Q&A: As Fiscal Constraints Mount, New Group Looks to Defend Nuclear Arsenal

A B-2 stealth bomber takes off from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri for a 2002 training run to a bombing range in Alaska. A new grassroots coalition is looking to preserve the U.S. nuclear-weapons triad of bomber aircraft, submarines and ground-based missiles, amid growing fiscal constraints.
National Journal
Douglas P. Guarino
Feb. 21, 2014, 9:23 a.m.

At a time when dis­cus­sions about how best to re­fur­bish the U.S. nuc­le­ar ar­sen­al are in­creas­ingly be­ing shaped by fin­an­cial con­straints, a new grass­roots or­gan­iz­a­tion is emer­ging that aims to con­vince Amer­ic­ans that main­tain­ing ex­ist­ing weapons is es­sen­tial to na­tion­al se­cur­ity.

But the group, called the Stra­tegic De­terrent Co­ali­tion, is not tak­ing a po­s­i­tion on wheth­er the ar­sen­al must be mod­ern­ized in ex­actly the way the En­ergy and De­fense de­part­ments cur­rently plan — not yet, any­way.

For in­stance, Con­gress is re­quest­ing ad­di­tion­al in­form­a­tion re­gard­ing the de­part­ments’ in­creas­ingly con­tro­ver­sial plan to re­place both the W-88 sub­mar­ine-launched war­head and the W-78 ground-based war­head with a single, in­ter­op­er­able weapon. Law­makers and arms con­trol ad­voc­ates have sug­ges­ted it might be cheap­er to simply re­fur­bish the two ex­ist­ing war­heads sep­ar­ately, but the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has been crit­ic­al of the call for more study — at least pub­licly.

Mem­bers of the new co­ali­tion, however, are not op­posed to study­ing the is­sue more be­fore com­mit­ting.

“That de­cision is not yet ripe,” co­ali­tion lead­er Sher­man Mc­Corkle told Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire dur­ing a re­cent in­ter­view. “There needs to be ad­di­tion­al in­form­a­tion provided around that feas­ib­il­ity.”

Mc­Corkle is chair­man and CEO of the San­dia Sci­ence & Tech­no­logy Park De­vel­op­ment Cor­por­a­tion, loc­ated near the En­ergy De­part­ment’s San­dia Na­tion­al Labor­at­or­ies in Al­buquerque, N.M.

At some point in the fu­ture, Mc­Corkle hopes the co­ali­tion will be able to take a uni­fied stance on what items in the cur­rent mod­ern­iz­a­tion plan must stay and what can go. The al­li­ance in­cludes Mc­Corkle’s San­dia-based or­gan­iz­a­tion and also sev­er­al oth­er com­munity-based groups loc­ated near En­ergy and De­fense De­part­ment nuc­le­ar fa­cil­it­ies, such as the Montana De­fense Al­li­ance loc­ated in Great Falls near Malmstrom Air Force Base, and the White­man Area Lead­er­ship Coun­cil of War­rens­burg, Mo., linked to White­man Air Force Base.

“I think that as with any co­ali­tion, each com­munity group is par­tic­u­larly con­cerned about what par­tic­u­lar piece hap­pens to be in their gen­er­al vi­cin­ity and so that cre­ates very act­ive con­ver­sa­tion,” Mc­Corkle said. “But part of our ef­fort is to have that very pro­act­ive con­ver­sa­tion and at some point in time be­ing able to speak with one voice — it is true that we are not yet there.”

One thing the co­ali­tion has agreed on is what it sees as the ne­ces­sity of main­tain­ing all three legs of the so-called nuc­le­ar tri­ad — atom­ic war­heads on land-based mis­siles, sub­mar­ine-based mis­siles at sea and long-range bomber air­craft.

“The gen­er­al be­lief is that that, yes, we do sup­port all three legs and “¦ keep­ing all three legs but hol­low­ing out one of them is not the same as keep­ing all three legs,” Mc­Corkle told GSN. “So we do sup­port the cur­rent con­fig­ur­a­tion by and large, with the un­der­stand­ing that mod­ern­iz­a­tion needs to oc­cur with the weapons them­selves as well as the de­liv­ery sys­tems. There’s not many of us driv­ing a 1961 vehicle, but we do have 1961 [nuc­le­ar] weapons and 1961 de­liv­ery sys­tems.”

