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U.S. Weighing Nuclear Stockpile Changes
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Wade Boese

Existing nuclear weapons and infrastructure need a makeover if the United States wants to continue reducing its arsenal, a top Department of Energy official told Senate panels in April. But some lawmakers are leery that the initiative might open the door to new nuclear weapons and resumed nuclear testing.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces April 4, Linton Brooks, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), said the U.S. nuclear infrastructure and stockpile, although safe and reliable, should ideally be revamped so that weapons are easier to maintain and more responsive to current and future threats. The NNSA, part of the Energy Department, maintains U.S. nuclear forces.

Failure to establish a responsive infrastructure capable of producing or refurbishing arms in a more timely fashion, Brooks argued, could prevent the United States from cutting its nuclear forces in the future. “Until we achieve a responsive nuclear weapons infrastructure, we’re going to have to retain substantial non-deployed warheads to hedge against technical failure of a critical system or to hedge against unforeseen geopolitical changes,” the NNSA head stated. The Bush administration announced last June that it intended to cut the total U.S. stockpile of more than 10,000 nuclear warheads “almost in half” by 2012. (See ACT, July/August 2004.)

The United States currently preserves its warheads through life-extension programs and verifies their viability through scientific and computer means without nuclear testing, which the United States halted in 1992. Although Brooks described these efforts in April 14 testimony to the Senate Appropriations energy and water subcommittee as “rigorous,” he claims an unforeseen technical problem might still arise.

Brooks identified several deficiencies with the status quo. Noting April 4 that the United States last developed a new nuclear warhead 20 years ago, he said existing weapons were made for a different time when the emphasis was putting the biggest bang in the smallest and lightest package possible so several warheads could fit on a missile. Brooks explained this imperative led designers to craft weapons “very close to performance cliffs,” meaning that the designs pushed the margins of what might work. Warheads also were made of materials and components that were not easy to refurbish, which was not a concern at that time because warheads were only to be in service for about 15-20 years, he added.

Brooks further asserted that existing weapons are out of sync with some present and future missions. Current warheads, he said, are too powerful and ill suited for destroying hardened and deeply buried targets or chemical and biological weapons. U.S. officials increasingly express concern that potential foes are building hardened bunkers deep underground to make their leadership and weapons impervious to U.S. attack.

The Bush administration had been studying modification of two existing high-yield warheads to make them more capable of penetrating deeper into the earth before exploding, but Congress blocked funding last year for the program, known as the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator. (See ACT, December 2004.) However, a request to complete the study for one of the warheads over the next two years appeared in the administration’s proposed fiscal year 2006 budget released in February. Current administration plans estimate that a total of $22.5 million is necessary to finish research. Congress would need to approve any engineering and development work beyond this stage.

In his prepared statement April 4, Brooks argued that more appropriate weapons designs for today would be less concerned with size, weight, and explosive power. Instead, they would emphasize “increased performance margins, system longevity, and ease of manufacture,” as well as have the capability to address emerging threats.

To explore this option, the administration asked for $9 million in fiscal year 2006 funding for the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program, which Brooks said could be key to transforming the stockpile. Brooks stated that the aim of the program would be to investigate “replacements for existing weapons that can be more easily manufactured with more readily available and more environmentally benign materials.” If successful, the program, which received $9 million from Congress last year, could result in more durable warheads, according to Brooks.

Some lawmakers are concerned that the RRW program might lead the United States to acquire new warhead capabilities or renounce its current nuclear testing moratorium to verify that whatever the RRW program produces works. At the April 4 hearing, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) questioned whether the program might be “just an excuse to develop a new nuclear weapon and to return to nuclear weapons testing.”

Brooks insisted the opposite was true. Arguing that the program’s goal is to make warheads less sensitive to aging effects and easier to certify as functional, Brooks stated it “would reduce the possibility that the United States would ever need to conduct nuclear tests in order to diagnose or remedy a reliability problem.”

At the April 14 hearing, Brooks adamantly said, “We don’t envision this program as leading to new weapons.” The purpose, he maintained, “is to develop new components which will go in existing warheads that are delivered by existing missiles and aimed at existing targets; there’s no new weapons, new targets, new military capabilities being sought here.”

Despite Brooks’ assurances, some in Congress remain uncomfortable. Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) in a statement to Arms Control Today April 18 said, “While I believe that the RRW program may be valuable, and we certainly need to take a closer look at our nuclear infrastructure, Ambassador Brooks’ testimony raises more questions than it answers.” Adding that she is “deeply concerned that the RRW [program] not lead to either new weapons or testing,” Tauscher warned, “[t]he administration will have to do a better job to sell this new program if it wants congressional support.”

Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio) also feels that “there is a need for more information on what actually constitutes RRW,” according to an April 19 statement to Arms Control Today. Hobson, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee responsible for nuclear weapons funding, has previously sunk administration initiatives that he disagrees with, leading the fight last year to deny funding for the nuclear earth penetrator study and possible research into other new or modified types of nuclear weapons.