Look no further than China.  According to the Pentagon, China already has more ICBMs than the United States.  In 2021, China had 400 nuclear warheads.  By 2035, China will have 1,500, far outpacing the Pentagon’s initial projections. 

China is also rapidly innovating.  The Chinese military has been testing nuclear-capable hypersonic missiles that can fly five times the speed of sound – roughly 3,800 miles per hour.  A few weapons China is testing could leave its intended target only minutes to respond.    

The United States cannot continue inching along while China quadruples its arsenal with newer and faster weapons.  The days when we could neglect our nuclear stockpile without risking our national security are over.  

Our ability to deter unstable nuclear powers and maintain a peaceful world relies on our ability to continue innovating in ways only freedom-loving Americans can.  But these vital projects rely on our plutonium pit production.  And failing to produce pits at full capacity is unacceptable. 

As ranking member on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, I know we will continue our focus on this issue as we modernize our nuclear stockpile for the peace and safety of generations to come.  I’d urge my colleagues to make it a priority, too.   We can’t fix this problem overnight, but if we continue to work in a bipartisan fashion, we can restore our stockpile to its former glory.  It is time for the United States to get serious about revitalizing its nuclear arsenal so that we can continue to have the most reliable and sophisticated defense systems on the planet. 

Why is this so important? Because peace through weakness never works.  Never.