U.S. General Eyes Nuclear Weapon Improvements

(Dec. 19) -An artist's conception of a U.S. Minuteman 3 re-entry vehicle. Some Air Force officials are considering ways to make such weapons more stealthy (U.S. Air Force image).
(Dec. 19) -An artist's conception of a U.S. Minuteman 3 re-entry vehicle. Some Air Force officials are considering ways to make such weapons more stealthy (U.S. Air Force image).

WASHINGTON -- A key Air Force nuclear official said recently the United States might seek to improve its nuclear arsenal with such features as enhanced stealth or extended range -- ideas that could prove controversial on Capitol Hill (see GSN, Sept. 12).

Under a "heavy modernization" effort, the United States could extend the service lives of the aging nuclear stockpile as well as retrofit weapons with updated technologies, according to Brig. Gen. Everett Thomas, commander of the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. (see GSN, Nov. 11).

"You could look at [a] low-observable aeroshell," he said in a telephone interview, referring to a re-entry vehicle that carries a nuclear warhead to its target. "You could look at extended range, because we now know how to do solid propellant much better than we did in the past. You could look at many things when you look at a modernization."

Some lawmakers might not agree.

Congress may be leery of making significant improvements to U.S. nuclear warheads or their delivery vehicles as the incoming Obama administration attempts to curb nuclear ambitions in Iran and North Korea.

Many experts have argued that U.S. efforts to improve nuclear weapons at home make it more difficult for the nation to lead nonproliferation efforts abroad.

Citing such concerns, Congress has twice rebuffed Bush administration plans for building a newly designed weapon, the Reliable Replacement Warhead (see GSN, Nov. 7). Advocates have argued that the new weapon should be used to renovate the entire U.S. stockpile with technology that is safer, more secure, more dependable and cheaper to maintain.

However, lawmakers have said that funding could be considered only after the administration detailed how a newly designed warhead would figure into a comprehensive nuclear deterrence strategy.

With RRW plans now shelved, the debate has turned to what technology improvements might be retrofitted into existing warheads, without constituting the brand of new weapon that lawmakers seek to avoid.

Capitol Hill has supported continuing the "Stockpile Stewardship Program" to monitor the aging stockpile for potential problems, such as corrosion or malfunctions. Lawmakers also have backed some efforts to update technologies built into the arms as they undergo periodic maintenance.

Military officials are now proposing to use a similar approach to extend the lives of three- to four-decade old warheads by another 20 or 30 years.

"RRW is gone," Representative Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, said early this month. "What we're doing is we're making improvements on the weapon in places that don't move us into a place where we're actually enhancing the capabilities of the weapon in the end state."

Thomas D'Agostino, who heads the semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration, said last year that the Bush administration had no intention of using the RRW process to add any "new military features" to the nuclear weapons stockpile.

D'Agostino's standard for sticking to "the same form, fit and function as our current weapons" should carry over into weapons modernization taking place under the life-extension programs being formulated today, Tauscher and others say.

The lawmaker wants to see improvements made to safeguard weapons and ensure their future viability, "but they're not enhancements to the performance of the weapon in its end state," she said Dec. 4 at a conference on nuclear deterrence. "They're 'have to have,' in our point of view, because they achieve for us other components that are necessary for the security and the safety of the weapon."

A spokesman for U.S. Strategic Command, the top combatant organization for nuclear weapons, underscored the limitations his agency sees in the modernization effort.

The command "has consistently stated that with regard to America's nuclear warheads, improving the safety, security, reliability and maintainability of these weapons is of paramount importance," Col. Les Kodlick told Global Security Newswire this week in a written statement. "We do not require new capability from our nuclear weapons."

Thomas -- whose center is responsible for ensuring that the Air Force's nuclear weapons remain safe, secure and reliable -- also cited these as the key objectives for modernization.

At the same time, he volunteered that the refurbishment effort would provide an appropriate venue to also improve the weapons' capabilities to perform their assigned military functions.

"It ought to be a part of our entire assessment of every weapon that we have, nuclear or conventional: Are we using the most updated technology to ensure that a weapon works exactly as intended?" he said during the Nov. 24 interview.

