"I actually have a pretty good collection of Arms Control Today, which I have read throughout my career. It's one of the few really serious publications on arms control issues."
– Gary Samore
Former White House Coordinator for Arms Control and WMD Terrorism
April 2006
Edition Date: 
Saturday, April 1, 2006
Cover Image: 

April 2006 - Vol. 36 Issue 3

Digital Magazine

If it Ain't Broke: The Already Reliable U.S. Nuclear Arsenal

Robert W. Nelson

The Bush administration through the Department of Energy has proposed developing a new family of nuclear warheads to replace the aging weapons in the current U.S. nuclear stockpile. The Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program is intended to improve the “reliability, security, and longevity” of the U.S. nuclear arsenal without requiring the United States to resume nuclear testing.[1]

The Energy Department’s ambitious plans would reorient the primary post-Cold War mission of the U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories from stockpile maintenance to the development of new replacement warhead designs.

At first glance, the RRW program seems a promising solution to the long-term maintenance of the U.S. nuclear stockpile. The stated goal is to develop new replacement warheads that will be easier and less costly to maintain than current weapons, will be more reliable and easier to certify, and will meet modern safety and environmental requirements. Moreover, the Energy Department contends that the program could help support future steep reductions in the total number of U.S. nuclear weapons by increasing confidence in the effectiveness of the remaining arsenal.

On closer examination, however, the RRW program seems premature and inherently risky. As administration officials have repeatedly testified, the warheads in the current well-tested U.S. nuclear stockpile are already highly reliable, more so than the missiles that deliver them. Simple changes to existing procedures could increase war head “performance margins” even more . By contrast, even the modest design changes envisioned under the RRW program, ultimately intended to replace large parts of the U.S. nuclear deterrent with untested warheads, will inevitably lead to renewed demands that the United States resume underground nuclear explosive testing. This would encourage other countries, such as China, to resume their own nuclear testing programs and allow them to improve the capabilities of their own nuclear weapons.

Additionally, if the ultimate goal is to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal, Congress and other policymakers should first re-examine the requirements dictated by the nation’s outdated nuclear targeting doctrine. Current U.S. nuclear planning requires the ability to threaten thousands of sites in Russia, China, and elsewhere. It also demands that warheads be far more predictable than other weapons components. Rather than funding a new and costly weapons program, lawmakers would be better served if they confronted the need to end an irrational nuclear targeting doctrine a decade and a half after the end of the Cold War.

 The Current U.S. Nuclear Arsenal and Stockpile Stewardship

The United States has not deployed a new nuclear warhead since 1989. The last U.S. underground nuclear explosive test occurred in September 1992. Later that year, President George H. W. Bush halted further design work on new nuclear weapons and signed legislation initiating a moratorium on nuclear testing. As a result, the U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories underwent a fundamental change in mission, from an earlier focus on developing and testing new warhead designs to their current focus on maintaining the U.S. nuclear stockpile without nuclear testing.

As of January, the United States possessed nearly 10,000 nuclear warheads. Approximately 5,700 warheads based on nine design types are currently deployed on missiles, bombs, and other operational weapons or otherwise maintained in ready-to-use status. The United States also maintains a reserve stockpile of approximately 4,200 inactive warheads.[2] Although it greatly reduced the number of its deployed nuclear weapons at the end of the Cold War, the United States chose to keep a stockpile “hedge,” arguing that additional weapons might be needed if a serious performance problem were ever discovered in an entire class of deployed warheads or if it faced a renewed strategic threat, such as a nuclear buildup by a resurgent Russia, and needed to deploy a larger arsenal rapidly.

Whether the United States could maintain its nuclear deterrent without conducting nuclear explosive tests was hotly debated during the 1990s, but a key endorsement came from the JASON committee, a prestigious group of academic and industrial scientists that has advised the U.S. government for decades. The JASON commit tee determined that, under a ban on nuclear explosive testing, the United States could “have high confidence in the safety, reliability, and performance margins of the nuclear weapons that are designated to remain in the enduring stockpile.” In reaching this conclusion, the group explicitly assumed that the United States would not need to develop new nuclear weapon designs. They also warned that the laboratories should not try to make changes to existing weapons: “greatest care in the form of self-discipline will be required to avoid system modifications, even if aimed at ‘improvements,’ which may compromise reliability.”[3]

The Energy Department currently maintains U.S. nuclear warheads through the Stockpile Stewardship Program, a $6.4 billion per year research, engineering, and monitoring program designed during the Clinton administration to maintain the long-term safety, reliability, and security of the U.S. nuclear arsenal without nuclear explosive testing. Each year, 11 sample weapons of each of the nine warhead types are subjected to an extensive series of tests to ensure they will perform as designed and that no age-related problems have developed.

In some cases, nuclear warheads have been rebuilt as part of the stockpile Life Extension Program: engineers refurbish existing nuclear warheads by fixing or replacing the non-nuclear components before aging-related changes jeopardize warhead safety or reliability. Weapons are rebuilt as closely as possible to original specifications, minimizing design changes that could reduce confidence in the reliability of these weapons.

As a result of this approach, since 1997 the secretaries of defense and energy each year have been able to formally certify to the president that the U.S. nuclear stockpile continues to be safe and reliable. As Linton Brooks, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, said recently, “[The] Stockpile Stewardship [Program] is working. We are absolutely convinced today’s stockpile is safe and reliable.”[4]

Despite the acknowledged success of the Stockpile Stewardship Program, however, some officials at the Energy Department and at the nuclear weapons laboratories have never been happy with restrictions that prevent them from working on new and more exotic warhead designs. Over the last several years, the Energy Department has sought authorization and funding from Congress—sometimes successfully, sometimes not—to begin design work on new low-yield nuclear weapons (mini-nukes),[5] a Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator for destroying deeply buried and hardened targets, [6] a Modern Pit Facility capable of rapidly producing the plutonium cores of new warheads,[7] and a reduction in the time needed to prepare and conduct an underground nuclear test.

The RRW program seems to be the latest and most ambitious Energy Department proposal yet. If approved, it would certainly keep the nuclear weapons laboratories fully engaged and funds flowing for many years.

 RRW Origins

The RRW program emerged in its current form from the Energy Department’s fiscal year 2005 budget request. The Energy Department had asked for funds to study new warhead designs through the Advanced Concepts Initiative. Not wanting to fund a program that he believed distracted the laboratories from their primary steward ship mission, Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Appropriations Energy and Water Subcommittee, zeroed out the $9 million Advanced Concepts Initiative request. Instead, he provided equivalent funding, later increased to $25 million, for a RRW program intended to “improve the reliability, longevity, and certifiability of existing weapons and their components.” Hobson believed the program would “challenge the skills of the existing group of weapons designers…without developing a new weapon that would require under ground testing to verify the design.”[8]

In fact, the RRW program appears to be a broadly expanded version of an earlier Navy/Energy Department collaboration, which focused on developing replacement warheads for the Trident missiles with designs that would have “decreased sensitivity to aging, increased design margins, [and] increased ability for surveillance” but could be “certified without an underground nuclear test.”[9]

Hobson’s subcommittee further made clear its intent to avoid a return to nuclear testing by requiring in its report that “any weapon design work…must stay within the military requirements of the existing deployed stockpile…and within the design parameters validated by past nuclear tests.”[10]

These provisions were elaborated in the statutory requirements of the fiscal year 2006 defense authorization bill that governs current spending.

