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FYI Number 91: August 31, 2007

Divergent Positions: Reliable Replacement Warhead

The House, Senate, and Bush Administration have staked-out divergent positions on whether the Department of Energy should proceed with design and cost estimates on a proposed replacement nuclear warhead. A statement released last month by the Secretary of Energy, Secretary of Defense, and Secretary of State warns that delaying progress on a Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) will "raise the prospect of having to return to underground nuclear testing," an assertion two key House appropriators have characterized as "irresponsible" and "incautious." The extent to which Congress will fund the next steps in the eventual development of a new warhead will be a central issue when the House and Senate return to Washington next week.

The Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) requested $88.8 million for acquisition planning for the RRW in 2008, a 220% increase over this year's budget of $27.7 million. The new budget would fund a Phase 2A design definition and cost study that would used by the Nuclear Weapons Council to decide whether engineering and production development funding would be requested in FY 2009 through FY 2012 "to support an executable program." Proceeding to this later stage would require congressional authorization. The resulting weapon, based on a Lawrence Livermore design, would be deployed on the submarine-launched Trident ballistic missile.

NNSA maintains that a replacement for the nation's suite of nuclear weapons would "ensure long-term confidence in a more secure, smaller and safer nuclear weapons stockpile." While DOE certifies that the stockpile is safe and reliable, it also cautions that warheads are aging (averaging 20+ years old). Confidence in the reliability and performance of these warheads will erode as they are refurbished. NNSA contends that development of a replacement warhead would improve the weapon's security, enhance stockpile safety, develop a more responsive weapons infrastructure, reduce the stockpile size, decrease the likelihood of underground testing, and sustain the nuclear weapons workforce.

The U.S. stopped nuclear testing in 1992. Since that time, a Stockpile Stewardship Plan, based on an experimental program emphasizing the physics and chemistry of nuclear weapons, has been used to detect aging problems in the stockpile. NNSA has used a life extension program to replace individual components of nuclear weapons. RRW proponents have concerns about the Stockpile Stewardship Plan. Earlier this summer, now NNSA Administrator Thomas P. D'Agostino told a Washington conference that "RRW is being pursued under the firm requirement that it will not need to be tested for certification to become part of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. This reinforces our commitment to maintaining our moratorium on underground nuclear testing. On the other hand, as the older weapons in our current stockpile age further, we cannot guarantee that they will not need to be tested to maintain confidence in their safety and reliability."

In April, the American Association for the Advancement of Science released a study it chartered entitled "The United States Nuclear Weapons Program: The Role of the Reliable Replacement Warhead." The 34-page report was written by former nuclear weapons laboratory directors and staff, and academic and other experts, with staff assistance from the American Physical Society and the AAAS. "The basic terms of reference for the panel's study were to assess the degree to which the implementation of the RRW concept would alleviate possible risks in the existing SSP [Stockpile Stewardship Program.]" Two statements in the first pages of this report outline some of the main conclusions of this report. The first: "there are risks in either long-term outcome - a stockpile that would be composed of all or mostly RRWs, or one that would be composed of all or mostly legacy warheads - and it is difficult today to weigh the pros and cons. There are some risks in even starting down a path toward a stockpile that has some (or many) RRWs. Pursuing the initial phases of this path could be a prudent hedge against the uncertainties of an all-legacy future and an opportunity that might result in the creation of a better long-term posture. It will be crucial to continually reevaluate the risks, costs, and benefits of these alternative futures -- and to adapt accordingly."

Another recommendation from this report was echoed in later congressional committee reports: "The panel believes that if RRWs are to become significant elements of the stockpile, the DOD needs to be clear about which weapon characteristics are most important; lay out in advance the long-term stockpile size and diversity so that the DOE can size the complex; and engage at all levels in the planning, budgeting, and testing process from the beginning of the program." The report may be read at http://www.aaas.org/news/releases/2007/media/rrw_report_2007.pdf

In a May speech, D'Agostino responded to the AAAS report: "The report urges that Congress and the Administration seek broader consensus on the role of nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War, post 9/11 world and I agree. Indeed, the transformation of the nuclear weapons complex will take decades and require strong bipartisan support throughout this period for success. But we need not, and should not, as some suggest, defer our effort over the next 12 months to develop a detailed project and cost plan for the reliable replacement warhead pending resolution of these broad policy questions."

About a week after D'Agostino gave his speech, the House Armed Services Committee secured passage of its FY 2008 authorization bill by a vote of 397-27. The committee is chaired by Ike Skelton (D-MO); Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) is the Ranking Member. This bill, which provides guidance, but not actual funding, reduced the authorization for the RRW program from the requested $88.8 million to $68.8 million. In its report (110-146) accompanying H.R. 1585, it stated:

"As established in the National Defense Authorization Act of Fiscal Year 2006 (Public Law 109-163), the primary objectives of the RRW program are to 'increase the reliability, safety, and security of the United States nuclear weapons stockpile,' and 'further reduce the likelihood of the resumption of underground nuclear weapons testing.' Public Law 109-163 further established that the RRW program should aim to 'remain consistent with basic design parameters by including, to the maximum extent feasible . . . components that are well understood or are certifiable without the need to resume underground nuclear weapons testing.'

