Defense Science Board Calls for New Nuclear Weapons Capabilities

The Defense Science Board (DSB) is recommending that the United States scale back its current reserve nuclear weapons stockpile and develop lower-yield nuclear weapons that cause less collateral damage. The recommendation is contained in a yet-to-be-released study completed this summer and first reported by Jane’s Defence Weekly Oct. 22. The board is a civilian panel charged with advising defense leaders on scientific and technological matters.

According to documents obtained by Arms Control Today, the study entitled “Future Strategic Strike Forces” suggests that the U.S. arsenal does not meet current and future threat requirements. The board cites a “different, more complex threat environment” that may not be appropriate for the “legacy weapons” that the Department of Energy maintains. The stockpile stewardship program, which may cost up to $6.4 billion in fiscal year 2004, according to the president’s budget request, uses science-based programs to ensure the safety and reliability of U.S nuclear weapons without using explosive testing.

Calling for a “strategic redirection” of stockpile stewardship priorities, the report recommends scaling back weapons life-extension programs in favor of focusing on a “more relevant” nuclear weapons stockpile. According to the study, a future nuclear stockpile should contain weapons that have “great precision, deep penetration, [and] greatly reduced radioactivity” as well as special electromagnetic pulse and neutron bombs, “all with reduced fission yield.” The board also recommends streamlining the nuclear weapons complex to be “agile and responsive” to meet the new needs of the U.S. arsenal. In addition, the study suggests reducing the nondeployed stockpile in line with the U.S. nuclear posture.

Many of the DSB’s recommendations fall in line with current U.S. priorities as outlined in the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review and reinforced in the Bush administration’s fiscal year 2004 budget request. As part of the new “capabilities-based” approach touted in the review, the Departments of Defense and Energy are currently studying whether an existing nuclear design can be modified to destroy hardened and deeply buried targets, and defense officials are seeking permission to research a low-yield nuclear weapon. In addition, the Energy Department requested funding to compress the preparation time for a nuclear weapons test so that it can be executed in 18 months or less. (See ACT, March 2003.)

The DSB study also suggests expanding response capabilities to include new non-nuclear options. Broadening the number of non-nuclear options may reduce dependence on nuclear capabilities, sources told Jane’s Defence Weekly. The DSB recommends developing new options such as earth-penetrating weapons using conventionally armed ballistic missiles, microwave weapons, and high-energy lasers.