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U.S. General Calls for Faster Action on Reliable Replacement Warhead

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

WASHINGTON -- A top U.S. general is pressing Congress to accelerate plans for a study he said is crucial to the effort to field a new nuclear warhead (see GSN, Feb. 5). Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton, head of U.S. Strategic Command, told Global Security Newswire that without results from an as-yet incomplete design study of the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW), he would be ill-prepared to advise the incoming president next year on how best to modernize the atomic arsenal. The assessment is widely seen as a key step toward ultimately building the controversial warhead because it would flesh out details of what it would take to produce the new design. 

Yet, in the wake of steep budget cuts to the effort, it could take several years for the executive branch study to get the study done, according to government officials.  That, in turn, could deal a serious setback to fielding the proposed weapon any time in the near future.

"We need to get on with this," Chilton said.  "Now is the time to do the hard work, to answer the hard questions -- that are very fair questions -- so that we can tee this up early in the next administration, inform the next [Nuclear Posture Review] and move on."

Lawmakers zeroed the requested $88.8 million budget for the new warhead in fiscal 2008, arguing that the Bush administration must conduct a broad review of U.S. nuclear weapons strategy before such a program could continue.  They did provide $15 million for the Navy to conduct "advanced certification" work aimed at ensuring that warhead designs could enter the arsenal without undergoing explosive testing, if desired sometime in the future (see GSN, Dec. 18, 2007).

The administration has panned legislative cuts to the RRW budget, saying the only alternative would be a more costly life-extension program for existing weapons that could not match the new warhead's safety and security features.

Proponents of the newly designed warhead also say it would cost less to maintain than Cold War weapons, which were optimized for nuclear exchanges with the Soviet Union by squeezing large explosive yields into relatively small, tightly designed packages.

Changes in the international security environment dictate that future weapons include more safety, security and reliability features than today's aging stockpile, according to advocates.  They assert a new "family" of warheads could be introduced into the arsenal without explosive testing.

Others have questioned this assertion.  The elite JASON defense advisory panel last year cast some doubt as to whether a new warhead could be certified without underground detonations (see GSN, Oct. 1, 2007).  The United States has not conducted such tests for more than 15 years.

Critics contend that building a new set of warheads would send the wrong signal at a time when the United States aims to curb nuclear weapons proliferation worldwide.

Bowing to a 2007 congressional directive banning the Energy Department from proceeding toward RRW production, the administration last month requested just $10 million to continue "maturing" warhead designs in fiscal 2009. 

The funding sought for next year would allow program officials to respond to the JASON panel's testing questions about the proposed replacement warhead, according to John Broehm, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration.  The agency is a semiautonomous arm of the Energy Department responsible for maintaining the nuclear weapons force and it would lead any modernization effort.

The Bush administration's future-year budget projections continue to show $10 million allocated annually to the RRW program through 2013.  While Chilton said he supports the president's budget plans, he noted that it would take roughly $66 million for the nuclear agency to complete the RRW design study. 

The assessment would help determine the scope, schedule and cost for developing and producing the first RRW, which would replace the Navy's W-76 warhead on Trident D-5 submarine-based missiles, Broehm and others said (see GSN, Nov. 1, 2007).

Congress imposed the deep reduction in funds for the current fiscal year specifically so that detailed work on a new warhead could not proceed appreciably closer to production in the near term, according to critics.

"Part of our goal last year was to trim [the RRW budget] back so they could not get to that finish line," Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said in an interview last week.

At the behest of Congress, all work on the warhead has been suspended this year, Broehm said.  Since it remains unclear when the program might restart, "right now it would be hard to say how long the study phase would take to complete," he said.

"We don't anticipate requesting any more [RRW] funding for FY-08 or FY-09," Broehm added.  "Congress made it very clear we had some questions to answer before moving forward.  We feel this budget request addresses those concerns."