Almost immediately, the weapons laboratories enthusiastically endorsed the RRW program and greatly expanded its vision. The directors of the national laboratory weapons programs explicitly endorsed an article by four weapons scientists describing the RRW program as a means of “Sustaining the Nuclear Enterprise” while portraying the goals of the Stockpile Stewardship Program as “increasingly unsustainable.”[11] They argued the laboratories “should shift from a program of warhead refurbishment to one of warhead replacement.”[12] The Secretary of Energy Advisory Board further described the RRW program as “the first of a family of warheads” for a stockpile that is “continuously modernized through a series of design-production cycles that would al low the stockpile to meet an evolving or changing threat environment.”[13]

Furthermore, the Energy Department’s request for the RRW program is just one part of a more ambitious program that will enable the nuclear weapons complex to transform to a “responsive nuclear weapons infrastructure” capable of quickly producing new warheads “on a timescale in which geopolitical threats could emerge.” The most immediate proposal is to re-establish the capability of designing and manufacturing the plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons on a large scale. Although the Energy Department does not propose funding for a Modern Pit Facility in its current fiscal year 2007 budget request, the facility remains a long-term goal.[14]

The budget request describes the RRW program as a program aimed at “identifying [nuclear warhead] designs to sustain long- term confidence in a safe, secure, and reliable stockpile.” Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos National laboratories are reported to be in a warhead design competition for replacements for the W76 and W88 warheads used in the submarine-launched Trident I and II missiles.[15]

Congress clearly intended the RRW program to be limited to improvements in existing weapons, but some reports describe the RRW program as potentially leading to weapons with new, more exotic capabilities. The Defense Science Board, for example, recently endorsed the RRW program as part of a larger effort to develop weapons that would produce “special effects,” such as enhanced electromagnetic pulse, enhanced neutron flux (a new neutron bomb), and reduced fission-yield (low- radiation) weapons.[16] Advanced weapon effects like these would clearly involve designs that would have to be tested before entering the stockpile.

Faulty Assumptions

The Energy Department claims that the weapons labs could certify any new RRW design as long as it remains well within the parameters of previously tested designs. At a March 1 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, Brooks testified that weapons designers are “confident that their designs will meet our requirements and be certifiable without nuclear testing.”

But the Energy Department’s plans for the RRW program are based on a set of misleading and faulty assumptions that, if acted on, are likely to worsen rather than improve U.S. national security.

Assumption 1: Stockpile Reliability is Degrading.

First, the very name, “Reliable Replacement Warhead program,” wrongly suggests that existing U.S. weapons may be unreliable and need to be replaced. Indeed, the weapons laboratories have reinforced this perception with vague and speculative assertions: “Over the longer term, we may face concerns about whether accumulated changes in age-affected weapons components, whose replacements might have to be manufactured by changed processes, could lead to inadequate performance margins and reduced confidence in the stockpile.”

In fact, there is nothing unreliable with the nuclear weapons the United States already maintains. As a result of the Stockpile Stewardship Program’s basic research efforts, weapons scientists understand the performance and reliability of U.S.nuclear warheads better today than they did when full-scale nuclear weapons tests were allowed. Further, the Energy Department has offered no public evidence to suggest the Stockpile Stewardship and the Life Extension Programs have been anything but remarkably successful.

To the contrary, Seymour Sack, one of the nation’s most prolific weapon scientists who designed most of the nuclear primaries in the current nuclear arsenal, asserts, “We’ve got a reliable stockpile. We have a test base for it. We have now in the last 10 or 15 years far more sophisticated computational abilities than we had doing these designs originally, so things are extremely well understood in terms of the performance.… I don’t see any reason you should change those designs.”[17]

Indeed, the critical nuclear components appear to be lasting longer than originally expected. Earlier concerns that the plutonium pits would be damaged by self-irradiation as they age have not yet been realized. The Energy Department is scheduled to release the results of these “accelerated aging” experiments later this year, but administration officials have already hinted that minimum pit lifetimes are likely to be much longer, and initial reports have suggested lifetimes in excess of 90 years.[18]

Moreover, the JASON committee suggested as early as 1995 a simple way to improve the warhead “primary performance margins” simply by changing the composition of the tritium boost gas or by replacing it more frequently.

Assumption 2: Design Changes Can Be Made Safely, Cheaply, and Without Nuclear Tests.

Second, there are few design changes the laboratories could make to existing weapons without compromising safety or other military requirements and without requiring nuclear test explosions.

When the United States still conducted nuclear tests, any new or modified warhead was required to undergo a series of nuclear explosive tests during the development and production phases before it could be certified to enter the stockpile. Indeed, a 1991 report to Congress estimated a minimum of three to four nuclear explosive tests would have to be conducted in order to certify a replacement warhead for the W88.[19]

In contrast, the RRW program proposes to make changes to the nuclear explosive package itself, the core of the weapon containing the fissile and thermonuclear materials.

Weapons designers could increase the predictability of the primary by adding additional plutonium and increasing the amount or altering the type of the chemical high explosive that initiates the explosion. Doing so, however, would have a ripple effect on other relevant design dimensions for warheads: their weight, size, shape, and safety.

The Department of Defense requires that any new warhead not alter the aerodynamic characteristics of the re-entry vehicle that would carry it to its target. Current warheads were designed to minimize size and weight so that multiple warheads could fit on long-range ballistic missiles as well as to meet minimum safety requirements. Adding additional plutonium or high explosive to current designs would make warheads heavier or larger than existing weapons or alter their shape. If the warhead has a different shape or has its mass distributed differently than current designs, it might affect how the re-entry vehicle flies. The Defense Department would then be faced with the major expense of either recertifying that the re-entry vehicle achieves its military goals or designing and flight-testing a new re-entry vehicle to accommodate the new warhead.

In fact, the Navy in 1993 considered and rejected the opportunity to upgrade the safety of the W88 warhead to use insensitive high explosive in large part because of the expected cost required—$3.8 billion in 1993 dollars—to retrofit the Trident third-stage rocket motor. Redesigning a new re-entry vehicle or even a new bus for the Trident missile could be far more expensive than developing a new warhead.

A new design might also create new safety concerns. U.S. nuclear weapons are required to be “one point safe”—having a very small probability of generating a nuclear explosion if struck by a bullet or projectile, for example, or if exposed to a high temperature fire or a nearby chemical explosion. Yet, adding plutonium to in crease “reliability” would bring the primary fission device closer to its critical mass, making it easier to detonate at full yield. This would increase the primary performance margins, but it would also increase the probability that the warhead could detonate accidentally and hence be less “safe.” As a consequence, designers are limited to how much they can increase performance margins without undermining existing safety restrictions.

Assumption 3: The RRW Program Will Mitigate, Not Increase, Political Pressure to Test.

Finally, even if the nuclear weapons laboratories somehow manage to stay within the design parameter “space” of previously tested warheads and produce nuclear primaries with higher performance margins, there would be tremendous political pressure for the United States to conduct nuclear explosive tests before new warheads can enter the stockpile. After all, the Senate failed to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1999, in part because of skepticism that the laboratories could guarantee confidence in the existing well-tested stockpile without continued testing. The U.S. nuclear arsenal is based on 50 years of research and more than 1,000 underground nuclear tests. It is implausible that that the Pentagon or a future Congress would accept new war heads, ultimately replacing the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal, based on designs that have never been tested.

As Sidney Drell, a physicist and longtime adviser to the government and the nuclear weapons labs, has said, “I can’t believe that an admiral or a general or a future president, who are putting the U.S. survival at stake, would accept an untested weapon if it didn’t have a test base.”

A worldwide resumption of nuclear testing would decrease U.S. security. Were the United States to resume underground nuclear testing, it is highly likely that Russia, China, and other countries would resume their own test programs as well. Those countries could improve their own nuclear arsenals far more than could the United States if there was a return to testing. Resumed testing by China, for example, would help it to miniaturize its own warhead designs, allowing it to deploy multiple warheads placed on a single missile. Such a breakdown in the moratorium would also profoundly undermine efforts to limit nuclear proliferation.

A Look at Targeting

Warhead reliability ultimately enters the Pentagon’s nuclear war-fighting calculations in predicting the mathematical likelihood that a planned nuclear strike will destroy its intended target. Although specific numbers are classified, a U.S. nuclear warhead is thought to be required to detonate with an energy within 10 percent of their design yield, under worst-case battlefield conditions.

Yet, the target “damage expectancy” depends on more than just the precise size of the explosion. It depends far more, in fact, on the performance of the non-nuclear components of the weapon, particularly the accuracy of the final re-entry vehicle in reaching its target. An improvement in accuracy by a factor of two, for example, decreases the required explosive yield by a factor of eight. It hardly matters, for example, if the W76 warhead detonates with a yield of 100 kilotons or 90 kilotons, when a 15-kiloton explosion will do.

