"ACA's journal, Arms Control Today, remains the best in the market. Well focused. Solidly researched. Prudent."

– Hans Blix
Former IAEA Director-General
Energy Department to Study Modifying Nuclear Weapons
Share this

Philipp C. Bleek

The administration is moving ahead with plans to study modifications to existing nuclear weapons that would enable them to more effectively threaten underground facilities, Energy Department officials said in March interviews and testimony to Congress.

The move to study nuclear warhead modifications was presaged by a Pentagon report, leaked in December, on destroying hard and deeply buried targets, as well as the administration’s January 9 press briefing on the nuclear posture review. (See ACT, January/February 2002.)

At the briefing, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy J. D. Crouch stated, “We are trying to look at a number of initiatives,” including modifying existing nuclear weapons to give them “greater capability against…hard targets and deeply buried targets,” such as command-and-control and weapons-storage bunkers.

The hard and deeply buried targets report, submitted to Congress last October, indicated that the Defense and Energy departments had formed a joint nuclear planning group “to define the appropriate scope and options selection criteria for a possible design feasibility and cost study.” In its February budget request for 2003, the administration requested funds for both feasibility and cost studies for a “robust nuclear earth penetrator.”

A National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) spokesperson indicated in late March that the “feasibility study” and the “design definition and cost study” would be conducted over two to three years, at a cost of about $45 million. NNSA Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs Everett Beckner told the Senate Armed Services Committee March 14 that possible modification of two existing warheads, the B61 and the B83, would be studied.

Both weapons have yields “substantially higher” than 5 kilotons, Beckner indicated, meaning that a new earth-penetrator would not be a “low-yield nuclear weapon,” as defined by U.S. law. The 1994 Defense Authorization Act bars “research and development which could lead to the production by the United States of a new low-yield nuclear weapon.”

NNSA head John Gordon told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee March 18 that the administration’s proposal involves “simply taking an existing design and packaging it in a way that gives you the opportunity to penetrate to depths greater than existing systems,” the Associated Press reported.

The need to improve earth-penetration capabilities is highlighted in the nuclear posture review, which describes an existing nuclear weapon designed to attack such targets, the air-dropped B61-11 bomb, as having only a “very limited ground-penetration capability.”

The nuclear posture review also calls for other “nuclear weapon options that might provide important advantages for enhancing the nation’s deterrence posture,” including “possible modifications to existing weapons to provide additional yield flexibility” and “warheads that reduce collateral damage.”

In order to assess “these and other nuclear weapons options,” the document states that the NNSA “will reestablish advanced warhead concepts teams at each of the national laboratories and at headquarters in Washington.”

Effectively disbanded in the early 1990s after a nuclear testing moratorium was instituted, the re-established teams will allow the “next generation of weapons designers and engineers” to be trained and will allow the administration to “review potential programs to provide nuclear capabilities and identify opportunities for further study, including assessments of whether nuclear testing would be required to field such warheads,” according to the review.

At the same time, administration officials have continued to reiterate that there is currently no requirement for a new nuclear weapon and that congressional authorization would be required before the development of any new system could proceed. The administration is also examining whether conventional munitions could be used to threaten hard and deeply buried targets.