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JASON Panel Offers Secret Nuclear Warhead Upkeep Recommendations

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

(Nov. 9) -The U.S. nuclear complex is planning a life-extension effort for selected variants of the B-61 gravity bomb warhead.  An independent panel last month is said to have found that a life-extension approach should keep U.S. warheads safe, secure and reliable into the future (U.S. Air Force photo). (Nov. 9) -The U.S. nuclear complex is planning a life-extension effort for selected variants of the B-61 gravity bomb warhead. An independent panel last month is said to have found that a life-extension approach should keep U.S. warheads safe, secure and reliable into the future (U.S. Air Force photo).

WASHINGTON -- A prominent scientific panel last month delivered to the U.S. Energy Department a set of secret recommendations on the future maintenance and modernization of the nuclear arsenal, a document some experts say could significantly influence policy debates on the matter (see GSN, Sept. 24).

The JASON report comes as the Obama administration is readying its Nuclear Posture Review for release next month. The Defense Department-led assessment of U.S. nuclear strategy, forces and operations is expected to include at least a preliminary determination on how the nation should keep nuclear weapons viable for years to come (see GSN, Aug. 27).

The Energy Department's semiautonomous nuclear arm would not describe the JASON panel's classified findings. The National Nuclear Security Administration oversees the U.S. national laboratories and other facilities charged with maintaining the nuclear stockpile.

However, some of those familiar with the findings described the report as supporting ongoing efforts to extend the service lives of existing warheads, rather than replacing them with reworked designs.

The JASON group found that periodic "life-extension programs," or LEPs, remain a viable means of keeping the U.S. arsenal safe, secure and reliable, sources told Global Security Newswire.

Established in 1960, JASON is an independent advisory organization that conducts defense-related science and technology assessments for the U.S. government, mostly during annual "summer studies." The task force that conducted the study on warhead life-extension was reportedly led by nuclear engineer Marvin Adams of Texas A&M; University.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and some of his top generals have argued that the existing LEP approach would not ensure that nuclear weapons would function reliably into the future. Rather, it would likely be necessary to incorporate modern features into fresh designs that would replace at least one or two warheads in today's arsenal, Gates recently said (see GSN, Aug. 18).

A draft briefing that U.S. Strategic Command circulated on Capitol Hill this summer underscored the point, asserting that "confidence in [the] reliability of [the] aging stockpile is decreasing."

"Today's requirements can't be fully implemented in current weapons," states the document, drafted by the military organization with combat responsibility for nuclear arms. "Most lack [the] physical space needed to add required reliability, safety and security features."

In 2008, Congress refused to fund the Bush administration's Reliable Replacement Warhead effort for the second year in a row, citing concerns about how it fit into the overall U.S. nuclear weapon strategy. President Barack Obama did not include funding for the program in his fiscal 2010 budget.

Nonproliferation advocates have warned that building a new U.S. warhead could undermine Washington's efforts to foster international support for curbing known or suspected nuclear-weapon programs in nations such as North Korea and Iran.

The JASON report should give nonproliferation proponents a political shot in the arm, according to some observers. The group was said to find that replacing existing warheads in the U.S. stockpile with new designs to be unnecessary at this time.

Instead, a combination of weapon-component refurbishment and the reuse of tested designs should suffice in the absence of nuclear explosive testing, according to those familiar with the panel's conclusions. The United States has observed a moratorium on underground tests since the early 1990s.

"We believe that the report finds that current [life-extension] programs are working extremely well," said one nuclear weapons analyst who asked not to be named, citing the sensitivity of discussing a secret report. "There's no need for any dramatic changes in the programs or indeed a need to produce a new-design warhead."

"It seems that the JASON report has knocked the legs out from under the argument that building new warheads is technically preferable to refurbishing the old ones," said another expert, Jeffrey Lewis, who heads the New America Foundation's Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative. "I would be surprised if the administration didn't put aside the issue of new warheads for the time being."

The top Democrat and Republican on a key House subcommittee first requested the JASON study in February 2008.

