Nuclear Weapons Stockpiles: A Vital Organizing System

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Policy makers and scientists think of nuclear weapons stockpiles as complex political and technical problems, as James Fuller explains in Arms Control Today. But stores of nuclear weapons are also organizing systems. The people designing these vital systems face many of the same questions and issues information scientists do.

What is being organized? Obviously, nuclear weapons. But like information scientists, policy makers have trouble deciding precisely what is being organized in this system. As Fuller notes, the definition of "nuclear warhead" hasn't been defined  in any arms control treaties. That's not a good thing. The number of weapons a county has in their stockpile (even decommissioned) affects their standing in the world and, with different definitions of weapon, different country reports different numbers. But creating an exact definition is hard to: the best definition of a nuclear weapon is a secret because too good a definition of nuclear weapon could help someone build one.

Why is it being organized? Nuclear weapons stockpiles exemplify how, as an organizing system's stakeholders increase, so do the purposes for it's existence:

  • A nation's military wants weapons to be easily retrievable and usable.
  • Other nations want be sure what a nation claims about their weapons is true.
  • Policy makers and scientists want to disable or "decommission" weapons in the stockpile.
  • Politicians want environmentalists and the general public to feel safe about the disposition of the weapons.

How much is it organized? Meeting these goals requires substantial resource description and organization:

Descriptions: Maintainers use special instrumentation (like gamma-ray emission energy spectrum measurement) to label a weapon with it's unique radiation"signature," which can be used to verify claims about the weapon in a future. Weapons are also physically tagged with a unique identifier (which is completely unique, like an information scientist's identifiers). The identifier and signature are stored in non-destructible memory on the device itself.

Organizing Principles: 

  • Nations wanting to verify another's claims about their weapons want all weapons to be co-located to make them easier to count.
  • These verifying nations may also want to organize weapons by whether they're fully decommissioned or not. 
  • But the nation owning the weapons may want to place by where they're most likely to be needed.

When is it organized? A country (wanting to organize their weapons for strategic advantage) would place them as they acquire them. But other countries (wanting to verify claims about how many weapons the original country has) don't have constant access to the weapons, and organize them by whether as they retrieve them during inspection visits.

By whom is it organized? As the previous answer shows, and Fuller alludes to, no single party can organize the system to meet the needs of everyone else. Thus, the act of organizing is cooperative. In other words, nuclear warheads are being organized by different parties, in different ways, constantly.