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"I want to thank the Arms Control Association … for being such effective advocates for sensible policies to stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and most importantly, reduce the risk of nuclear war."
– Senator Joe Biden
January 28, 2004
Bush Seeks Budget Boost for Future Warhead

Wade Boese

The Bush administration wants lawmakers this year to nearly quintuple spending on what it claims will be the prototype future U.S. nuclear warhead. But as of the end of February, Congress was waiting on the administration to choose between two competing prototype designs.

Initiated in 2004, the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program has emerged as the centerpiece of the administration’s proposed overhaul of the complex maintaining the U.S. inventory of approximately 10,000 nuclear warheads. The long-term goal, administration officials say, is to elevate warhead production capabilities while cutting actual warhead numbers. Current plans call for nearly halving the arsenal by 2012. (See ACT, July/August 2004. )

The RRW program fits into the administration’s plan for a simple warhead that the revamped weapons enterprise ostensibly could produce quickly and maintain easily and safely. Proponents claim the minimalist nature of RRW warheads also would eliminate any need to test them, but skeptics doubt Congress and the military will ultimately accept swapping proven warheads for untested ones.

The United States stopped nuclear testing in 1992, and Congress has established that it wants the RRW program to avoid sparking a revival. Some lawmakers, such as House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chair Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), have floated linking support for the RRW program to U.S. ratification of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which the Senate rejected in October 1999 and the Bush administration opposes.

Warheads are currently validated through surveillance and refurbishment efforts under the science-based Stockpile Stewardship Program. RRW proponents assert, however, that as time passes and changes accumulate, the risk grows that warhead performance might diminish.

Still, the administration recently reported in its Feb. 5 fiscal year 2008 budget request documents that “Stockpile Stewardship is working…the stockpile remains safe and reliable.” Recent studies also have concluded that plutonium, the material at the core of each U.S. bomb, may last as long as a century without degrading the warhead. (See ACT, January/February 2007. )

In its proposed budget, the administration is seeking $6.5 billion in nuclear weapons spending. This total, which is about $100 million more than current spending, would continue the current stewardship approach while ramping up the RRW process and the overhaul of the complex, which is dubbed Complex 2030 for the year it is to be realized.

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semi-autonomous agency of the Department of Energy, administers U.S. nuclear weapons spending. The latest annual budget request is for the year beginning Oct. 1.

The RRW program is receiving $25 million in the current fiscal year expiring Sept. 30, but the proposed NNSA budget would increase funding to about $89 million. The Navy also is seeking $30 million to support the RRW program.

The first warhead that the RRW program is slated to replace is the W76 warhead for submarine-launched ballistic missiles. In principle, RRW models are supposed to replicate the capabilities and purposes of the warheads they replace, but NNSA officials say the program eventually could tailor bombs for new missions.

The administration projects direct costs for the RRW program climbing each year and eventually reaching $179 million in fiscal year 2012. The NNSA is seeking to have the first warhead of the series available that year or 2014 at the latest. The agency hopes to begin full-scale RRW production by 2025.

The Nuclear Weapons Council, comprised of officials from the NNSA and the Pentagon, had fallen months behind in announcing which RRW design it intends to build. The Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos nuclear laboratories both submitted designs last spring for a scheduled decision last fall.

Reports suggest that the council had endorsed a hybrid of the two proposals but had not convinced all the stakeholders of that approach. Nonetheless, the proposed budget contains funds to “conduct a conceptual study for additional RRW options.”

While the NNSA is seeking to jump-start work on future warheads, the agency has fallen far behind on disassembling retired warheads. If the agency achieves its proclaimed goal of accelerating such work, the dismantlement backlog will not be eliminated until nearly 2024. The NNSA said this work is important because “reducing the total number of U.S. nuclear warheads sends a clear message to the world that critical modernization programs such as [the] RRW [program] do not signal a return to the arms race of the Cold War.”

Slightly more than $52 million is budgeted for dismantlement, which is roughly $22 million below last year’s request. The NNSA says this reduction still squares with the aim of boosting future work because the “upfront costs” of hiring additional people and procuring new equipment for that effort occurred this year.

For warheads remaining in the inventory, the NNSA is seeking $1.4 billion in directed stockpile funding to maintain them and extend their lifespan. The submarine-launched W76 is slated for the largest slice of this spending, at nearly $245 million.

The NNSA requested money for two new programs to help prevent or respond to a nuclear attack against the United States. One program, for $16 million, would seek to develop technologies to allow relatively inexperienced teams of first responders to be able to isolate and stabilize a detected nuclear or radiological threat. Another $12 million would be devoted to establishing a National Technical Nuclear Forensics program to enable the identification and sourcing of material in a nuclear device both pre- and post-detonation. (See ACT, October 2006. )

The agency has not yet calculated the future costs of implementing its Complex 2030 vision. It contends that the overhaul will ultimately save money because the number of facilities, staff, and weapons will shrink, as will the security costs of protecting nuclear materials consolidated at fewer sites. Although the NNSA says it will maintain all eight sites of the existing complex, the NNSA asserted Jan. 31 that each location “would look much different than today” and the entire complex would require one-quarter or one-third less personnel.

Still, some lawmakers have questioned whether the administration’s makeover is ambitious enough for what they contend is a bloated, outdated, and wasteful weapons enterprise. Chief among these gadflies has been Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio), who had been serving as the chairman of the House Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee, which takes the lead on determining funding for the weapons complex. If the NNSA had been hoping for some relief with the Democratic election victory last fall, it may be disappointed. The new chairman, Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.), shares views similar to Hobson.