The reliability of these non-nuclear components is high, but their uncertainty still greatly exceeds any uncertainty in the reliability of the core nuclear package. In order to increase the damage expectancy significantly, the Pentagon would have to redesign and improve the reliability of all of these components at very great expense.

Rather than doing that, the Pentagon builds in a great deal of redundancy as it selects weapons and modes for any particular targeting scenario. It may increase the yield or the number of weapons targeting a particular site to hedge against any uncertainty.

So, ultimately the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and the need to maintain a large hedge of inactive warheads derives not from small uncertainties in the precise yield of our stockpiled weapons, but in the belief that the United States needs to maintain the ability to put at risk the thousands of sites on its current target list. Before initiating a major rebuild of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, Congress and other policymakers should re-examine the implications and logic of the U.S. nuclear targeting posture.

 The Role of U.S. Nuclear Weapons

Almost 15 years ago, President George H. W. Bush determined that the United States had no need to continue to design new nuclear weapons. This policy made it possible for the United States to push for an end to the development and testing of new nuclear weapons by all countries and to negotiate the CTBT. Although the Senate has not ratified the CTBT, the global moratorium on nuclear testing still stands and has prevented other countries, such as China, from advancing their own thermonuclear designs.

A great danger, as Congress and other policymakers consider the merits of the RRW program, is that they may accept the false premise that the U.S. nuclear deter rent is already degrading. If this happens, there will be tremendous pressure for the United States to resume underground nuclear testing whether or not a more reliable warhead could technically be developed without testing.

The debate over the RRW program also obscures a more fundamental and practical development: the utility of U.S. nuclear weapons is receding in importance with high-precision conventional weapons increasingly capable of accomplishing many missions that, until recently, would have required nuclear yields. Given that the United States has overwhelming superiority in conventional weaponry, U.S. military strength is undercut, not enhanced, by actions that ascribe greater importance to nuclear weapons. If the world’s greatest military power continues to rely on nuclear weapons, then why would countries that the United States considers to be a threat not see even greater reason to acquire nuclear weapons of their own?

Corrected online August 29, 2008. See explanation.


What Does Reliability Mean?

Robert W. Nelson

What does it mean for a nuclear warhead to be “unreliable”? To the Departments of Energy and Defense, a warhead is considered un reliable if it risks detonating with an explosive energy slightly different from its design yield even if it still is guaranteed to destroy its target. But any uncertainty in the target “kill probability” stems primarily on the non-nuclear components of the weapon.

The official Energy Department definition of nuclear weapon reliability is “the probability of achieving the specified yield, at the tar get, across the Stockpile-to-Target Sequence of environments, throughout the weapon’s lifetime, assuming proper inputs.”[1]

The “specified yield” is a classified number for each warhead, but it has historically been understood to mean the design yield “with an allowable variation of 10 per cent.” In other words, if there is more than a minimal probability that a 350-kiloton warhead might detonate with a yield less than 315 kilotons or greater than 385 kilotons, that warhead would be considered unreliable even if it was certain to destroy its intended target.

A reliable warhead must be able to operate in the “hostile environment” of a nuclear battlefield. “Across the Stockpile-to-Target Sequence of environments” means the war head must survive the intense temperature and radiation effects of other nuclear detonations, for example, if an enemy were to develop a nuclear-tipped missile defense. The warhead also must function “throughout the weapon’s lifetime,” even under the worst-case scenario where its tritium boost gas is at its lowest level.

Yet, these reliability requirements on the nuclear explosive package itself are reportedly more stringent than on the missiles’ delivery systems. These requirements are quantified in the damage expectancy, the mathematical likelihood that a planned nuclear strike will destroy its intended target. The damage expectancy depends not only on the warhead’s explosive yield but on the overall weapon performance: a successful missile launch, the separation of the first and second missile boost stages, the performance of the missile guidance system, the disengagement of the multiple re-entry vehicle warhead from the missile bus, and the accuracy of the final re-entry vehicle in reaching its target. These damage expectancies, in turn, are embedded in the thousands of lines of computer code used in the Single Integrated Operation Plan (SIOP), the Pentagon’s comprehensive plan to conduct thermonuclear war.[2]

Any remaining uncertainty comes far less from the warhead’s nuclear components than its non-nuclear-components: the arming and fusing mechanism, the chemical high explosive, and the neutron initiator. These are regularly tested without explosive nuclear tests as part of the stockpile maintenance program. As long as these non-nuclear components perform correctly, current U.S. nuclear weapons are extremely reliable.

According to the National Academy of Sciences, if the firing, neutron-generator, and boost-gas subsystem function within their specified tolerances, the nuclear subsystems in the enduring stockpile historically have been certified to achieve the specified yield range with 100 percent certainty over the entire range of specified stockpile-to-target sequences.”[3]



1. R. L. Bierbaum et al., “DOE Nuclear Weapon Reliability Definition: History, Description, and Implementation,” Sandia National Laboratories, April 1999. See S. I. Schwartz, “Defining Reliable,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (March/April 2001), pp. 55-56.

2. The United Sates has actually formally changed the name of its strategic nuclear war plan. Known throughout the Cold War as the Single Integrated Operations Plan, it is now known as Operations Plan 8044. See Robert S. Norris and Hans Kristensen, “ U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2006,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (January/February 2006), pp. 68-71.

3. National Academy of Sciences, “Technical Issues Related to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty,” 2002, p. 25.



Improving Warhead Reliability: Boosting the Boost Gas

Robert W. Nelson

During the Cold War, the U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories developed more than 100 types of nuclear warheads and conducted more than 1,000 nuclear explosive tests.

Their primary goal was to develop ever- smaller and -lighter warheads that could be carried in groups over intercontinental distances by long-range ballistic missiles and bombers.

The first deployed thermonuclear weapon was almost 24 feet long and weighed more than 40,000 pounds.[1] In contrast, the 1980s-era W87 warhead weighs approximately 500 pounds and was originally designed to fit with a total of 10 warheads mounted on the MX (Peacekeeper) ICBM.

Most if not all U.S. nuclear warheads are two-stage thermonuclear devices (hydrogen bombs) with plutonium primaries. The “primary” plutonium trigger is really a small atomic bomb, similar in concept to the Nagasaki weapon, used to generate the high temperatures needed to ignite a “secondary” device containing fusion fuel.

A key technology that dramatically in creased the efficiency of the primary and decreased the required size and weight of nuclear warheads is thermonuclear “boosting.” The plutonium pit is shaped in a hollow spherical shell and filled just before detonation with a gaseous mixture of hydrogen isotopes: tritium-deuterium “boost” gas. When the weapon is detonated, a chemical explosion first compresses the plutonium shell to supercriticality, initiating a fission chain reaction. The fission energy released compresses and heats the boost gas enough for it to undergo thermonuclear fusion; the boost gas releases a burst of high-energy neutrons into the imploded plutonium shell, which subsequently fission a much larger fraction of the plutonium than would otherwise occur. This process thus dramatically increases, or boosts, the yield of the primary to a level where it can detonate the secondary thermonuclear device. A boosted primary thus uses a minimum amount of plutonium material and chemical high explosive, decreasing the overall size and weight of the warhead.

By contrast, the physics governing the performance of the secondary is relatively simple: as long as the primary explosion releases a certain minimum energy, the secondary is guaranteed to burn all of its fusion fuel and the weapon will detonate with its designed explosive yield.[2]

Consequently, the yield of the boosted fission primary is designed to always exceed, by the “primary margin,” the minimum energy required to ignite the secondary, even under worst-case conditions . The major uncertainty in the performance of the warhead physics package is thus determined by any uncertainty in the primary margin.

Because tritium in the boost gas decays over time, with a radioactive half-life of 12 years, at some point there will not be enough to guarantee that the primary has the yield needed for the secondary to burn all its fusion fuel. To guard against this, the tritium gas must be replenished at regular intervals. Primaries are said to be in their worst-case condition right before these replenishments take place. The Department of Energy already guards against any diminution in reliability by requiring that primaries be capable of triggering a boosted explosion even if the tritium gas is at the end of a transfer interval.

