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Gates Hints at Call for New Warhead Designs in Nuclear Posture Review

(Sep. 24) -U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, shown last week, indicated during a recent discussion that an upcoming nuclear strategy review could advocate development of new warhead designs (Alex Wong/Getty Images). (Sep. 24) -U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, shown last week, indicated during a recent discussion that an upcoming nuclear strategy review could advocate development of new warhead designs (Alex Wong/Getty Images).

A congressionally mandated review of U.S. nuclear strategy is likely to recommend developing "safer and more reliable" warhead designs as part of a broader effort to modernize and maintain the nation's nuclear deterrent, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in remarks published last week by the Defense Department (see GSN, Sept. 18).

"The Nuclear Posture Review is well under way, and I would say we're beginning to see what some of the likely conclusions are," Gates said at an Air Force Association event.

"I would say that it is clear, at least to me, that it is important for us to continue to make investments, and I think larger investments, in modernizing our nuclear infrastructure, the labs and so on, the expertise in those places, to have the resources for life-extension programs, and in one or two cases probably new designs that will be safer and more reliable."

Gates had been a supporter of the Bush administration's Reliable Replacement Warhead program, which was intended to produce new warhead designs aimed at providing increased safety and reliability for the nuclear arsenal. Congress provided no funding for the program in the last two budgets and Vice President Joseph Biden earlier this year sought to shut down one discussion of resuming a warhead replacement effort (see GSN, Aug. 18).

Gates said there is no intention to produce nuclear weapons with new capabilities.

"That's a red herring," he said. "This is about modernizing and keeping safe a capability that everyone acknowledges we will have to have for some considerable period into the future before achieving some of the objectives of significant arms reduction and eventually no nuclear weapons at all. All recognize that is a considerable distance in the future, and we have an obligation to keep this capability safe" (U.S. Defense Department release, Sept. 16).

A top Obama administration arms control official, though, recently provided assurance that Washington would not seek to revive the controversial effort to design and build a next-generation nuclear warhead, the Albuquerque Journal reported.

"There are a lot of people that still hope for the return of RRW and they are going to be sadly disappointed," Ellen Tauscher, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, told Foreign Policy magazine.

One analyst read the apparently conflicting statements as a sign that the administration is still formulating its position on nuclear arsenal modernization.

"They have not yet decided what they're going to say," said Steven Young, an nuclear weapons expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Meanwhile, statements by Gates and other officials appeared to suggest that the administration would advance plans for two new nuclear-weapon material processing sites in New Mexico and Tennessee, Young told the Journal (see GSN, Aug. 28; John Fleck, Albuquerque Journal, Sept. 23).

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Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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