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Lawmakers Sideline New U.S. Nuclear Warhead

Wade Boese

Congress has yet to complete the raft of bills governing U.S. nuclear funding and policy for the next fiscal year, but the early returns are not promising for the Bush administration’s program to develop a new nuclear warhead. Lawmakers say they want long-term nuclear plans before new weapons.

Launched in 2004, the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program aims to produce warheads that will ostensibly be safer, easier to maintain, and more reliable than the estimated 10,000 warheads in the current U.S. stockpile. Existing warheads have been certified annually as safe and reliable, but RRW program advocates say the weapons might degrade over time. They contend the new weapon will be less vulnerable to these risks because of simpler design and more modern and less hazardous components.

Still, legislators this year have capped development of the RRW and cut funding. The most severe action occurred June 20 when the House in its yet-to-be-finalized energy and water appropriations bill zeroed out the nearly $89 million funding request for the initiative from the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). This semi-autonomous Department of Energy entity manages the U.S. nuclear weapons complex.

On the Senate side, the panel with initial responsibility for the energy and water appropriations bill June 26 trimmed $22 million from the NNSA request. If the full Senate follows suit then the two chambers will ultimately have to negotiate a final sum, which tends typically to be a compromise between the different amounts.

In addition to the NNSA request, the Bush administration also sought $30 million for the Navy to work on the RRW program. That pot of funding will be dealt with through the defense appropriations bill on which neither the House nor Senate has started work.

The two chambers have made progress on their separate versions of the defense authorization bill. Authorization measures establish legislative guidance for programs, while appropriation bills provide the money. As they currently stand, both the House and Senate authorization bills confine RRW work to design activities and block engineering work.

The first RRW design was selected in March, and program officials are currently refining the design and projecting future costs and schedule. (See ACT, April 2007. )

Lawmakers have raised questions about whether the RRW program will accomplish the administration’s proclaimed goals. One stated purpose of the program is to enable the United States to reduce its overall arsenal size. Administration officials argue that the new warheads will be easier to produce, making it unnecessary to maintain as many spares for crises or emergencies.

RRW advocates also contend the program will diminish the probability that the United States will have to return to nuclear testing, which was suspended in 1992. They say the current upkeep process gradually moves warheads away from proven designs, raising doubts about their performance and increasing pressure to test.

The minimalist RRW design will preclude such uncertainty, according to program supporters. Thomas D’Agostino, who has been nominated to head the NNSA, told a Washington audience June 15, “I wouldn’t recommend spending a dollar [on the RRW program] if I thought this couldn’t be certified without an underground nuclear test.”

But some legislators are skeptical. Speaking June 19 on the House energy and water measure, Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio) said the RRW program “has merit…but all we have right now is a vague promise.” Hobson has been a vocal critic of what he sees as an outdated and oversized nuclear weapons complex.

The chair of the House Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee, Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.), shares a similar view and has other worries. He argued June 20 that pressing ahead with the program “will be misunderstood by our allies, exploited by our adversaries, [and] complicate our work to prevent the spread and the use of nuclear weapons.” Visclosky later declared, “I wish the administration…had as much aggression and commitment to downsizing the complex as they do on developing a weapon.”

Teaming with Hobson, Visclosky led the House in cutting the RRW funds. In a June 6 report, Visclosky’s panel stated, “[T]here exists no convincing rationale for maintaining the large number of existing Cold War nuclear weapons, much less producing additional warheads.” It further contended the RRW program was “premature,” absent a long-term nuclear strategy.

This sentiment appears widespread. The House defense authorization bill, passed May 17, calls for establishing a 12-member commission to conduct a strategic posture study. The Senate has yet to finalize its defense authorization bill, but an early version passed June 5 by the Armed Services Committee would require the Pentagon to undertake a nuclear posture review. Whether both studies make it into a reconciled bill remains to be seen, but many lawmakers apparently want more long-term thinking about the U.S. nuclear stockpile and its mission.

Senator Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), however, asserted that the House RRW actions, in part, could send U.S. nuclear strategy in a “new, unknown direction.” Also representing New Mexico, Republican Rep. Heather Wilson charged the recent moves amounted to a “radical shift” in U.S. nuclear weapons policies and risked forcing a resumption of nuclear testing. New Mexico is home to two U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories.