"I want to tell you that your fact sheet on the [Missile Technology Control Regime] is very well done and useful for me when I have to speak on MTCR issues."

– Amb. Thomas Hajnoczi
Chair, MTCR
May 19, 2021
Bunker Buster Future Uncertain
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Wade Boese

The Bush administration’s attempt to revive a study on a nuclear weapon designed to destroy targets buried deep underground has received a mixed welcome from lawmakers. Other Bush administration proposals on missile defenses and replacement components for nuclear warheads have received a more positive reception.

In its fiscal year 2006 budget submitted to Congress in February, the Bush administration requested $6.6 billion for the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons activities and another $419 billion for the Pentagon, including $7.8 billion for its Missile Defense Agency (MDA). (See ACT, March 2005.) The House has finalized what it believes are the appropriate funding amounts for these activities, but the Senate has not. Once the Senate makes its determinations, legislators from the two bodies will reconcile their differences.

In its budget request, the administration sought to resuscitate the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator study, which is intended to assess the feasibility of modifying an existing nuclear warhead to burrow further underground before exploding. The Pentagon hopes that such weapons will improve U.S. capabilities to destroy hardened and deeply buried targets. Last year, Congress, led by Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio), zeroed out funding for the study. (See ACT, December 2004.)

Hobson, who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that oversees nuclear weapons funding, took a similar tack this year, eliminating the administration’s $4 million study request for the nuclear earth penetrator. The Ohio Republican contends the administration has not made a case for why it needs a nuclear earth penetrator. He argues that such a weapon would not be an effective deterrent to adversaries because the threshold for using nuclear weapons is so high and says the study conflicts with U.S. efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.

The House approved Hobson’s cut and appropriated $4 million for the Air Force to study a conventional earth penetrator instead. However, on June 20, Rep. C. W. Bill Young (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, told House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) that, in the final legislation hashed out with the Senate, he would seek to have the Air Force study look at all options for an earth penetrator.

The Senate Appropriations Committee, by contrast, June 16 approved $4 million for the Air Force to look into a nuclear earth penetrator.

The administration’s proposed Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program has found more favor on Capitol Hill. Administration officials claim the program is aimed at researching and developing new components to replace parts of existing warheads so they are easier to maintain, last longer, and are more likely to work as intended without nuclear testing. The United States has not conducted a nuclear test since 1992 and currently maintains its warheads primarily through surveillance and refurbishment of nonnuclear components, collectively known as the Stockpile Stewardship Program.

A May 20 report by the three national nuclear weapons laboratories assessed the current stewardship program as “increasingly unsustainable” and made a case fordesigning new warheads rather than simply refurbishing existing ones. Still, the report stated, “To be clear, the Stockpile Stewardship Program is working, and can continue to work.”

The administration has said the RRW program is not intended to produce new weapons, a possibility that has provoked bipartisan opposition from lawmakers concerned that such a development could lead to renewed U.S. nuclear testing. The Senate panel reported June 16 that “[t]here are very strong opinions in Congress regarding…changing the military capability of the existing weapons.”

The House May 25 set out objectives and parameters for the program, including that its aim is to “increase the reliability, safety, and security of the United States nuclear weapons stockpile” and “further reduce the likelihood of the resumption of nuclear testing.” Another purpose of the program is to “fulfill current mission requirements of the existing stockpile,” the legislation states, indicating representatives are opposed to using the program to develop new weapons capabilities.

Although the full Senate has yet to hold a final vote on the RRW program, the Senate panel matched the $25 million amount approved for the effort by the House. This total represents a $15 million increase from the president’s original request.

Lawmakers also have solidly backed the president’s missile defense funding request. The House trimmed $143 million from the MDA request, leaving the Pentagon agency with $7.6 billion in missile defense spending. Senators have yet to approve a specific funding level.