"A fuller understanding of the risks, uncertainties and challenges associated with the LEPs will enable a more robust comparison between the current program and any proposed alternatives, including the RRW proposal," then-Representatives Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) and Terry Everett (R-Ala.) wrote in a letter to NNSA chief Thomas D'Agostino.

The former lawmakers said the new external review should be "analogous" to the JASONs' 2007 assessment of the RRW program, which cast doubt on the ability to certify proposed replacement warheads in the absence of explosive testing (see GSN, Oct. 5, 2007).

D'Agostino agreed in March 2008 to launch the JASON review of the life-extension approach. The House Armed Services Committee two months later elaborated on the Tauscher-Everett request in its report on the fiscal 2009 defense authorization bill.

"The JASON review should encompass a broad range of options, including some not included in previous LEPs," the committee report stated.

The panel also encouraged D'Agostino to undertake an NNSA "assessment of the expected technical and financial costs and benefits of expanding the scope of life extension programs, to include reuse of legacy primary and secondary [nuclear-weapon] components."

Current LEP efforts are focused on extending the service lives of the Air Force's B-61 bomb warhead and the W-76 warhead used on the Navy Trident D-5 missile. Thus far, such life-extension initiatives have mainly overhauled or replaced corroded metal parts and other aging weapons components.

An NNSA spokeswoman, Jennifer Wagner, said last Thursday that agency officials were reviewing the final JASON report, which was expected to "provide an analysis of certification challenges for various future nuclear weapons life-extension options."

"When that review is complete, a copy will be provided to the new chairman and ranking member of the House [Armed Services] Subcommittee on Strategic Forces," she told GSN. "We expect the final report to be ready to be delivered shortly."

Representative Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) chairs the strategic forces panel, and Representative Michael Turner (Ohio) is its top Republican.

Wagner declined to describe her agency's reaction to the JASON findings, saying the issue remained under review. She also left unclear whether an unclassified version of the JASON report would be released, as was the case with the panel's 2007 report on replacement-warhead issues.

Observers said the scientific panel has called into question past NNSA and national laboratory statements that, over time, confidence in the existing stockpile would erode as life-extension programs slightly alter the designs of warheads that were tested prior to the onset of the moratorium.

"The concern that NNSA and the labs have expressed about drifting away from tested designs through repeated [life-extension programs] is overblown because LEPs only happen every 20 to 30 years," said the weapons analyst who asked not to be identified.

"Today's NNSA and [the Los Alamos and Livermore national laboratories] have shown us that they can't resist ... pushing new, untested toys" such as replacement warheads, said Roger Logan, who formerly led Directed Stockpile Work at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

"They just can't stop, whether it's the right thing or not," Logan wrote in a recent essay on warhead-certification issues.

If the new JASON report insists that the LEP approach is sufficient for maintaining a safe, secure and reliable stockpile, it could prove more difficult for Gates and others to prevail in arguing that a warhead-replacement effort is the more prudent approach, according to one nuclear-weapons expert.

"The JASONs are the country's pre-eminent, independent scientific advisory body," said Stephen Young, a senior analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists. "Their findings and recommendations should be weighed heavily as the Obama administration conducts its Nuclear Posture Review and makes plans to sustain the U.S. arsenal."

One Capitol Hill staffer said, though, that the JASON report would not necessarily be the final word on the matter.

"It will be a data point" in the debate, said the senior Senate aide, but other experts might draw different conclusions from the same set of facts about how the arsenal is faring in the absence of underground tests.

What might be most likely to evolve out of the JASON findings is a warhead life-extension approach that incorporates at least a few modern components to replace aging parts or materials that prove particularly challenging to refurbish or remanufacture, several observers said.

One example might be an effort to find an acceptable substitute for "Fogbank," -- a highly toxic, Cold War-era material, used between the warhead's two explosive stages, that has been difficult to remanufacture -- in extending the life of the Navy's W-76 warhead, said Hans Kristensen, who directs the Federation of American Scientists' Nuclear Information Project (see GSN, May 29).

In his widely read blog, ArmsControlWonk.com, Lewis has dubbed the anticipated conglomeration of selected RRW features with more traditional life-extension approaches the "FrankenLEP" (see GSN, Sept. 12, 2008).

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