Because of these design parameters, there are simple ways to ensure warhead reliability without resorting to a Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW)-type program. The easiest way is to add additional boost gas to the primary or decrease the time interval when the gas is replaced. As early as 1995, the JASON defense advisory committee recommended such an approach to the Energy Department. “The primary yield margins can be increased by simple changes in initial boost-gas composition, shorter boost-gas exchange intervals, or improved boost-gas storage and delivery systems. These modifications have been validated by previous nuclear test data and would not require additional testing.”

Thus, the Energy Department could improve the reliability of the weapons in the existing nuclear stockpile without making any changes to warhead design simply by adding additional boost gas or decreasing the time interval between gas transfers. These simple steps had not been taken as of 1999, however, when the JASON committee expressed “disappointment at the slow pace, low priority and limited scope of the lab/Energy Department efforts to provide enhanced primary performance margins.”[3]



1. Mk-17 weighed 19 metric tons and had a yield of 15-20 megatons.

2. R. L. Garwin and V. Simonenko, “Nuclear Weapons Development Without Nuclear Testing,” Pugwash Workshop on Problems in Achieving a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World, October 1996.

3. “Primary Performance Margins,” JASON Report JSR-99–305, December 1999, found at www.fas.org.



Legal Authority for the Reliable Replacement Warhead Program

The following language in the fiscal year 2006 Defense Authorization Bill provides the current legal authority for the Reliable Replacement Warhead program. The key legislative language is excerpted below:

(a) Program Required—The Secretary of Energy shall carry out a program, to be known as the Reliable Replacement Warhead program, which will have the following objectives:

1. To increase the reliability, safety, and security of the United States nuclear weapons stockpile.

2. To further reduce the likelihood of the resumption of underground nuclear weapons testing.

3. To remain consistent with basic design parameters by including, to the maximum extent feasible and consistent with the objective specified in paragraph (2), components that are well understood or are certifiable without the need to resume underground nuclear weapons testing.

4. To ensure that the nuclear weapons infrastructure can respond to unforeseen problems, to include the ability to produce replacement warheads that are safer to manufacture, more cost-effective to produce, and less costly to maintain than existing warheads.

5. To achieve reductions in the future size of the nuclear weapons stockpile based on increased reliability of the reliable replacement warheads.

6. To use the design, certification, and production expertise resident in the nuclear complex to develop reliable replacement components to fulfill current mission requirements of the existing stockpile.

7. To serve as a complement to, and potentially a more cost-effective and reliable long-term replacement for, the current Stockpile Life Extension Programs.

(b) Report—Not later than March 1, 2007, the Secretary of Energy and the Secretary of Defense shall submit to the congressional defense committees a report on the feasibility and implementation of the Reliable Replacement Warhead program required by section 4204a of the Atomic Energy Defense Act, as added by subsection(a).

The report shall—

1. identify existing warheads recommended for replacement by 2035 with an assessment of the weapon performance and safety characteristics of the replacement warheads;

2. discuss the relationship of the Reliable Replacement Warhead program within the Stockpile Stewardship Program and its impact on the current Stockpile Life Extension Programs;

3. provide an assessment of the extent to which a successful Reliable Replacement Warhead program could lead to reductions in the nuclear weapons stockpile;

4. discuss the criteria by which replacement warheads under the Reliable Replacement Warhead program will be designed to maximize the likelihood of not requiring nuclear testing, as well as the circumstances that could lead to a resumption of testing;

5. provide a description of the infrastructure, including pit production capabilities, required to support the Reliable Replacement Warhead program;

6. provide a detailed summary of how the funds made available pursuant to the authorizations of appropriations in this Act, and any funds made available in prior years, will be used; and

7. provide an estimate of the comparative costs of a reliable replacement warhead and the stockpile life extension for the warheads identified in paragraph (1).


Robert W. Nelson is a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.


1. For a recent discussion of the RRW program goals, see Linton Brooks, Presentation on “The Future of the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Stockpile,” Washington, DC, January 25, 2006, found at www.armscontrol.org (hereinafter Brooks presentation); Raymond Jeanloz and David Mosher, Remarks on “The Future of the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Stockpile,” Washington, DC, January 25, 2006, found at www.armscontrol.org.

2. Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen, “ U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2006,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, (January/February 2006).

3. “JASON Nuclear Testing Study: Summary and Conclusions,” JASON Report JSR-95-320, 1995.

4. Brooks presentation.

5. Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen, “What’s Behind Bush’s Nuclear Cuts?” Arms Control Today , October 2004, p. 6.

6. Wade Boese, “Congress Cuts Nuclear Bunker Buster Again,” Arms Control Today, December 2005, p. 23.

7. Steve Fetter and Frank von Hippel, “Does the United States Need a New Plutonium-Pit Facility?” Arms Control Today, May 2004, p. 10.

8. David Hobson, Address to the Arms Control Association, “ U.S. Nuclear Security in the 21st Century,” February 3, 2005.

9. Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Nuclear Weapon System Sustainment Programs,” May 1997, p. 18. For a more in-depth discussion, see Natural Resources Defense Council, “End Run: Simulating Nuclear Explosions Under the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty,” 1997.

10. Conference report of the House Appropriations Energy and Water Subcommittee accompanying the fiscal year 2005 energy and water development appropriations bill, H.R. 2419.

11. K. Henry O’Brien et al., “Sustaining the Nuclear Enterprise—A New Approach,” Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Los Alamos National Laboratory, and Sandia National Laboratory, May 2005.

12. Ibid.

13. The Department of Energy, “Recommendations for the Nuclear Weapons Complex of the Future: Report of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board Nuclear Weapons Complex Infrastructure Task Force,” July 13, 2005.

14. See Fetter and von Hippel, “Does the United States Need a New Plutonium-Pit Facility?”

15. See Ian Hoffman, “Times Good for Bomb Designers: Scientists Drawing Up Plans for New Nuclear Weapons With Aim of Replacing U.S.Arsenal,” Tri-Valley Herald, February 5, 2006.

16. Department of Defense, “Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on Future Strategic Strike Forces,” February 2004.

17. See Ian Hoffman, “Lab Officials Excited by New H-bomb Project,” The Oakland Tribune, February 7, 2006.

18. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that “a study due later this year will project an extended life span for plutonium bomb components, of perhaps 100 years,” J. Sterngold, “Upgrades Planned for U.S. Nuclear Stockpile; Agency Leader Expects Significant Warhead Redesigns,” San Franciso Chronicle, January 15, 2006. For a discussion of the technical issues related to warhead aging, see Raymond Jeanloz, “Science-Based Stockpile Stewardship,” Physics Today, December 2000, pp. 44-50.

19. R. Kidder, “Assessment of the Safety of U.S. Nuclear Weapons and Related Nuclear Test Requirements: A Post-Bush Initiative Update,” UCRL-LR-109503, December 10, 1991.


U.S. Missile Defense Capability a Mystery

Wade Boese

Is the fledgling ground-based midcourse defense (GMD) system deployed nearly 18 months ago by the Pentagon capable of destroying an incoming long-range ballistic missile? In March, lawmakers discovered that the answer depends on who you ask.

Pentagon officials responsible for the system say the answer is yes. But the Pentagon’s independent weapons tester says insufficient proof exists to draw a conclusion. A March report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which conducts studies for Congress, comes down on the side of the weapons tester.

The GMD system currently comprises eight missile interceptors embedded in Alaska and another two in California. They are designed to collide with enemy missile warheads in space and are primarily supported by an aging missile-launch-detection satellite system, two upgraded early-warning radars, and an extensive battle-management command and control system. By the end of this year, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) hopes to add to the sensors mix a sea-based X-band radar; an upgraded early-warning radar based in Fylingdales, United Kingdom; and a forward-based X-band radar in Japan (see page 36).

Despite the system’s evolving status and the fact that it has yet to be declared operational, top Pentagon officials indicated March 9 to the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee that it is ready to perform its mission. In his prepared testimony, MDA Director Lieutenant General Henry Obering described the initial 2004 deployment as making “history by establishing a limited defensive capability…against a possible long-range ballistic missile attack.” At a March 20 briefing with reporters, the general asserted that the system’s ground and flight testing gave him confidence that it could “shoot down an incoming missile” and that testing had not revealed any problems that would be “showstoppers.”