"The committee believes it is too soon to judge whether the RRW program can achieve these objectives, and notes that findings from two recent National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) studies regarding the aging of pits indicate that a critical component of our nuclear weapons may have a longer lifespan than previously recognized. In light of these findings, the committee believes the focus of the RRW program during fiscal year 2008 should be the analysis necessary to describe in detail how the RRW program will achieve these objectives."

After citing the AAAS report, the House report states:

"The committee supports establishing clear nuclear weapons requirements before committing to the RRW program, and sees the planned Phase 2a design review and cost study as consistent with this approach. Further, the committee believes the RRW program should only be pursued if it: truly reduces or eliminates the need for nuclear testing; leads to substantial reductions in the nuclear arsenal, including complete dismantlement of the weapons and safe disposal of fissile components; does not introduce new mission or new weapon requirements; reduces the reliance of the United States on nuclear weapons; reduces the long-term cost of maintaining the nuclear weapons complex; and increases nuclear security and decreases the risk of unauthorized launch or detonation." See http://thomas.loc.gov/cp110/cp110query.html for the entire report.

On June 11, the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee issued its FY 2008 funding bill, H.R. 2641, and its accompanying report, 110-185. The subcommittee is chaired by Rep. Peter Visclosky (D-IN); Rep. David Hobson (R-OH) is the Ranking Member. The subcommittee provided no funding to the Department of Energy for the RRW. Over many pages of the report the committee laid out in considerable detail its objections to the RRW and the modernization of the nuclear weapons complex:

"Currently, the Administration has not provided to Congress an updated strategic assessment that articulates the role of nuclear weapons in a post-Cold War world. The national security environment for the United States has changed dramatically since the fall of the Soviet Union; however, the policy objectives that continue to require a large Cold War era nuclear stockpile have not been updated to reflect the changed international security environment. The Committee directs the Administration to develop a comprehensive nuclear defense strategy that defines the future mission, global threats, and the specific characteristics of the U.S. nuclear stockpile necessary to address the nation's nuclear deterrent requirements before proceeding with the Reliable Replacement Warhead proposal or significant nuclear complex modernization plans."

The report continues:

"The Department of Energy (DOE) and the Department of Defense (DoD) are proposing to develop a new nuclear warhead under the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program and begin a nuclear weapons complex modernization proposal called Complex 2030. These multi-billion dollar initiatives are being proposed in a policy vacuum without any Administration statement on the national security environment that the future nuclear deterrent is designed to address. The Committee's concern is supported by statements made by nuclear weapon experts in recent reports by the Defense Science Board and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and in congressional testimony by such credible experts as a former Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a former Secretary of Defense. These review panel and national security experts all agreed that there has been no clear policy statements that articulate the role of nuclear weapons in a post-Cold War and post-9/11 world. The lack of any definitive analysis or strategic assessment defining the objectives of a future nuclear stockpile makes it impossible to weigh the relative merits of investing billions of taxpayer dollars in new nuclear weapon production activities when the United States is facing the problem of having too large a stockpile as a Cold War legacy. Currently, there exists no convincing rationale for maintaining the large number of existing Cold War nuclear weapons, much less producing additional warheads, or for the DoD requirements that drive the management of the DOE nuclear weapons complex.

"The Committee believes it is premature to proceed with further development of the RRW or a significant nuclear complex modernization plan, until a three-part planning sequence is completed, including: (1) a comprehensive nuclear defense strategy, based upon current and projected global threats; (2) clearly defined military requirements for the size and composition of the nuclear stockpile derived from the comprehensive nuclear defense strategy; and (3) alignment of these military requirements to the existing and estimated future needs and capabilities of NNSA's weapons complex. The Committee views completion of this three-part planning sequence as a necessary condition before considering additional funding for Complex 2030 and RRW activities." The entire report may be read at http://thomas.loc.gov/cp110/cp110query.html

On July 9, the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee recommended $66.0 million for the RRW in its FY 2008 funding bill (S. 1751), a cut of $20.0 million from the Administration's request. The subcommittee is chaired by Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND); Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) is the Ranking Member. "The Committee is divided on the . . . RRW program, but unified in its desire to review and discuss our national strategic defense policy and the role of nuclear weapons in the post-cold war and post-September 11th world," the committee wrote in its accompanying report, 110-127: "The information developed from Phase 2a will be helpful in assessing the role RRW might play in the reliability, safety, and nonproliferation areas of the nuclear weapon arsenal, but the information alone will not be enough upon which to base a decision on its construction or deployment. Congress should have a more vigorous analysis and debate of our national strategic defense policy prior to deciding whether to continue or terminate RRW development."