The James Mar­tin Cen­ter for Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Stud­ies re­cently re­leased a re­port as­sert­ing that the cur­rent mod­ern­iz­a­tion plan would cost at least $1 tril­lion over the next 30 years and be fisc­ally im­possible to im­ple­ment, but Mc­Corkle says he doesn’t put too much stock in such stud­ies.

“I think most people in Amer­ica have learned over the last three or four dec­ades that [for] any­body’s point of view there can be a study that would sup­port that point a view,” he said. “There are as many stud­ies as there are points of view.”

Mc­Corkle said the co­ali­tion be­lieves the ar­sen­al in its cur­rent form­a­tion is es­sen­tial, des­pite the nature of threats to na­tion­al se­cur­ity hav­ing changed since the Cold War, when So­viet nuc­le­ar weapons were the main con­cern.

“The nuc­le­ar de­terrent is an um­brella and there are of course situ­ations that will oc­cur un­der­neath the um­brella, but it is the um­brella that cre­ates the op­por­tun­ity to en­gage in in­ter­na­tion­al dip­lomacy with near-su­per­powers” such as Rus­sia and China, Mc­Corkle said. “It didn’t pre­vent 9/11, it didn’t pre­vent Syr­ia — there are [non-nuc­le­ar] ac­tions that will oc­cur but I don’t think that the nuc­le­ar de­terrent was con­ceived to pre­vent those sorts of [non-nuc­le­ar] con­flicts.”

The co­ali­tion lead­er ac­know­ledged that in­di­vidu­al com­munity-groups may be con­cerned about the im­pacts their loc­al eco­nom­ies in the event of a nuc­le­ar scale-down. But he said that would not be the new co­ali­tion’s fo­cus and main­tained that the cur­rent ar­sen­al has mer­it on its own.

“I real­ize that in some ways per­haps it’s hard for people to sep­ar­ate, but I think they are two sep­ar­ate is­sues,” Mc­Corkle said.

In or­der to bol­ster its ar­gu­ment, the new group has en­lis­ted the en­dorse­ments of high-pro­file former law­makers, gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and high-rank­ing mil­it­ary of­fi­cials. The list of back­ers in­cludes former Sen­at­or Pete Domen­ici (R-N.M.), former Na­tion­al Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Ad­min­is­trat­or Lin­ton Brooks and re­tired Maj. Gen. C. Don­ald Al­ston, formerly a 20th Air Force com­mand­er.

“We thought it im­port­ant to say these are not just the mis­sion vis­ions and po­s­i­tions of the vari­ous com­munity groups, but of prom­in­ent Amer­ic­ans who have dealt with these is­sues as elec­ted of­fi­cials or as “¦ seni­or gen­er­als who have had strategy and mis­sion re­quire­ments in their jobs,” Mc­Corkle said.

“So the idea is this is not just the point of view of a co­ali­tion of un­elec­ted com­munity groups,” he said, “but it is a point of view in terms of de­terrence — and the re­li­ab­il­ity and sus­tain­ab­il­ity of that de­terrence — that is agreed to by these folks who have en­dorsed these ef­forts.”

The co­ali­tion is not a lob­by­ing group, however, Mc­Corkle said. Rather, it hopes to “ree­du­cate the Amer­ic­an pub­lic about why stra­tegic de­terrence is still im­port­ant.”

He ad­ded: “The last 15 years we’ve had Ir­aq, Ir­an, Afgh­anistan, on and on, and I hon­or everything about it; I’m just say­ing the nuc­le­ar de­terrent is not a part of al­most any­body’s con­ver­sa­tion.”

Be­low are ed­ited ex­cerpts from this week’s tele­phone in­ter­view:

GSN: What brought about the form­a­tion of this new group?

Mc­Corkle: There’s com­munity-based groups in vari­ous states and as people kind of passed each oth­er in the night, so to speak, the con­ver­sa­tion be­came more about “maybe we should form some kind of co­ali­tion and we could have a stronger, more na­tion­al voice than each of us in our com­munit­ies.”

