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Hobson Aims to Rein In Warhead Program

Wade Boese

Critical of the military utility of developing new nuclear weapons, Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio) led lawmakers the last two years in killing a Bush administration research program on an enhanced “bunker buster” for the U.S. nuclear stockpile. Now, he is working to ensure that another administration program does not lead to new nuclear arms.

As chairman of the House Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee, Hobson is ideally situated to exert his influence. His subcommittee, in conjunction with its Senate counterpart, headed by Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), controls funding for the Department of Energy’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which operates the U.S. nuclear weapons complex.

In the president’s more than $6 billion fiscal year 2007 budget request for nuclear weapons activities submitted to Congress Feb. 6, NNSA is seeking $28 million for its Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program. (See ACT, March 2006.) Fiscal year 2007 begins Oct. 1 and runs through Sept. 30, 2007.

While repeatedly declaring that the nuclear stockpile is safe and reliable, NNSA officials say the current practice of refurbishing warheads to extend their lifetimes may not be sustainable. As an alternative, they have proposed the RRW program to explore substitute warheads that are safer, more durable, and longer-lasting than existing warhead types. By law, this program is not supposed to provide new warhead performance capabilities or result in new warhead designs that require nuclear proof-testing. The United States stopped nuclear testing in 1992.

Hobson has spoken favorably about the RRW program, but he is also concerned that some officials in NNSA and the weapons laboratories that it oversees have different ideas. In a March 30 hearing of his subcommittee, Hobson set out to ensure no “misunderstandings” existed.

“We’re not going out and expanding a whole new world of nuclear weapons as we get in this Reliable Replacement Warhead situation,” Hobson told NNSA chief Linton Brooks. “The key word is replacement,” Hobson emphasized, adding, “I just keep saying it so somebody doesn’t miss it.”

Brooks vowed that the program is “not the beginning of a new round of new weapons.” A March 1 report by the secretaries of defense and energy also stated that RRW warheads are supposed to “provide the same military capabilities as the warheads they replace.”

Still, Brooks and other NNSA officials describe the RRW program as more than just a warhead replacement program. They describe it as an “enabler” for realizing a “responsive” nuclear weapons infrastructure capable of churning out nuclear warheads, including possible new types, on relatively short notice. In his April 5 prepared testimony to the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, Thomas D’Agostino, NNSA deputy administrator for defense programs, noted, “The 2030 responsive infrastructure will provide capabilities, if required, to produce weapons with different or modified military capabilities.”

The benefit of such an infrastructure, according to its advocates, is that it would permit the United States to cut actual warhead levels knowing that more warheads could be produced if needed. D’Agostino explained to the committee, “[W]e want our deterrent to reside in our complex itself, not necessarily in the numbers of warheads that we would have.”

The United States possesses approximately 10,000 nuclear warheads, of which more than 5,000 are deployed for use with bombers, missiles, and submarines. By 2012 this force is supposed to shrink to less than 2,200 deployed warheads with another 3,000 to 4,000 warheads in reserve. According to NNSA, this future reserve force could be even smaller if a responsive infrastructure were in place.

Hobson does not dispute the need for a responsive infrastructure. Indeed, he helped spearhead it. “The current complex, in my opinion, is too large for any conceivable future need and much too inefficient to be maintained,” he said March 30.

But Hobson does not associate a responsive infrastructure with new warheads. “This is not an opportunity to run off and develop a whole bunch of new capabilities and new weapons,” he argued.

Many legislators appear to share Hobson’s aversion or at least skepticism toward new nuclear weapons. Not only has Congress opposed the proposed bunker buster, but last year it also passed legislation restricting how NNSA could spend the $25 million in fiscal year 2006 RRW funding. As Congress mandated in the fiscal year 2006 defense authorization bill, “[a]ny weapon design work done under the RRW program must stay within the military requirements of the existing deployed stockpile and…the design parameters validated by past nuclear tests.”

Whether the two laboratory teams currently competing behind closed doors to devise an appropriate RRW design by this fall are adhering to congressional orders is uncertain. However, Brooks assured Hobson’s subcommittee that he was “not going to accept a design that has any hint of needing to test.”