Replacement Nuclear Warheads? Buyer Beware

Daryl G. Kimball

Soon after President George W. Bush took office, the Pentagon proposed a controversial new plan for U.S. nuclear forces that calls for new low-yield warheads and enhancements of existing high-yield earth-penetrating weapons to expand U.S. nuclear attack options against future adversaries.

For two years, Congress grudgingly went along with the administration's new weapons research proposals. But last year, in a refreshing blast of common sense, a bipartisan coalition blocked funding for new design concepts and modi.cations of existing warheads to create a new Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP). Lawmakers rightly concluded that the pursuit of such weapons undermines vital efforts to convince other states to exercise nuclear restraint as well as the credibility of U.S. disarmament commitments in the context of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Unfortunately, at the Pentagon's urging, the administration did not cut its losses on RNEP. Instead it has proposed that Congress spend another $22.5 million over the next two years to finish the research phase. The proposal is as flawed as before and should be rejected again.

Recognizing the lack of political support for new weapons, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is now trying to market a nuclear weapons product: new "reliable replacement warheads to sustain existing military capabilities" at lower cost and without nuclear test explosions. Last month, NNSA Administrator Linton Brooks told Congress the goal of the effort should be to develop and produce a "small build" of the new warheads by 2012-2015.

Reliable replacement warheads may sound more attractive, but in reality, the proposal is problematic. The rationale for the program is dubious, the scope is vague, and the potential effects far-reaching and dangerous. Congress must carefully define the scope and direction of the program, and it should not write a blank check.

First, new replacement warheads are not necessary to preserve existing U.S. nuclear-weapon capabilities. Each year, a representative sample of the existing arsenal is inspected to check for signs of deterioration, and limited-life components are replaced if necessary. Even the warhead's nuclear core can be remanufactured according to previously tested specifications.

As Brooks correctly notes, existing warhead designs are sophisticated and were designed to minimize size and weight and maximize yield, making them sensitive to significant changes and upgrades, especially to the nuclear components. But the reliability of existing warheads can be maintained if the weapons labs avoid unnecessary alterations to the existing weapons during refurbishment. In addition, the reliability of existing warheads can be improved without new designs or testing by adding more boost gas to increase the explosive energy of the primary stage of the weapon well above the minimum needed to ignite the secondary, or main, stage of the warhead.

The bottom line is that the existing Stockpile Stewardship Program is working. At best, the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program is a solution in search of a problem. Worse still, the RRW program could, if not carefully circumscribed, become a back door for the administration to circumvent congressional opposition to new warhead designs for new and destabilizing nuclear strike missions.

For now, Brooks and others claim that the RRW program is intended solely to provide "comparable military capabilities as existing warheads in the stockpile." Yet, Department of Defense officials and Brooks continue to cite the need for new loweryield nuclear weapons that can knock out shallow bunkers and defeat biological and chemical munitions and "are geared for small-scale strikes."

Yet, if weapons scientists get the green light to build more rugged nuclear weapons, the Bush administration may be able to achieve their controversial new nuclear weapons ambitions without getting approval from Capitol Hill. In a revealing comment to The Oakland Tribune, outgoing NNSA deputy administrator Everet Beckner said, "[T]hat's not the primary objective, but [it] would be a fortuitous associated event."

Finally, replacing existing, well-proven nuclear warhead designs with "new" and "improved" replacement warheads or warhead components could, if carelessly pursued, increase pressure to conduct nuclear explosive proof tests. Like a car buyer looking at a first-model-year car, key political or military officials may insist on taking a test drive before buying a new set of untested nuclear bomb designs.

So long as the United States maintains a nuclear arsenal, stockpile maintenance efforts should focus on preserving the reliability of existing warheads using methods validated by past experience. The role of the arsenal should be limited to deterring a nuclear attack by another nuclear-weapon state. Otherwise, the "reliable replacement warheads" may introduce, not reduce, stockpile reliability concerns and open the way to the counterproductive new nuclear weapons program voided by Congress last year.