Obama Team Might Speed Up Disassembly of Older Nuclear Warheads

(Mar. 1) -The United States might soon announce a plan to step up dismantlement of retired nuclear warheads at the Pantex Plant in Texas, shown above (U.S. Pantex Plant photo).
(Mar. 1) -The United States might soon announce a plan to step up dismantlement of retired nuclear warheads at the Pantex Plant in Texas, shown above (U.S. Pantex Plant photo).

WASHINGTON -- In a new initiative, the United States is likely to step up the rate at which it dismantles older nuclear warheads no longer deployed in the arsenal, officials and experts tell Global Security Newswire (see GSN, Feb. 22).

The nation now maintains roughly one backup warhead for every warhead actively deployed, according to Hans Kristensen, who heads the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. The Defense Department has approximately 2,100 strategic warheads and 500 tactical warheads on active deployment, and almost an equal number in reserve, he said.

Under a fresh approach, the Defense Department might dramatically reduce the number of warheads in the backup force, which U.S. officials typically regard as a "hedge" against a resurgent Russia or the potential discovery of malfunctions in a line of warheads.

Pending a decision by President Barack Obama on the matter, Pentagon leaders are seeking to send a portion of hedge-force weapons into the queue for dismantling, according to sources and experts.

In turn, the process to take apart weapons at the Energy Department's Pantex facility near Amarillo, Texas, might take place at a faster clip.

As it stands, U.S. plans to eliminate the existing backlog of roughly 4,500 retired warheads by 2022 would require that Pantex ramp up from an estimated 250 weapons this year to approximately 400 annually by 2012, Kristensen said last week.

Absent a new initiative, indications are that the backlog will actually grow in the months and years to come, thanks to arms control reductions and other efforts.

A decision on proceeding with even quicker dismantlement might be unveiled in the coming weeks as part of the administration's nearly complete Nuclear Posture Review.

The congressionally mandated review of nuclear strategy, forces and readiness was initially anticipated for release in December but has been repeatedly delayed. Its debut was recently pushed to March 1, but the assessment now appears more likely to hit the streets in the second half of this month at the earliest, according to insiders (see GSN, Jan. 6).

The justification for cutting the nuclear-warhead hedge force or accelerating dismantlement appears to be mainly symbolic, according to advocates and detractors alike.

There could be safety risks in pushing the technically tricky process of nuclear warhead disassembly too fast, so any reasons for stepping up the pace must be compelling, several experts said.

"The only reason [for doing it] is if you're trying to sell dismantlements to the international community as proof that you're eliminating nuclear weapons," Kristensen told GSN in an interview.

"Symbolism is really important," said Linton Brooks, who headed former President George H.W. Bush's negotiating team on the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. "One of the problems the president has and advocates of [nuclear] abolition have is that it's hard to see what you do in the next couple years that really looks spectacular. And so I can see a desire to be able to say we have increased dismantlement rates."

A key motivation has been to identify bold initiatives the White House could tout at the five-year review conference of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to take place in New York City in May, sources and observers said.

Specifically, Washington could point to an increased rate of warhead dismantlement as evidence of Obama's intent to "take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons," as he pledged last April during a major speech in Prague.

The Nonproliferation Treaty calls on all nuclear powers, including the United States and Russia, to make significant progress toward eliminating their sizable nuclear arsenals in exchange for a commitment by non-nuclear nations not to develop or acquire such weapons.

As the review conference nears, concerns are growing within the Obama administration that it has achieved too little to date in pursuit of the president's vision of a nuclear weapon-free world. A lack of progress could set back White House plans for enforcing sanctions on Iran and North Korea.

"I think they are looking for politically expedient ways to demonstrate the commitment to the Prague agenda," said Jeffrey Lewis, who leads the New America Foundation's Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative.

