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FYI Number 78: May 26, 2005

House Armed Services Committee Takes New Approach to Bunker Buster

The House Armed Services Committee has taken a different approach this year to the controversial program that could lead to the development of a Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP) or "bunker buster." Following last's year decision by Congress to provide no funding for RNEP (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2004/154.html), the Armed Services Committee this year authorized a program that removes the nuclear component from the study of the earth penetrator. Last night, the House passed this bill by a vote of 390-89 and sent it on to the Senate.

The committee's report, House Report 109-089, accompanies H.R. 1815, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2006. Sections of this massive report detail the committee's approach to RNEP, selections from which are below. Also below are Additional Views from the committee's Democrats. Taken together, along with the report language which accompanied the FY 2006 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2005/073.html), the strategy can be discerned of both the supporters and the opponents of this weapon.

The Armed Services Committee report shifts the proposed RNEP study from the Department of Energy (which performs nuclear weapons research for DOD) to the Department of Defense with the following language under the section entitled "National Nuclear Security Administration":

"Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator

"The budget request contained $4.0 million for the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP) study.

"The committee understands that the Commander, United States Strategic Command has stated that the results from the sled test conducted under this program have applicability to various types of penetrators that may be options for use against Hard and Deeply Buried Targets (HDBTs). Based on the applicability of the sled test results to various options for HDBT defeat, the committee believes that this study is more appropriately conducted under a program element within the Department of Defense.

"The committee recommends no funding for the RNEP study under the Department of Energy, but instead authorizes a related study effort within the Department of Defense elsewhere in this Act."

The following language appears in the section entitled "Air Force Research, Development, Test and Evaluation" under "Items of Special Interest":

"Penetrator study

"The committee understands that Hard and Deeply Buried Targets (HDBTs) pose a threat to national security and that currently, the Department of Defense does not have the capability to hold many of these targets at risk. The committee further understands that the Commander, United States Strategic Command has a need to conduct sled tests that would evaluate the feasibility of various options for penetrator weapons that could be used against HDBTs.

"The committee authorizes $4.0 million in PE 64327F for a penetrator test that would evaluate the feasibility of various options for different types of penetrators that could hold HDBTs at risk. The committee intends that this study be completed by the end of fiscal year 2006. Should additional funds above the $4.0 million be required for this study, the Secretary of Defense should submit a reprogramming request to the congressional defense committees."

Traditionally, committee reports include sections that outline Members views that may not be reflected in the main body of the report. Known as "Additional Views," the Armed Services Committee report includes language from the committee's Democrats on RNEP. These views were signed by Ranking Member Ike Skelton (D-MO) and 22 of his Democratic colleagues.

"Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator

"[T]he committee Democrats appreciate the fact that the majority took the ‘Nuclear' portion out of the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator or ‘RNEP' program. Nonetheless, we are concerned that the committee report language is written vaguely enough that conventional testing of penetration weapons could be used as a proxy to inform nuclear applications as well.

"Committee Democrats recognize the increasing proliferation of hard and deeply buried targets (HDBTs) and strongly support efforts to hold these facilities at risk and, if necessary, to defeat them militarily. However, we believe that conventional means of holding HDBTs at risk are inherently more credible than nuclear options and also hold greater promise of military utility if used. Therefore, we believe the nation's security interests are best served by focusing our limited resources on conventional options.

"The committee report as it currently stands supports a sled test that can ‘evaluate the feasibility of various options for different types of penetrators.' This language could be construed to allow the sled test to inform whether a nuclear payload could be used in high-speed penetration of hard geologies. Moving the RNEP sled test out of the Department of Energy budget and into the Air Force budget strongly indicates the committee's preference for conventional payload penetration testing, but we believe the Congress should go even further. This sled test should be conducted in a manner that only informs conventional payloads, and if this is not technically feasible, there should be no further work in designing modified or new nuclear weapon designs based on the sled test data. We will strive to include this language in conference with the Senate.

"H.R. 1815 as currently written also includes $4.5 million to evaluate how to integrate a conceptual nuclear ‘bunker buster' onto the B-2 bomber. We believe it is premature to begin integration engineering efforts for a weapon that should never be designed and, at a minimum, is years away from being designed. The committee's decision to delete RNEP funding from the Department of Energy request and re-orient the nature of the sled test to conventional penetrating weapons further undermines the rationale for this request. In order to maintain comity within the committee, we did not offer formal amendments to H.R. 1815 to delete this funding. We plan to work with our colleagues, however, during the remainder of the legislative process to find a better use of this $4.5 million."

"Committee Democrats believe that the pursuit of a tactical nuclear RNEP impedes the nation's non-proliferation goals and undermines the security of the United States by increasing the appeal of nuclear weapons. It reduces the ability of our nation to build a global consensus against the development or potential use of nuclear weapons by our enemies or aspiring nuclear powers. It also undercuts our ability to orchestrate collective action against rogue nations or terrorists seeking to acquire nuclear weapons.

"The timing of the Administration's request for funds for the RNEP is particularly sensitive given the current review of and efforts to strengthen the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The committee should send a clear signal that it in no way supports or approves an earth-penetrating nuclear warhead. While we are pleased to note that H.R 1815 moves in this direction, we will strive for further changes in this direction during the House-Senate conference on this bill."

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
fyi@aip.org
301-209-3095

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