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"[Arms Control Today] has become indispensable! I think it is the combination of the critical period we are in and the quality of the product. I found myself reading the May issue from cover to cover."

– Frank von Hippel
Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
June 1, 2018
Lawmakers Knock New Warhead Report

Wade Boese

A recent Bush administration report intended to shore up congressional support for a flagging initiative to build a new nuclear warhead appears to have backfired. Key lawmakers blasted the report, and the program suffered another budget vote defeat.

On July 24, the secretaries of defense, energy, and state sent a four-page report to Congress espousing what they see as the merits of the administration’s Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program. Submission of the report came approximately a month after lawmakers started carving up the program with their budget knives. (See ACT, July/August 2007. )

The trio of secretaries argued that the RRW program is crucial to ensuring a safer and smaller future nuclear arsenal. Driving the 2004 initiative is the supposition that the present practice of refurbishing existing warheads to survive longer is untenable because, in doing so, each warhead gradually moves away from its original blueprint, casting doubt on whether it will detonate with as much power as designed.

Moreover, advocates of the RRW program say it will produce simple-design warheads using less-hazardous materials. These warheads, supporters say, will require less effort to maintain and would come equipped with modern security devices to protect against misuse. They also contend that because RRWs will be easier to manufacture, the United States can reduce the thousands of spare warheads stored for emergencies or crises.

In their report, the secretaries emphasized the same themes, warning that “delaying progress on [the] RRW [program] will force the United States to maintain a large stockpile.” Approximately 10,000 warheads currently comprise the arsenal, but the administration in June 2004 called for nearly halving this force by 2012. (See ACT, July/August 2004. )

The secretaries further contended that RRW program delays will increase the risk of “having to return to underground nuclear testing to certify existing weapons.” RRW designs, according to the administration, will be simple enough that they will not require proof testing. The United States suspended nuclear testing in 1992.

The report’s testing assertions riled several lawmakers. Reps. Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.) and David Hobson (R-Ohio) reacted most harshly, writing an Aug. 1 letter denouncing the administration’s claim as “irresponsible.” They noted that Congress had received no evidence that existing warheads are “on a performance cliff” necessitating renewed testing.

The duo are the chairman and ranking member of the energy and water development appropriations subcommittee that in June led the House in zeroing out the administration’s fiscal year 2008 budget request of nearly $89 million for RRW research by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). A semi-autonomous agency under the Department of Energy, the NNSA manages the U.S. nuclear weapons complex.

The Senate has yet to pass its version of the energy and water appropriations bill, but the panel with the lead on the measure cut $22 million of the NNSA request. In a July 9 report explaining its action, the committee noted it was “divided” on the RRW program but thought there needed to be more “vigorous analysis” of how the program fit into long-term U.S. nuclear plans. When the Senate passes a final bill, any differences between it and the House version will need to be worked out by lawmakers from each chamber.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), an RRW opponent, charged that the secretaries’ claims “do not stand up to scrutiny.” In an Aug. 1 speech introducing a bill for new nuclear policy and posture reviews, she noted that existing warheads have been annually certified as safe and reliable and recent studies showed that the core of most nuclear warheads had minimum life spans longer than previously thought—85 years or more. (See ACT, January/February 2007. )

Feinstein criticized the administration as “rushing” to develop RRW systems without a clear picture of future U.S. nuclear needs. She speculated that the report revealed “the administration is clearly getting nervous” about the program’s funding.

The House dealt another blow to the program’s prospects Aug. 5 when it passed a defense appropriations bill that denied the administration’s separate $30 million request for the Navy to conduct RRW research. The administration plan is for the first new warheads to replace some older W76 warheads on U.S. submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The Senate has not started work on its version of the defense bill.

Congress has previously approved research into the RRW concept, but it has not authorized development of an actual warhead. If lawmakers were to consent to development, the administration projects production of the inaugural RRW as early as 2012.

The July report noted the administration was preparing a more detailed report on the RRW program and the future U.S. nuclear stockpile. In their letter, Visclosky and Hobson recommended that the administration “move past empty rhetoric and enter into a constructive dialog with Congress on this vital issue.”