GSN: So the mem­bers of the co­ali­tion are all these smal­ler, com­munity-based groups that are found around vari­ous nuc­le­ar sites?

Mc­Corkle: Yes, it is some of them, it’s a grow­ing num­ber, it is not yet all of them.

GSN: Your web­site lists sev­er­al en­dors­ers in­clud­ing Pete Domen­ici, Lin­ton Brooks and sev­er­al re­tired mil­it­ary of­fi­cials. Can you tell me more about what their role is with the co­ali­tion?

Mc­Corkle: One of the things we at­temp­ted to do was to design a mis­sion vis­ion and po­s­i­tion state­ment, which would be com­mon to a com­munity group no mat­ter what their loc­a­tion or what their af­fil­i­ation is “¦

We thought it im­port­ant to say these are not just the mis­sion vis­ions and po­s­i­tions of the vari­ous com­munity groups, but of prom­in­ent Amer­ic­ans who have dealt with these is­sues as elec­ted of­fi­cials or as “¦ seni­or gen­er­als who have had strategy and mis­sion re­quire­ments in their jobs.

So the idea is this is not just the point of view of a co­ali­tion of un­elec­ted com­munity groups, but it is a point of view in terms of de­terrence and the re­li­ab­il­ity and sus­tain­ab­il­ity of that de­terrence that is agreed to [by] these folks who have en­dorsed these ef­forts.

GSN: Do you ex­pect that these in­di­vidu­als will be speak­ing out on be­half of the group and the things that it is try­ing to lobby for?

Mc­Corkle: We’ve been very care­ful that we in­dic­ate and in­form rather than lobby, and we an­ti­cip­ate that these in­di­vidu­als will speak on their own be­half and, on oc­ca­sion, on be­half of the co­ali­tion.

GSN: If you’re not do­ing lob­by­ing per se, how do you plan on in­flu­en­cing de­cisions? What’s the strategy?

Mc­Corkle: We are very em­bryon­ic. Call­ing us a start-up is al­most an ex­ag­ger­a­tion. We hope to reach a point where we are able to cre­ate white pa­pers that in­form the pub­lic “¦ with a fo­cus on [un­der­stand­ing] what nuc­le­ar de­terrence means in 2014 or 2015 or 2016.

For many Amer­ic­ans, nuc­le­ar de­terrence is simply no longer part of their vocab­u­lary; it’s not part of any con­ver­sa­tion with any fam­ily mem­ber or any part of their so­ci­et­al group or any­one else at any point dur­ing the year. So we cer­tainly want to some­how ree­du­cate the Amer­ic­an pub­lic about why stra­tegic de­terrence is still im­port­ant.

GSN: I’m as­sum­ing you mean that it’s not as prom­in­ently dis­cussed since the end of the Cold War?

Mc­Corkle: Cor­rect. The last 15 years we’ve had Ir­aq, Ir­an, Afgh­anistan, on and on and I hon­or everything about it; I’m just say­ing the nuc­le­ar de­terrent is not a part of al­most any­body’s con­ver­sa­tion.

And so yes, we’d like to have white pa­pers, we’d like to have op-eds, we’d like to have people that ap­pear at Kiwanis or “¦ whatever civic func­tion is oc­cur­ring that has an un­der­stand­ing of — and an ap­pre­ci­ation for — stra­tegic de­terrence. So it’s a pretty grand vis­ion for this little tiny em­bryon­ic en­tity.

GSN: So the fo­cus is more on edu­cat­ing the pub­lic, as op­posed to try­ing to in­flu­ence folks in Wash­ing­ton?

Mc­Corkle: We want to in­flu­ence cer­tainly any­one who in the course of their du­ties would im­pact the dir­ec­tion, cer­tainly.

GSN: What are some of the un­der­ly­ing be­liefs or bench­marks? Is it the be­lief of the co­ali­tion that all three legs of the tri­ad need to be main­tained no mat­ter what, or is there some de­gree of flex­ib­il­ity there?

Mc­Corkle: The gen­er­al be­lief is that that, yes, we do sup­port all three legs and “¦ keep­ing all three legs but hol­low­ing out one of them is not the same as keep­ing all three legs.

So we do sup­port the cur­rent con­fig­ur­a­tion by and large, with the un­der­stand­ing that mod­ern­iz­a­tion needs to oc­cur with the weapons them­selves, as well as the de­liv­ery sys­tems. There’s not many of us driv­ing a 1961 vehicle, but we do have 1961 [nuc­le­ar] weapons and 1961 de­liv­ery sys­tems.”

GSN: When you say hol­low­ing out — that it wouldn’t be a good idea to hol­low out one of the legs — what ex­actly do you mean by that?

Mc­Corkle: If you suf­fi­ciently re­duce the num­ber of de­liv­ery vehicles in any one of the three legs, you’ve some­what hol­lowed out that par­tic­u­lar leg.

GSN: There’s been a lot of talk, par­tic­u­larly in the past few months, about the in­creas­ingly tight budget en­vir­on­ment. There was a study put out by one group ar­guing that the cur­rent mod­ern­iz­a­tion plan would cost about $1 tril­lion and that it is so ex­pens­ive that it couldn’t be im­ple­men­ted the way it is, and that it has to be mod­i­fied. Does your group have a po­s­i­tion on that?

Mc­Corkle: “¦ I think most people in Amer­ica have learned over the last three or four dec­ades that [for] any­body’s point of view there can be a study that would sup­port that point a view. There are as many stud­ies as there are points of view”¦

GSN: Giv­en the fin­an­cial pres­sures that are up­com­ing, are there any areas across the nuc­le­ar com­plex and the nuc­le­ar de­terrent with­in the mod­ern­iz­a­tion plans that you see po­ten­tial areas for cost sav­ings or com­prom­ise?

Mc­Corkle: “¦ On al­most any pro­ject you can find a half-dozen cost es­tim­ates by vari­ous dif­fer­ent groups, and de­pend­ing on which cost es­tim­ate you choose to use as an ex­ample, you can say that there is money be­ing wasted or you can say that it’s un­der­fun­ded, which makes the con­ver­sa­tion a little more dif­fi­cult and com­plex be­cause there are so many es­tim­ates. So which es­tim­ate gets cre­dence?

GSN: To use one ex­ample, there’s been talk over the past few months about the in­ter­op­er­able war­head that is planned to re­place both the W-78 and W-88 war­heads. Con­gress has asked for more cost stud­ies on that and some are ex­pect­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion to at least push that plan back a few years. Does your group have a po­s­i­tion on that?

Mc­Corkle: “¦That de­cision is not yet ripe. There needs to be ad­di­tion­al in­form­a­tion provided around that feas­ib­il­ity.

GSN: So you’re not ne­ces­sar­ily op­posed to it be­ing delayed a bit in the in­terest of get­ting more in­form­a­tion about the cost?

Mc­Corkle: Right.

GSN: How about the B-61 grav­ity bomb sta­tioned in Europe? There’s been talk about wheth­er what is be­ing done there in terms of re­fur­bish­ment has more bells and whistles than is really needed — or wheth­er there is a cheap­er way to do it. Does the co­ali­tion have a po­s­i­tion on that?

Mc­Corkle: Some­times when you drill down on these, it’s a little bit like say­ing which is a bet­ter eco­nomy vehicle — a Honda Civic or a Toyota “¦ Co­rolla “¦ Some of it is in the eye of the be­hold­er and we cer­tainly un­der­stand that.

GSN: So giv­en that, do you think it should pro­ceed as it is cur­rently planned, or are you open to a relook at that, as well?

Mc­Corkle: To some ex­tent we would de­fer to those that are closest to the re­design, who have the greatest re­spons­ib­il­ity for en­sur­ing that it is as safe and cost-ef­fect­ive as pos­sible.

GSN: When you look across the com­plex, are there any par­tic­u­lar areas where there are con­cerns that there could be sub­stan­tial cuts where there really shouldn’t be?

Mc­Corkle: I think that as with any co­ali­tion, each com­munity group is par­tic­u­larly con­cerned about what par­tic­u­lar piece hap­pens to be in their gen­er­al vi­cin­ity and so that cre­ates very act­ive con­ver­sa­tion.