Similarly, Peter Flory, assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, told the lawmakers that, “today, the United States has all of the pieces in place that are needed to intercept an incoming long-range ballistic missile.”

David Duma, who heads the Pentagon’s Office of Operational Test and Evaluation, concurred that “we have all the pieces in place” to try to intercept an incoming missile. But, he added, “the testing to date has not confirmed that you could count on that.”

Back-to-back tests at the end of 2004 and the start of 2005 saw the GMD interceptor fail to leave the ground. After a nine-month flight-testing hiatus, MDA conducted a successful interceptor flight test Dec. 13, 2005. This experiment, which did not involve an intercept attempt, marked the first flight of the interceptor model currently deployed in Alaska and California.

GAO Weighs In

Reviewing the entire gamut of missile defense programs, GAO assessed MDA as making progress on several of them. However, the congressional investigative body criticized the agency for rushing systems into the field “at the expense of cost, quantity, and performance goals.”

GAO described the 2004 GMD deployment as particularly egregious. It implied that President George W. Bush’s December 2002 order to deploy a system by 2004 resulted in hasty and possibly shoddy work as MDA switched focus from developing an experimental system for testing purposes to fielding an operational capability. “Time pressures caused MDA to stray from a knowledge-based acquisition strategy,” GAO reported.

The GMD interceptors might have been negatively affected as a result, according to GAO. It found that “the performance of emplaced GMD interceptors is uncertain because inadequate mission assurance/quality control procedures may have allowed less reliable or inappropriate parts to be incorporated into the manufacturing process.” Some GMD officials, according to the re port, have called for the deployed interceptors to be removed from their silos and any “questionable parts” replaced as part of a service upgrade scheduled to begin as early as this fall.

Any assessment of the GMD system’s performance capability is further complicated by the lack of an “end-to-end flight test…using production-representative components,” GAO concluded. The report observed that the five successful GMD intercept tests, the last of which occurred in October 2002, “used surrogate and prototype components.”

MDA plans this year to conduct three GMD flight tests, two of which will be intercept attempts against targets, using operationally deployed components. In his testimony, Duma labeled these three tests as “operationally realistic.”

GAO concluded that MDA is working to reform some of its management practices but reported that more needed to be done. In general, GAO found the agency has “unusual flexibility to modify its strategies and goals, make trade-offs, and report on its progress.”

Obering said March 20 that, although he has the “utmost respect” for GAO, he thought the latest report was “unfortunately not their best work.” The general said the report ignored important progress made on the sensor side and used outdated baseline goals for measuring progress. He also emphasized that the approach for proceeding with missile defenses is to deploy a minimum capability as soon as possible and improve it over time.


U.S. Shifts Policy on Iran

Matt Dupuis

In addition to pushing for increased multilateral efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear program, the United States has taken several unilateral and bilateral measures recently to adjust its relationship with Tehran.

The measures include stepped-up efforts to build a democratic opposition to Iran’s Islamic regime, direct talks with Tehran about its activities in Iraq, and congressional efforts to further tighten U.S. sanctions on those who might aid Iran.

How well these policy strands will work together is not clear. For example, as a Department of State official involved in ongoing diplomacy acknowledged March 17, the administration’s challenge is, “Can we come up with something clever enough to support two aims: one, get Iran to make a strategic decision to give up its nuclear weapons program and two, help bring leadership change and democracy to Iran.”

But the most dramatic step might be the recent agreement by the two countries to participate in bilateral talks about Iraq. Following U.S. requests for such talks, Iran announced on March 16 that it would be willing to participate. A date for the talks has not yet been set.

The United States has sought to end what it terms Iranian interference in Iraq’s political affairs, including its belief that Tehran is pro viding components used in improvised explosive devices found in Iraq and employed by insurgents fighting U.S. and Iraqi forces.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said March 17 that Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, has been authorized for “some time…to meet with his Iranian counterpart if he believes that it would be useful to do so,” a policy that dates back to Khalilzad’s tenure as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.

But U.S. officials, including Rice and White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, have insisted that the talks will be restricted to that subject and not venture into the nuclear realm. Ali Larijani, head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, agreed to those conditions in announcing Iran’s acceptance of the talks, and the talks were later publicly endorsed by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei.

Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, March 16 explained the administration’s rationale for limiting the talks to Iraq. Hadley said that in Iran “there is beginning to be a debate within the leadership, and I would hope a debate between the leadership and their people, about whether the course they are on is the right course for the good of their country. That has only come about because they have heard a coordinated message from the international community. It has been difficult to hold together; it has taken a lot of time.

“And I think when you talk about saying, well, let’s have bilateral diplomatic contacts, you have to ask yourself whether that is going to serve the overall interests or is in fact going to break the international consensus and suggest to Iran that they have an alternative way, other than responding to the demands of the international community,” Hadley added on the nuclear issue.

Other U.S. Policy Moves

However, in a two-part Feb. 27 interview with TIME magazine, Larijani did not rule out directly meeting with the United States on the nuclear issue.

“We have no problems in negotiating on nuclear issues, and also issues of interest to Muslims, things that will bring calm to the region, provided that they are honest and that Mr. Bush does not harangue us. To us, negotiations are not the end. If the aim is clear, then this means can be used too,” Larijani said.

The announcement came against a backdrop of other U.S. policy moves, including veiled threats of military force and ambiguous statements about whether the United States favors a regime change policy in Iran.

Hadley’s remarks, for example, came after a speech in which he released the administration’s newest National Security Strategy. That document, which updates a similar Bush administration document, reaffirms the pre-emptive use of military force as an option in pre venting attacks with nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. It also says that, with Iran, diplomacy “must succeed if confrontation is to be avoided” and says that the United States “may face no greater challenge from a single country than Iran.”

U.S. officials have also said that their disputes with Iran go be yond resolving the demands of the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors vis-à-vis its nuclear program. Other long-standing U.S concerns include Iran’s alleged support for terrorism, its opposition to the Middle East peace process, and its alleged violations of human rights.

In that light, Rice made another policy departure in Feb. 15 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She announced that the administration would ask Congress for $75 mil lion in current-year supplemental funds for democracy promotion inside Iran , with $15 million to support “civic education,” $5 million for sponsoring Iranian student visits to the United States, and $5 million for media efforts to reach people in Iran. The remaining $50 million is to be used to increase U.S. broadcasting efforts inside Iran , likely through Radio Farda. Radio Farda is the broadcast through Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that began transmitting into Iran in October 1998 and was renamed in December 2002.

Rice also said the administration planned future funding boosts “to increase our support for the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people as we identify worthy initiatives.” Bush has previously given rhetorical support to such efforts but little funding.

The Islamic Republic News Agency reported on March 13 that the Iranian Foreign Ministry forwarded a letter to the Swiss embassy in Tehran protesting the funds for democracy promotion. The letter reportedly called the move “provocative and interference in Iran’s internal affairs.”

Nonetheless, U.S. lawmakers indicated support for such measures in legislation approved by the House International Relations Committee March 15 on a 37-3 vote. The measure is also aimed at curbing progress in Iran’s nuclear program by updating the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996. That law was revised in 2001 and is set to expire later this year. (See ACT, September 2001.) It requires the United States to impose sanctions on foreign companies that invest more than $20 million per year in Iranian oil or gas development. No sanctions have ever taken effect under it, however, despite major violations by French, Italian, Malaysian, and Russian entities because of diplomatic opposition to such “secondary sanctions.”

The current legislation would allow for imposing sanctions, at the president’s determination, on any person that exports, transfers, or provides to Iran “any goods, services, technology, or other items” that knowingly aid the ability of Iran to develop weapons of mass destruction or “destabilizing numbers and types of advanced conventional weapons.”

It also urges the administration “to work to secure support at the United Nations Security Council for a resolution” to impose sanctions on Iran “as a result of its repeated breaches of its nuclear nonproliferation obligations.” The bill is to remain in effect until Iran has verifiably dismantled its suspected “weapons of mass destruction programs.”

