Shadows of the Indignant Desert Birds

It’s spooky the way constructed institutions and ideas can escape our levers of control and achieve what looks like autonomy. George Dyson discusses this in his comments on Google, as has John Robb occasionally. Today I was reminded of the idea while listening to someone discuss the controversy over the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program, which is an effort at replacing our temperamental, high-performance nuclear warheads with a generation of weapons actually designed and built to last in long-term storage.

Supporters of RRW argue that our existing weapons were built with high performance, not reliability in mind. The ongoing maintenance and upkeep of the stockpile means that the weapons, like Theseus’s boat, might not really be the same machines that were once tested in Nevada. At some point, one of these legacy weapons will fail to meet specifications, the lab will refuse to certify the stockpile, and we will be stuck with an arsenal that must be tested.

Not so, say opponents of RRW. Our existing warheads may have been altered through maintenance, and might be less mutually identical, but they still share the pedigree of weapons that were actually exploded. New warheads, they argue, would inevitably require real tests once they entered the stockpile, no matter how rigorous the simulation and modeling.

Here we have two mutually contradictory narratives, both of which could be offered in good faith, and both of which are inherently plausible. What is most striking about them, though, is the implicit recognition from both sides that no matter what policy solutions we pursue, our warheads just want to blow up in the desert. The organizational essence of the laboratory establishment is the explosive test, which, if we fail to propitiate it with billions of dollars in supercomputers and accelerators, will emerge of its own initiative.