The Senate report outlined a number of questions that must be answered about the Stockpile Stewardship Program and international nonproliferation efforts. "The question of whether the RRW program should be continued must be based on accurate information and thorough debate. The Committee favors the development of a bipartisan commission created by the Congress to evaluate and make recommendations on the role of nuclear weapons in our future strategic posture. That commission should engage the administration, the Congress and the best minds in the public and private sector to evaluate the future role of nuclear weapons as a part of our defense and strategic policies. That Commission report can form the basis of information and advice from which the President and the Congress can make decisions about the future of RRW and other weapons programs."

Later in the Senate report the subcommittee stated:

"The Committee recommends $66,000,000 and directs the Department to conduct the appropriate feasibility studies allowed under Phase 2a. The Committee commends the NNSA and laboratories for their work in the design competition for the RRW program. The design teams made security, reliability and manufacturability the foundation of both designs and both teams should be commended for their effort. The Committee expects the NNSA to conduct a timely and thorough feasibility review of the weapon system in order to provide Congress with the necessary information to make an informed decision as to whether or not it will authorize the National Nuclear Security Administration to proceed with the next phase of development. It will be incumbent upon NNSA to provide specific details as to how many RRW weapons will be manufactured, how the Department of Defense intends to integrate the system into the stockpile and how many weapons from the existing deterrent can be retired. No funds may be used for initial research of a RRW2." The entire report may be read at http://thomas.loc.gov/cp110/cp110query.html

On July 24, the Administration sent a four-page document that DOE described as "the Bush Administration's nuclear weapons strategy." "National Security and Nuclear Weapons: Maintaining Deterrence in the 21st Century" was issued by the Secretaries of Energy, Defense, and State. An opening paragraph of this statement explained:

"Above all, maintaining a credible deterrent has required a decades-long, bipartisan partnership with Congress. Some in Congress have recently expressed the view that we lack a coherent nuclear weapons strategy that provides the direction and rationale for the post-Cold War U.S. nuclear force structure. To address these concerns in more depth, a detailed report will follow this summary paper. The report will lay out the data and methodology used to determine our nuclear weapons force structure, outline knowledge points for measuring progress in transforming our nuclear stockpile, and dispel a number of myths that have grown up around U.S. nuclear forces."

Two paragraphs address the Administration's position on the RRW:

"To address these issues of sustainability, safety, security and reliability, and to achieve a smaller yet credible nuclear deterrent force, the United States needs to invest in the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program. Pursuit of this program is critical to sustaining long-term confidence in our deterrent capability – especially as the U.S. reduces its nuclear forces, the total number of weapons in the stockpile, and the size of the nuclear weapons infrastructure. RRW is a replacement warhead – it will help reduce the size of the nuclear stockpile and will not provide new military capabilities. Instead, RRW will make U.S. nuclear weapons safer and more secure against unauthorized use by incorporating state-of-the-art security features that cannot be retro-fitted to older weapons. RRW designs will provide more favorable reliability and performance margins than those currently in the stockpile, and will be less sensitive to incremental aging effects or manufacturing variances. Thus, RRW will allow the United States to manage the risks and challenges of the 21st Century while reducing the likelihood of returning to nuclear testing to certify reliability. Over time, RRW will enable the United States to transition to a smaller, more responsive nuclear infrastructure that will enable future administrations to adjust the U.S. nuclear stockpile as geo-political conditions warrant. RRW is key to sustaining our security commitment to allies, and is fully consistent with U.S. obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty–including Article VI.

"Without Congressional support for the Reliable Replacement Warhead program we are concerned for the long-term ability of the United States to sustain its strategy of deterrence, meet its security commitment to allies, and pursue further reductions in nuclear weapons without assuming additional risk. Delaying progress on RRW will force the United States to maintain a large stockpile of nuclear weapons and sustain it through increasingly costly and risky Life Extension Programs. Delays on RRW also raise the prospect of having to return to underground nuclear testing to certify existing weapons."

The statement may be read at: http://www.nnsa.doe.gov/docs/factsheets/2007/NA-07-FS-04.pdf

On August 1, Chairman Visclosky and Ranking Member Hobson sent a two-page letter to Secretaries Gates, Rice, and Bodman. Writing that "we are troubled by the implications of the statement," the letter reiterates the committee's contention "that it is premature at this time to develop a new nuclear weapon under the . . . RRW proposal," spelling out a "three-part planning sequence necessary to develop a revised post Cold War nuclear weapons strategy." The letter called the statement "a description of the status quo." Visclosky and Hobson took particular exception to the statement's warning about the need to return to underground testing, writing: "It is irresponsible for the Administration to make such an assertion. The implications that such a direct linkage between the need to resume underground testing and failure to fund the fiscal year 2008 RRW request is incautious. There is no record of congressional testimony or reports sent to Congress by the Administration claiming that the safety, security, or reliability of the existing legacy stockpile is on a performance cliff such that a resumption of testing to verify performance of the warheads would be a necessity." The entire letter may be read at: http://www.nukewatch.org/importantdocs/resources/viscloskyhobson.pdf

Resolution of this conflict over next year's funding for the Reliable Replacement Warhead awaits the final FY 2008 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill. How and when this and other FY 2008 appropriations bills will be enacted is very uncertain.

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

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