Chilton said, though, he is anxious to get the RRW design assessment done soon.  By raising the issue repeatedly in congressional testimony and in the media, it appears the general hopes to push Capitol Hill into offering additional funds for warhead in the coming year, according to some observers.

"He's willing to take a battle with Congress over these issues," Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists told GSN last week.

In Chilton's view, each day of delay in modernizing warheads brings him a day closer to being a commander unable to certify that the nuclear deterrent remains viable.

"We need to make the appropriate investments today, this year," the general told an audience in Orlando, Fla., last month.  "We need to make the investments this year to answer the key questions on how best to do this.  What is the best way to modernize this force?"

Last week, NNSA chief Thomas D'Agostino told a House panel that today an ongoing "Stockpile Stewardship Program" ensures that "the stockpile remains safe and reliable and does not require nuclear testing."  However, national laboratory directors are "concerned" that a long-term moratorium on testing the existing stockpile "may pose unacceptable risks to maintaining high confidence in warhead performance," D'Agostino said.

Chilton similarly cast doubt as to whether current or future life-extension measures -- absent a new warhead effort -- could offer sufficient confidence in the reliability of the nuclear arsenal.

"I'm always open to being convinced one way or the other," the strategic commander told GSN last week.  However, from "what I've looked at and what I've seen, I don't know how you get there."

The specter of a stockpile on the brink of aging out "is simply not supported by any evidence … provided to Congress," responded Kimball.  In fact, he noted, a U.S. government study released in 2006 found that plutonium pits at the core of nuclear weapons could last another 100 years (see GSN, Nov. 30, 2006).

"The administration is trying to resuscitate funding in support of RRW on the basis of arguments that were rejected by Congress last year," Kimball said.

"Both RRW with a modern design and a [life-extension program] strategy have risks [and] unanswered questions that we have to look at, to decide whether or not they would require tests," said Chilton, who assumed his Strategic Command position in October.  However, he added, "if you would ask me today which is the least risky, I would say a modern weapon."

The general conceded that a yardstick for measuring the minimum military requirements for warhead reliability, safety and security, among other attributes, had not yet been determined for the future atomic arsenal.

"That's on the to-do list," Chilton said.  "I've spoken broadly about what I think I advocate for. … I want something that is reliable, safe and secure, and maintainable."

Some critics question the rationale for Chilton's conclusion that a new warhead would be less risky and more able to meet requirements than an expanded life extension effort, if minimum baselines for warhead reliability and other desired attributes have not yet been set.

One scenario the general cites as a basis for RRW's security improvements involves the possibility that a terrorist might steal a U.S. nuclear weapon.

"Nirvana for me," Chilton said, "is if someone unauthorized were able to get hold of a weapon, that they not only would be unable to use it in its current state, but even if they took it apart and tried to use components of it for bad purposes, that even those would be put into such a state that they could not meet their devious needs."

Counters Kimball:  "Should we spend billions of dollars to replace existing warhead types in our arsenal to reduce by an infinitesimal amount [the possibility] that al-Qaeda could detonate it?"

Following two opinion pieces in the Wall Street Journal -- authored by former national security leaders Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn -- there has been renewed debate about whether the United States should more swiftly pursue the global elimination of atomic weapons (see GSN, Feb. 27). 

At a conference last week in Oslo, Norway, current and former high-level officials from around the globe met to explore steps that might be taken to move toward nuclear disarmament (see GSN, Feb. 26).

However, that dialogue has not affected Chilton's determination to ensure that nuclear weapons remain viable for at least another 92 years.

Chilton told Congress last week that he needs a nuclear infrastructure that "will allow us to sustain our nuclear capability and expertise throughout the 21st century" (see GSN, March 4).  "We must care for the stockpile whether we possess one weapon or thousands."

"He has just moved the milepost for the nuclear era through the year 2100," said Kristensen, who directs his organization's Nuclear Information Project.  "That's an extraordinary statement from a person who has a two-year tenure at U.S. Strategic Command.  This is the stuff of major international debate."

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