GSN: So it could be dif­fer­ent de­pend­ing on which of your mem­bers you talk to?

Mc­Corkle: Yes. But part of our ef­fort is to have that very pro­act­ive con­ver­sa­tion and, at some point in time, be­ing able to speak with one voice. It is true that we are not yet there.

GSN: So at some point down the road, you could see a scen­ario where the dif­fer­ent sub­groups get to­geth­er and are able to make de­cisions on which as­pects are really im­port­ant and which ones can be sac­ri­ficed?

Mc­Corkle: Yes, have a very pro­act­ive con­ver­sa­tion about where the ef­forts are sorely needed.

GSN: Do you have any idea of a timetable?

Mc­Corkle: I don’t. This is es­sen­tially an all-vo­lun­teer ef­fort and is be­ing done on something less than a shoes­tring. The first ever meet­ing was Dec. 18, 2012. “¦ The num­ber of com­munit­ies is slowly grow­ing and at some point we think, or at least I think, we will reach a tip­ping point where we will be able to grow faster than we have over these last 15 months. “¦

GSN: Are you plan­ning on hav­ing any pub­lic events?

Mc­Corkle: The an­swer is yes, but I don’t have any idea when or where. But it’s in the thought pro­cess, it’s in the con­ver­sa­tion. When we have a con­fer­ence call there are usu­ally 30 to 35 people on the con­fer­ence call and “¦ you can vary the level of in­terest in those 30 to 35 people.

We filed for 501(c)(3) status last year. We got a tax I.D. in Novem­ber. “¦ We’ve done the very ba­sic things that any grass­roots or­gan­iz­a­tion needs to do.

GSN: What is the role of the sev­en groups lis­ted in the “founders’ circle” on your web­site?

Mc­Corkle: Those are the com­munity-based groups who have writ­ten a check. There’s oth­er com­munity-based groups that have not yet writ­ten a check, but that are part of the con­ver­sa­tion.

GSN: Does the co­ali­tion plan to look in­to the im­pact on jobs and the eco­nomy that the vari­ous nuc­le­ar sites have?

Mc­Corkle: That is more the re­spons­ib­il­ity of the com­munity-based or­gan­iz­a­tions. But cer­tainly we’re very cog­niz­ant that jobs are cre­ated by the stra­tegic de­terrent.

GSN: How much of this is about en­sur­ing that those eco­nom­ic factors re­main in­tact, as op­posed to con­cerns about ac­tu­al threats to the coun­try?

Mc­Corkle: That’s really two sep­ar­ate ques­tions that are linked by co­in­cid­ence. Our fo­cus is the de­terrent; a byproduct is the jobs. The com­munity-based or­gan­iz­a­tions, they do what they wish to do, but I think at the na­tion­al level it really is about a safe, se­cure and re­li­able nuc­le­ar de­terrent. I real­ize that in some ways, per­haps it’s hard for people to sep­ar­ate, but I think they are two sep­ar­ate is­sues.

GSN: What is the group’s philo­sophy on how you jus­ti­fy main­tain­ing the de­terrent struc­ture that we have at a time when the types of threats ap­pear to be a lot dif­fer­ent than they were dur­ing the Cold War?

Mc­Corkle: There are many hy­po­theses about what threats may be. The only proven fact is that the de­terrent has been ef­fect­ive. After that any of us can hy­po­thes­ize what we choose to hy­po­thes­ize.

GSN: Would you say it’s been ef­fect­ive des­pite the fact that it didn’t de­ter things like the Sept. 11, 2001, at­tacks from hap­pen­ing?

Mc­Corkle: Cer­tainly. The nuc­le­ar de­terrent is an um­brella and there are of course situ­ations that will oc­cur un­der­neath the um­brella, but it is the um­brella that cre­ates the op­por­tun­ity to en­gage in in­ter­na­tion­al dip­lomacy with near-su­per­powers [such as Rus­sia and China]. “¦

It didn’t pre­vent 9/11, it didn’t pre­vent Syr­ia — there are [non-nuc­le­ar] ac­tions that will oc­cur, but I don’t think that the nuc­le­ar de­terrent was con­ceived to pre­vent those sorts of [non-nuc­le­ar] con­flicts.

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