The committee-passed bill includes measures that tighten the application of existing sanctions. In particular, congressional aides said that it seeks to force the executive branch to investigate credible reports of sanctionable activities. The law requires that the president issue a sanctions determination within one year of receiving such a report and clear a two-year backlog of such investigations. It seeks to broaden the net of firms covered by these activities to institutions such as insurers, underwriters, or guarantors who knowingly help finance any investments as well as to foreign subsidiaries of U.S. firms. It also encourages U.S. pension funds and mutual funds to divest from foreign companies investing in Iran’s petroleum sector.

Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), the committee’s ranking member, said persuasion will not work with Iran. “We can only hope to inflict such severe economic pain on Tehran that it would starve the leadership of the resources they need to fund a costly nuclear program,” he said .

However, the administration has not fully embraced the measure. In testimony on March 8 before the House panel, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns raised concerns that some provisions in the bill might strain relations with close U.S. allies whose help the United States will need to change Iran’s behavior.


North Korea, U.S. Talks Inch Forward

Paul Kerr 

Although another session of multilateral talks regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has yet to be scheduled after more than four months, North Korea and the United States appear to have made incremental progress toward convening another such meeting.

The participants in the talks, which also include China, Japan, Russia , and South Korea, began their most recent round of talks in November attempting to build on a September 2005 statement of principles for a negotiated settlement, but the talks stalled.

Despite a flurry of diplomatic efforts to restart the talks, no further meetings have taken place. North Korea has refused to attend, citing its objections to U.S. measures that Pyongyang terms “financial sanctions,” a reference to the Department of the Treasury’s September 2005 designation of the Macau bank Banco Delta Asia as a “money laundering concern.” (See ACT, March 2006.)

Washington asserts that the bank provided financial services to North Korean government agencies and front companies engaged in such illegal activities as trafficking in narcotics and distributing counterfeit U.S. currency. Since the U.S. designation, Banco Delta Asia has frozen the relevant accounts, and other financial institutions have also curtailed their dealings both with the bank and North Korea.

North Korea and the United States have attempted to resolve the standoff. On March 7, officials from the U.S. Treasury Department briefed North Korea’s deputy director-general for North America, Li Gun, as well as other North Korean officials about the U.S. actions taken with respect to Banco Delta Asia. Li told reporters afterward that his delegation proposed several methods for resolving U.S. concerns, South Korea’s semi-official Yonhap News Agency reported. Among them was a suggestion to form a joint U.S.-North Korean consultative committee of experts that would discuss such issues as counterfeiting and money laundering.

Nonetheless, Washington and Pyongyang have continued to accuse each other of obstructing progress toward another session of talks.

The View From Pyongyang

Behind closed doors, North Korean officials are said to acknowledge that some of their citizens have been involved in the illegal activities. But they say that the United States is using the issue as a means to pressure North Korea regarding its nuclear programs rather than to address legitimate law enforcement concerns. Knowledgeable current and former administration officials say that the United States is actually using the actions to achieve both goals. (See ACT, January/February 2006.)

At a March 6 meeting in New York hosted by the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, North Korean officials did not deny that illicit activities had taken place in their country. But they repeated Pyongyang’s previous claim that its government is not involved in such activities. North Korea has said it will punish any guilty individuals, as well as participate in international efforts to stop money laundering.

A March 13 article in the Rodong Sinmun, a newspaper published by North Korea’s ruling Communist Party, described the “financial sanctions” as “obstacles” to the talks’ progress. Pyongyang argues that such measures are part of a “hostile policy” intended to under mine North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s regime. North Korea says this policy is inconsistent with Washington’s pledge, contained in the September joint statement, to respect Pyongyang’s sovereignty. (See ACT, November 2005.)

Pyongyang also contends that Washington is applying “financial sanctions” in order to extract concessions from Pyongyang during future six-party negotiations. Specifically, North Korea asserts that the United States is trying to force Pyongyang to dismantle its nuclear facilities before receiving any U.S.-provided benefits.

Despite its objections, Pyongyang says it is willing to return to the talks, although whether it is demanding any concessions in return for doing so is unclear.

Li told reporters March 7 that Pyongyang would not return to the talks “in the midst of the continued U.S. pressure,” Yonhap News Agency reported.

North Korean officials were more specific during the private March 6 meeting in New York. A meeting participant told Arms Control Today March 21 that the North Koreans did not demand that the Bush ad ministration end its “financial sanctions” as a condition for returning to the talks. Pyongyang does, however, want the Bush administration to engage in bilateral discussions with them about the matter.

The View From Washington

Washington has not yet issued a formal response to Li’s proposals. But a Department of State official told Arms Control Today March 21 that North Korea’s requests and stated U.S. policy “do not match,” particularly in terms of establishing a consultative committee.

North Korea has repeatedly sought to engage the Bush administration in bilateral negotiations, but the United States has only conducted such discussions on the sidelines of the six-party talks.

However, the administration has recently indicated some flexibility regarding its measures to curb North Korean illicit activities. Although the administration publicly maintains that the matter is unrelated to the nuclear issue, State Department spokesperson Adam Ereli indicated during a March 17 press briefing that issues related to North Korea’s financial system could potentially be discussed in the six-party talks.

In a March 8 hearing before the House International Relations Committee, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill argued that North Korea is “stalling” because the regime has not yet committed to working out the details of dismantling their nuclear programs.

Although U.S. officials have said that North Korea should end its illicit activities, the Bush administration has not publicly articulated specific actions that Pyongyang should take to satisfy Washington’s concerns. When asked about the matter during a Feb. 22 interview with JoongAng Ilbo, U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Alexander Vershbow said only that it is “really hard to say what would be sufficient.”

During a March 7 interview with Arms Control Today, Michael Green, until recently President George W. Bush’s National Security Council senior director for Asian affairs, described the Bush administration’s North Korea policy as an “effective harmony of different goals.”

Green, who left government last December, explained that the dual-track policy of countering North Korean illicit activities while also negotiating with Pyongyang synthesizes the views of two camps of administration officials. One has advocated increased pressure on the North Korean regime while the other has supported greater engagement with Pyongyang.

Green indicated that he believes the two tracks are coordinated but somewhat independent. The United States will continue to take action against illegal North Korean activities regardless of the six- party talks’ status, he said. But he added that Washington thinks such measures complement the talks by forcing Pyongyang to turn to legitimate economic activities for revenue. The greater need to engage in legitimate economic activities will increase the probability that the government will make a “strategic decision” to end its nuclear weapons program, he said.

Additionally, “the [Bush] administration believes there is no flexibility or backing off when it comes to enforcing the law,” he said.

Asked whether some administration officials view targeting Pyongyang ’s illicit activities as a tool for regime change, Green replied that some officials believed several years ago that such a strategy represented a viable option. But there is now a “pretty strong consensus” across agencies that the United States should pursue its current two-track strategy, he said.

Green added that Bush administration officials generally believe that the talks are worth pursuing because, at least in the short term, they help dissuade North Korean from taking more aggressive actions, such as testing nuclear weapons. The talks also build cooperation among the relevant parties that, in the event that current talks fail, might translate into future support for increasing pressure on Pyongyang.


France, Libya Agree to Nuclear Cooperation

William Huntington

France and Libya March 15 signed a civil nuclear cooperation agreement, the first of its kind for Tripoli since its 2003 pledge to comprehensively dismantle its nuclear and chemical weapons programs.

France ’s commitment to assist Libya’s civil nuclear program would not have been possible only a few years ago when Tripoli suffered under UN Security Council sanctions. Those international measures were adopted following the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, and the 1989 bombing of a French flight over Niger. Additionally, the United States imposed sanctions under the 1996 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act to hinder Tripoli’s ability to acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

The Security Council suspended its sanctions in 1999 following Libyan cooperation in the airline bombings investigations and permanently lifted them in September 2003 after Tripoli committed to paying $2.7 billion in restitution to the families of the victims of the Pan Am bombing. Most U.S. sanctions were removed in 2004. However, some remain as Libya is still listed by the U.S. government as a state sponsor of terrorism.

