Wednesday, December 14, 2016

NNSA is not and cannot be under DOD

A nuclear weapon is the most destructive device known to humankind. Absolute control over it essential to ensuring human survival.

In a democracy - all nuclear weapons issues are controlled by the highest elected office (i.e. the President). Only the President can authorize the *making* of a nuclear weapon and only the Presient can authorize it *use*.

The NNSA under the DOE - a civilian led department that is directly answerable to the President and Congress. The NNSA *makes* the nukes.

The DOD is military entity that only *uses* the nukes after it is told to do so by the President.

In the past the DOE (nee AEC) had custody of the actual weapons and when the president ordered it - the weapon would be handed over to the DOD.

For example in the Manhattan project - this *civilian* control came in the form of two physicists Dr, Luis Alvarez and Dr, Norman Ramsey. Before the first B-29 took off from Tinian towards Hiroshima the exact details of how the weapon ("Little Boy") was to be armed were released to Capt. Parsons (who was the true mission commander as opposed to Col. Tibbets). Capt. Parsons then armed the weapon after the Enola Gay had taken off from Tinian. Dr. Alvarez, his grad student Lawrence Johnston, and Harold Agnew (later head of Los Alamos National Lab) flew alongside the Enola Gay another B-29 - Great Artiste - and carried out bomb damage assessment. That is how tight the level of control was. Only after Dr. Alvarez, Agnew and Johnston had submitted their reports - was the operation officially termed a success. The Ramsay-Alvarez-Agnew-Johnston team was both the civilian control and civilian oversight on the mission.

Over time this kind of relationship evolved as nukes became much more compact. The DOD came to have control over complete weapons with attached warheads and could launch them when the authorization from the President came. In order to ensure a critical level of security - a series of controls (Permissive Action Links - PALS) were designed by the DOE. This made it impossible to launch the weapon without the Presidential authorization.

At no point of time - even today does the DOD have unfettered access to a physics package (i.e the actual atomic explosive in any weapon). This makes the President's control over nuclear weapons absolute.

If the NNSA was directly under the DOD - then the DOD would have complete access to a physics package with no PALS on it. If the DOD decided to use a nuclear weapon - it would no longer need specific authorization from the President. 

The highest elected official in the land would no longer have absolute control the use of nuclear weapons. That authority would devolve to an non-elected official - the Secy. DOD.

Without absolute control over the nukes - you might as well not have a President at all. No one will listen to such a person anyway.  

You might say - well what's the big deal? the military can handle the weapons and the responsibility that comes with them.

History is not quite so nice on that kind of thing. In the 50s even when the AEC/DOE had a lot of control, there was lot of confusion in the military about how nuclear weapons were to be used. The result was that characters like General LeMay wanted more and more nuclear weapons to be field deployable. During this time a large number of nukes were released into military custody with a very rudimentary amount of civilian control and oversight. The result was a massive increase in nuclear flashpoints - times when we came to the brink of nuclear war with Russia. This was not because our military did anything wrong but  because the Russians had no idea if the military action was a veil for a nuclear strike. The Russians reacted poorly when so much so as a Canberra reconnaissance flight made a run along Russia northern border along the Arctic patrol.  Because the Russians were jump so were our guys and that thing kind of fed on itself.

Additionally there were a number of accidents in which large quantities of radioactive material were released into the environment and ordinary people suffered the consequences. The military insisted on taking actual nukes on training missions and when a trainee screwed up - and actual nuke impacted the ground. We were extremely fortunate that none of those nukes detonated and no fallout landed on a populated area.

Nations like Pakistan, Saddam Hussein's Iraq, North Korea represent cases where all nuclear weapons development  is entirely owned by the military. In each of these places - democracy cannot exist.

Separating nuclear weapons development from nuclear weapons delivery agencies is followed by most responsible nuclear states. Even in Russia - the development of nuclear weapons is entirely under civilian control. It is best to leave it that way.  

Revised - after comments by Stephen Schwartz


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