Washington and Moscow are negotiating a new agreement to replace the now-expired START accord, but it is not expected to require deep cuts in nuclear warheads or delivery platforms. Meanwhile, another Obama initiative -- Senate ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty -- will not take place before the May review conference, according to officials and experts.

On top of that, pundits are already giving the Nuclear Posture Review tepid previews, based on leaks suggesting that it will carve a politically cautious path that falls somewhat short of meeting the ambitious vision the president laid out in Prague.

During the April 2009 speech, Obama also said the nation would maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal for the foreseeable future. That commitment has had a moderating effect on the posture review, with influential players warning against taking some of the more significant proposed steps toward eventual disarmament, according to U.S. officials (see related GSN story, today).

The so-called "New START" agreement could result in the retirement of additional U.S. warheads from the deployed force. The Pentagon is also reportedly preparing to retire 325 nuclear-armed Navy Tomahawk cruise missiles (see GSN, Feb. 22).

Taken together, the arms treaty and Navy warhead retirements could add another two years to the 2022 objective date for completing dismantlements, Kristensen projected.

However, it is unclear whether a new initiative to reduce backup warheads or boost the dismantlement rate would be perceived as a notable measure toward disarmament.

"Even people who are firmly committed to [nuclear abolition] typically talk in terms of 25 or 30 years," Brooks said in an interview last week. "So if it takes us 15 years to work through this backlog, I don't see that that has any impact on the ability to execute the president's vision."

In fact, the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration has cut its proposed budget for dismantlement by $38 million in the fiscal 2011 spending plan Obama submitted to Congress early last month. That came despite a 13.4 percent hike overall in funds requested for the department's semiautonomous nuclear arm.

The decrease in funds does not reflect a reduced commitment to dismantlement, but rather the end of some capital investment in Pantex facilities and the slower pace required to take apart the larger and more complex retired warheads, according to NNSA Administrator Thomas D'Agostino.

"You don't go after these things with screwdrivers and crescent wrenches and have at it. You take a lot of time developing the tools," he said Feb. 17 at a "Nuclear Deterrence Summit" sponsored by Exchange Monitor Publications and Forums. "The resources that we're asking for allows us not only to maintain what we're looking for in increased efficiencies, but to try to get ahead on the numbers."

D'Agostino did not address a question about how dismantlement might be speeded further as a means of implementing Obama's vision. However, others said any such initiative would likely require a higher dismantlement budget.

"The funds currently aren't there to increase dismantlement rates," said one issue expert, who spoke on condition of not being named. "This increased rate of dismantlement probably won't happen in 2011 but might be supportable in later years."

The disassembly capacity at Pantex, as it turns out, is in some ways a microcosm of a broader debate inside the Obama administration between senior Cabinet members like Vice President Joseph Biden who want to emphasize the president's disarmament agenda, and those like Defense Secretary Robert Gates who focus instead on maintaining a viable nuclear arsenal (see GSN, Aug. 18, 2009).

The facility uses its heavily reinforced nuclear-warhead bays for three different processes: disassembling retired warheads; overhauling weapons to be returned to the military stockpile as part of a life-extension process; and performing routine evaluation and maintenance on arsenal warheads.

Unless additional personnel or expanded shifts are available, an increase in one effort -- like warhead dismantlement -- would reduce the amount of time the facility could spend on life-extension programs or weapon maintenance.

"Dismantling retired weapons and evaluating the remaining weapons draw on the same facility and technician resources," according to a 10-year-old technical paper evaluating nuclear-complex capacity issues. "Pantex must balance the requirements for dismantlement with continuing needs to evaluate, repair, and retrofit the nuclear weapons that remain in the stockpile."

The Navy's W-76 warhead for the Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile is undergoing a life-extension effort at Pantex, and planning has begun for the Air Force's B-61 nuclear bomb to enter a similar process in the years to come.

Pantex at projected peak capacity appears able to disassemble a total of 1,500 weapons annually -- including a combination of retired warheads, those undergoing life-extension and those receiving maintenance -- said Kristensen, noting the facility took apart more than 1,800 in 1992.