In October 2003, German and Italian authorities interdicted a ship en route to Libya carrying centrifuge components. On Dec. 19 of that year, following secret negotiations with the United Kingdom and the United States , Libya announced that it would dismantle its WMD programs, release all information regarding those programs, and allow inspectors to verify its disarmament and compliance with international obligations. (See ACT, January/February 2004.)

Among the significant disclosures by Tripoli in the course of its disarmament was information regarding the proliferation network of Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan. Khan supplied Libya and other states, including Iran, with components for nuclear weapons programs, including centrifuges. Gas centrifuges can produce highly enriched uranium, which can be used as fissile material in nuclear weapons.

Since abandoning its unconventional weapons programs, Libya has taken a number of steps to align itself with the global nonproliferation regime and convince other states of its commitment to disarmament. It signed an additional protocol with the International Atomic Energy Agency to allow for more intrusive inspections of its nuclear facilities, ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, acceded to the Chemical Weapons Convention, and destroyed its stock of missiles whose ranges and payloads exceeded the Missile Technology Control Regime guidelines. (See ACT, April 2004.)

French nuclear assistance will contribute to medical and industrial isotope production and water desalinization, according to the French Atomic Energy Commission. Libyan nuclear technicians will also receive training, said French Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jean-Baptiste Mattei, who was quoted by Reuters March 15.


France and Libya March 15 signed a civil nuclear cooperation agreement, the first of its kind for Tripoli since its 2003 pledge to comprehensively dismantle its nuclear and chemical weapons programs.

France ’s commitment to assist Libya’s civil nuclear program would not have been possible only a few years ago when Tripoli suffered under UN Security Council sanctions. Those international measures were adopted following the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, and the 1989 bombing of a French flight over Niger. Additionally, the United States imposed sanctions under the 1996 Iran-Libya Sanctions Act to hinder Tripoli’s ability to acquire weapons of mass destruction (WMD). (Continue)

Missile Threat: Does It Add Up?

Wade Boese

By March, the annual process of federal government officials marching up to Congress to justify their budget requests is in full swing. Missile defense officials took their turn in early March but did so in a way that raised questions about the data behind one of their key justifications.

Testifying March 9 before the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, Missile Defense Agency (MDA) Director Lieutenant General Henry Obering told lawmakers that “last year there were nearly 80 foreign ballistic missile launches.” But Obering did not give specifics on which countries conducted those launches.

In follow-up interviews, an MDA spokesperson declined to elaborate, saying that such figures would have to be released by the intelligence community, while the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency have not responded to Arms Control Today inquiries. An informal analysis appears to indicate that these launches only involved a handful by countries against which missile defenses are currently configured; none of these countries conducted a long-range ballistic missile launch.

According to Bush administration and Pentagon officials, current strategic missile interceptors are intended to stop a ballistic missile attack from North Korea or the Middle East, particularly Iran. Despite the implication by the July 1998 so-called Rumsfeld Commission that both countries could have ICBMs within five years (see ACT, June/July 1998), neither has yet to flight-test even an intermediate-range ballistic missile successfully.

Reviewing media reports and government statements for 2005, Arms Control Today found evidence of a single North Korean ballistic missile launch involving a short-range missile and no Iranian ballistic missile launches. However, Tehran did conduct a ground test of a solid-fuel rocket motor for the first time last spring.

The findings on Iran matched those of Yiftah Shapir, a former Israeli air force officer, who now works at Israel’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, which publishes The Middle East Military Balance. Shapir also told Arms Control Today March 22 that Syria conducted three short-range ballistic missile launches last year.

Russia and China are the only countries that actually possess flight-tested missiles that can strike the continental United States , but the Pentagon says its missile defense interceptors in Alaska and California are not directed against either country.


Japan Embracing Missile Defense

Wade Boese

Several years of U.S.-Japanese cooperation on anti-missile systems bore fruit in a successful experiment March 8. The test marked an important milestone in the two countries’ collaboration as Japan expands its missile defense activities and has emerged as the leading overseas missile defense partner of the United States .

Japan began its foray into missile defenses in 1999 with research on four components for a ship-fired missile interceptor. Now, Tokyo is preparing to host an advanced U.S. missile tracking radar, develop a more powerful missile interceptor with the United States, and deploy the initial elements of a Japanese land- and sea-based missile defense system.

The March 8 test involved one of the four products of the initial U.S.-Japanese partnership. In the experiment, a U.S. Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptor 88 kilometers above the Pacific Ocean employed for the first time a Japanese-designed “clamshell” nosecone. In an actual missile intercept attempt or test involving a mock warhead, the nosecone would release a kill vehicle to collide with a target hurtling through the atmosphere. But in this case, only a telemetry device to gather data on the new nosecone’s operation was released. U.S. nosecones require the SM-3 to conduct maneuvers to eject the kill vehicle; the Japanese nosecone avoids the need for maneuvers by opening up like a clamshell.

Still, the two governments have not determined whether the clamshell nosecone will be incorporated into a future SM-3 interceptor they will build based on a new 60-centimeter rocket motor also under development by Japan. This rocket motor is supposed to increase the interceptor’s range and make it capable of destroying long-range missiles. A contract for the new interceptor is expected to be signed in April, and an inaugural intercept test is set for 2014 or 2015, a U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) official told Arms Control Today March 15.

The United States has tested and deployed an earlier version of the SM-3 interceptor as part of its ship-based Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System to counter short- to intermediate-range ballistic missiles. The system has had six hits in seven intercept attempts, and nine SM-3 interceptors have been delivered to the Navy for deployment. The Government Accountability Office (GAO), which conducts studies for Congress, reported in March that U.S. plans envision deploying about 100 of the interceptors by the end of 2011.

Japan also intends initially to employ the current SM-3 interceptor aboard its four planned missile defense ships, the first of which is expected to be ready by 2007. At the same time, Japan hopes to field four land-based Patriot Advanced Capability- 3 systems, which are supposed to destroy short-and medium-range ballistic missiles near the end of their flights. Japanese procurement plans call for eventually acquiring another 12 firing units and two backup units. Japan currently deploys six early- model Patriot systems.

Japanese interest in missile defenses is animated primarily by a perceived missile threat from North Korea, although residual concerns about China also exist. In August 1998, North Korea conducted a surprise test of a ballistic missile, which flew over Japanese territory. (See ACT, August/September 1998.)

Tokyo and Washington are intent on improving their vigilance of North Korean missile activities. Toward this end, the United States will deploy a forward-based X-band radar on Japanese territory before this year ends. A Japanese government official told Arms Control Today March 15 that the two governments are currently searching for an “optimum site.”

The new radar is supposed to provide improved tracking and discrimination information on ballistic missiles in flight. Data gathered by the radar is to be shared between Japan and the United States for operating their respective anti-missile systems.

Pentagon officials testifying at a March 9 hearing of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee applauded Japan ’s growing missile defense role, which totals approximately $1 billion in spending annually. Peter Flory, assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, ranked Japan as “our largest international partner.”

Australia , Denmark, Germany, Israel, Italy, and the United Kingdom also are leading U.S. missile defense partners. In addition, the 26-country NATO alliance is working to knit together a system that will allow its members’ individual battlefield anti-missile systems to operate together. The group is also exploring options for protecting their national territories.

Washington is also considering the Czech Republic , Poland, and the United Kingdom as a basing site for 10 long-range U.S. missile interceptors. An MDA spokes person told Arms Control Today in February that $56 million had been requested in the latest Pentagon budget submission to advance this project (see ACT, March 2006), but that sum actually totals $120 million, according to Flory.

Since 1985, the Pentagon has spent approximately $90 billion on anti-missile projects and foresees spending nearly $58 billion more over the next six years, according to the March GAO report.


Congress, NSG Question U.S.-Indian Deal

Wade Boese

After surprising the world and Congress last summer with its proposal to expand global civil nuclear trade with India, the Bush administration is now asking lawmakers and other governments to help make it happen. Although some quickly expressed their support, others are opposed or undecided and in no rush to act.