With just an estimated 250 retired warheads undergoing dismantlement this year, the clear priority for overall disassembly is now on conducting life-extension efforts, he said.

To some observers, that priority is well placed.

"What I would not want us to see doing is to truncate the life-extension programs so that we could speed up dismantlements," said Brooks, who headed the National Nuclear Security Administration from 2003 to 2007. "I wouldn't want us to do something which would hamper the other part of the president's vision, which is maintaining a safe, secure and reliable and effective stockpile."

Lewis imagines a similar debate over trade-offs taking place inside the Obama administration.

Internal review of the question probably means "there were some people who thought [increased dismantlement is] a good thing to do," he said, "and I presume there are other people who are more concerned about the costs, in terms of money and priorities."

In the view of some military officers, the Energy Department's nuclear agency has dragged its heels recently in dismantling deactivated weapons, according to one retired Pentagon official who asked not to be named. The large backlog of warheads awaiting disassembly has been maintained as a bargaining chip toward winning an administration commitment to produce a new nuclear warhead design, the former defense official said.

The Obama administration has supported past congressional moves to kill a Bush administration effort to build a Reliable Replacement Warhead, aimed at boosting safety, security and effectiveness of the arsenal.

Nonetheless, the forthcoming Nuclear Posture Review might allow for a robust life-extension approach that incorporates many of the same innovative features to improve safety and longevity. Such a move could please conservatives on Capitol Hill as the two nuclear treaties come up for ratification, but continue to trouble advocates of the president's nonproliferation and disarmament objectives.

To Kristensen, an initiative to boost dismantlement reflects "the schizophrenic nature of the Obama administration's nuclear policy, which is that on the one hand we are impressing on the world that we have a new plan for nuclear disarmament, and on the other hand we're vastly prioritizing extending the life of nuclear warheads over retiring old ones."

Brooks noted that if the White House pursues the initiative, its symbolic value is likely to depend on offering the public greater transparency about dismantlement numbers than has recently been the case. Otherwise, an announcement about a relatively intangible rate change affecting an obscure and secretive process would be unlikely to make headlines either domestically or internationally, he said.

"I think you and I would hang on that announcement, but it's kind of 'inside baseball,'" Brooks said.

Dismantlement figures have not been released since the late 1990s, when the Clinton administration sought to illustrate how Pantex had dispensed with a huge backlog of Cold War weapons. Since then the quantities have been kept secret, Kristensen said.

To arrive at annual rough estimates of weapons taken apart, he has triangulated previously declassified data with government statements about the stockpile size and upticks or downticks in the disassembly rate.

"If you simply say we're increasing the dismantlement rate -- which kind of by definition means if you want more than last year -- you don't get anything" in terms of "a big, splashy announcement before May," said Brooks, who advocates putting stockpile and dismantlement figures in the public domain.

An announcement minus additional transparency could also trigger intense skepticism, Kristensen added. If the Obama team heralded a boost in the dismantlement rate by 147 percent without releasing the number of warheads taken apart, as the Bush administration did a few years ago, "you could go from dismantling one to dismantling three nuclear warheads, and that would still be true," he said.

Even with full transparency, would such an initiative help the Obama administration win new partners in its efforts to stem proliferation of nuclear weapons, particularly in Asia and the Middle East?

"I don't see this as, by itself, a big enough thing to compensate for the other problems" facing the administration as it approaches the NPT review conference, said Brooks, such as releasing a forward-thinking Nuclear Posture Review and demonstrating progress with the START and test-ban agreements. "I'd be surprised if it, by itself, would make a huge difference in May."

March 1, 2010
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WASHINGTON -- In a new initiative, the United States is likely to step up the rate at which it dismantles older nuclear warheads no longer deployed in the arsenal, officials and experts tell Global Security Newswire (see GSN, Feb. 22).