At its core, the proposed U.S.-Indian deal, consummated July 18, 2005, and fleshed out further March 2, requires India to divide its nuclear complex into military and civilian sectors and open the civilian side to international oversight, including inspections. In return, the Bush administration is seeking India-specific exemptions to U.S. law and international rules to permit nuclear commerce with India’s declared civilian nuclear entities and facilities.

Nuclear trade with India has been significantly restricted since 1974 when it used Canadian and U.S. nuclear imports to build and test a nuclear device. In response to this test, the United States spearheaded the 1975 creation of the voluntary Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) to help regulate global nuclear trade, and Congress passed the 1978 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act.

The law establishes strict conditions for all U.S. nuclear trade agreements with other governments. The United States and India have yet to finalize a bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement, but Washington submitted a draft deal to New Delhi March 14.

Meanwhile, the administration forwarded a proposal to Congress March 9 to exempt the bilateral U.S.-Indian cooperation agreement from statutory conditions once it is completed. Typically, such an exemption would require majority approval both from the Senate and the House of Representatives. But the administration has proposed a different process that would essentially allow the bilateral agreement to pass after 90 days if a two-thirds’ majority of each chamber of Congress does not vote to oppose it.

Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), a vociferous critic of the U.S.-Indian deal, condemned the administration’s approach March 10. “It appears that the administration wants to avoid a vote on the actual text of the nuclear cooperation agreement they will be negotiating with the Indian government,” he stated. Markey added, “Perhaps they’ve begun to realize that if the members have to actually vote on this bad deal, they’ll face a serious uphill battle.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) introduced the administration’s proposal as legislation within days of receiving it, but neither endorsed the approach. Instead, they commented on the deal’s importance and complexity and the need for legislators to learn more about it.

Hyde even went a little further. A March 13 press release from his committee noted that “Hyde suggested that Congress may seek conditions for its approval.”

Since concluding the deal, Bush administration officials have repeatedly warned Congress against asking India to undertake additional obligations. As Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, who served as the deal’s primary negotiator, reiterated March 16, “[I]f you try to open it up and renegotiate it, you probably wouldn’t be able to put it back together again.”

Still, several in Congress, including some key Republicans, are voicing reservations. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, pronounced himself “skeptical” March 5 on ABC’s This Week. Expressing concern about how nuclear trade might aid India’s nuclear weapons program, Hunter cautioned that “the president is trying to ride the nuclear tiger.”

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), an important GOP moderate, said on the same broadcast, “I am leery whenever we put any kind of nuclear capability off-limits to international inspections.” India is keeping eight of 22 thermal reactors and two fast-breeder reactors outside of international supervision and reserving the right to classify future reactors of both types as military and off- limits to outsiders.

The deal also has strong supporters. Former co-chairs of the congressional caucus on India and Indian Americans, Reps. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) and Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), sent a March 2 letter to their fellow members hailing the plan as a “landmark effort.”

Burns said the administration is “encouraged” by the number of legislators who have provided positive feedback, but he also conceded, “[A] lot of them have technical questions or they want to see the full development of our argument in testimony.” He added, “I think that we are in, you know, round one of a 15-round match.”

The administration is also in another bout to persuade the other 44 NSG members to exempt India from the group’s rule that a non-nuclear-weapon state must provide international access and supervision to all of its nuclear facilities to be eligible for nuclear imports. India possesses an estimated 50-100 nuclear weapons, but it is defined by the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear-weapon state be cause it did not test a nuclear weapon before Jan. 1, 1967. Along with Israel and Pakistan, India has shunned the NPT.

In mid-March, the administration began circulating its preferred NSG approach for exempting India. If approved, the administration’s new rule would permit a group member to export nuclear goods to India if that particular government was “satisfied” that New Delhi was abiding by its nonproliferation commitments, such as maintaining a nuclear testing moratorium.

To take effect, the administration’s proposal would need to be adopted by consensus. Although no NSG member has publicly objected to reviving nuclear trade with India, several, including Austria, Brazil , Japan, Norway, and Sweden, reportedly have qualms. In early March, German political parties began debating what position Berlin should take.

China , which has close nuclear ties to Pakistan, has not taken a clear public stance. However, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang March 2 called for NPT nonsignatories to “get on board” the treaty as non-nuclear-weapon states “at an early date.”

Islamabad has questioned the U.S.-Indian deal while voicing interest in a similar arrangement. Washington has repeatedly ruled out such a possibility.

France , Russia, and the United Kingdom have backed the U.S. proposal on India, which also received the blessing of International Atomic Energy Agency Director- General Mohamed ElBaradei. “This agreement would serve the interests of both India and the international community,” ElBaradei stated March 2.

Moscow , however, is not waiting on the NSG to approve the deal. Russia informed the United States in March that it would supply India with nuclear fuel for its Tarapur reactors. The Kremlin defended the shipments as being justified for safety reasons and, therefore, not an NSG violation. India, which is not a group member, asserted the same.

Burns made clear March 16 that Washington disagreed. He argued the “proper sequencing” would be for U.S. law and the NSG provision to be changed first and then other countries could conduct nuclear trade with India.

The NSG’s next decision-making meeting is scheduled for May 29-June 2 in Rio de Janeiro . According to congressional and diplomatic sources, Bush administration officials have been urging Congress and the NSG each to act before the other, but both are reluctant to hurry and do not want to be stampeded into a decision.


Europeans Seek to Strengthen BWC

Michael Nguyen

European states have recently approved a plan to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). But in doing so they made clear that they favor incremental improvements, conscious that they must work around U.S resistance to multilateral efforts.

The joint action plan approved Feb. 27 will provide 867,000 euros to fully fund two projects that aim to increase the convention’s universality and improve national implementation measures over the course of 18 months. The joint action is a part of a broader effort to implement the “EU Strategy Against the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction” approved at the end of 2003. (See ACT, May 2005.)

The first EU project will consist of five workshops targeted at regions with substantial gaps in BWC membership, including Africa, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and Pacific islands nations. The goal would be to educate diplomats and bureaucrats from these states about the BWC and EU nonproliferation initiatives.

A second project would allow current BWC states-parties to receive legal and technical assistance from EU member states to help draft relevant national legislation. Such legislation would codify the obligations of the BWC, including criminal provisions and measures related to the physical protection of biological agents or related materials and equipment.

Unlike the Chemical Weapons Convention, the BWC has no implementing body to organize these workshops or provide legal and technical assistance. The British government has said that it would support the formation of a secretariat to perform many of these duties, as well as the creation of a scientific advisory panel to monitor developments in the life sciences. However, it is not clear if such a proposal would gain much traction. During a July 2004 meeting of BWC experts, British experts submitted a proposal to enhance the UN secretary-general’s abilities to investigate allegations of biological weapons use but received a lukewarm response from the United States. (See ACT, September 2004.)

Nonetheless, “these are interesting ideas, and we are very ready to discuss them,” said David Triesman, the United Kingdom’s parliamentary undersecretary of state for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, during a March 13 briefing. “Our priority at the review conference will be to support the proposals that are feasible and add value to the effective implementation of the convention.”

Despite its long-standing support for a verification measure for the treaty, the United Kingdom does not plan to press for a resumption of work toward that goal. “The reality is that a number of countries are not prepared to proceed as rapidly as we would all wish on verification,” said Triesman. “Negotiation can often be a matter of catching a tide as circumstances become more favorable.”

The United States has remained the most vocal critic of reopening negotiations on a verification mechanism for the convention. Negotiations on such a protocol have been stymied since the United States abruptly withdrew its support on the last day of the treaty review conference in 2001.

During a Feb. 14 meeting in Tokyo hosted by the Japanese Foreign Ministry and the Japan Institute of International Affairs, the United States indicated that it would prefer to continue to concentrate on national measures to strengthen the treaty and not on any new multilateral effort. “Absent national ‘ownership,’ multilateral obligations are simply empty rhetoric,” said Carolyn Leddy, a senior adviser in the Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation. “In case I was not clear from the outset, let me reiterate for you now that the Bush administration will not return to the protocol negotiations or negotiations on any verification mechanism whatsoever for the BWC,” she said.



Subscribe to RSS - April 2006