Stealth technology, for example, might help ensure that a weapon reaches its target by improving the ability of its re-entry vehicle to penetrate an adversary's missile defense system, Thomas suggested.

By reshaping the aeroshell or coating it with radar-absorbent material -- like the composite skin on the batwing-shaped B-2 bomber -- a nuclear weapon re-entry vehicle could take on a smaller radar cross-section to inhibit detection or interception.

"Why wouldn't you consider [putting] that into your weapon," he said, given that "you've had [it] on the drawing books or ... in inventory since, what, the '60s?

"That [is] just an example of things we can consider," he added, urging a wide review of modernization options.

Some analysts, though, quickly dismiss an investment in stealth as unnecessary for the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

"It's pointless," said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the New America Foundation's Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative. "No one has a hit-to-kill [missile defense] system like we do."

"I'm not quite sure who this is aimed at," agreed David Wright, senior scientist and co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Global Security Program.

Another nuclear pundit, though, was not as quick to reject the idea.

"The only [low-observability] 'improvement' that I can think of for the re-entry vehicle itself is to paint it with radar reflectant, which is certainly not a new technology and I wouldn't think of it really as modernization," Kathleen Bailey, a senior associate at the National Institute for Public Policy, said in an e-mailed response to questions.

She added that such work also "certainly wouldn't be considered" modernization of the nuclear warhead itself.

That point could prove important to the shape of debate over nuclear weapon modernization on Capitol Hill in the coming years.

Bailey and others draw a distinction between improvements to the core "physics package" of a nuclear warhead -- which lawmakers clearly resist -- and improvements to the aeroshell surrounding the warhead, which might garner more political acceptance or support. Any upgrades to the missile or bomb platform on which the weapon is delivered would be yet another step removed from proscribed warhead improvements.

"It is important to keep the line between modernization of delivery systems vs. modernization of warheads very clearly demarcated," Bailey said. "The objections to modernizing delivery systems ... are nowhere near as strong as are the objections by some to nuclear warhead modernization."

Interviewed this week, Lewis agreed that even some lawmakers opposed to a replacement warhead might be convinced to support updated technologies for the vehicle that carries the weapon to its target. Nonetheless, he urged a somewhat guarded approach in which the U.S. military maintains viable weapons but stops short of significantly boosting their capabilities.

"This is where I think we have to get at the fundamental question, which is: Do we have to make new RVs?" he said, referring to re-entry vehicles, which wear out over time. "If they're physically deteriorating, then do you just replace them to the same [decades-old] standard?"

In Lewis's view, U.S. officials might reasonably adopt a standard for embracing "incidental improvements" in military capability that come with today's replacements for obsolete technologies. However, they should discourage "purposeful improvements" explicitly designed to boost the probability of killing a target, he said.

"There's a presumption against doing things to make the weapons more effective," he said.

Nonetheless, other new military features for weapons delivery -- potentially including extended range, maneuverability or precision-targeting capability -- might yet prove attractive to some politicians and policy-makers, according to analysts.

For example, "precision would allow for use of much lower nuclear yields," Bailey said. "Most of our stockpiled weapons have large yields, in part, because the lack of precision [when the weapons were designed] meant that we had to 'kill' a much bigger target area to be sure that we got the missile silo or whatever the specific target was."

Improved accuracy and lower yields "would bolster the U.S. nuclear deterrent by making our weapons more credible," said Bailey, backing the notion that the weapons might be perceived as more usable if their destructive effects were more limited.

Tauscher, a central figure in the nuclear weapons debate on Capitol Hill, recently alluded to that view.

"Yields and margins are a part of this" effort to refurbish the nuclear stockpile, she said at the conference in Washington. "Precision-guided weaponry enhances our ability to make some changes [to yield]."

Tauscher referred to these potential upgrades as part of an "advanced certification" effort, principally aimed at ensuring that the nuclear stockpile remains viable in the absence of underground testing.

However, a senior aide subsequently said that Tauscher has not yet taken a position on the possible inclusion of improvements to military capabilities, such as accuracy, as part of an expanded weapons life-extension program.

"That is fairly transformational and might alter the weapon," said the staffer, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The chairwoman -- whose district houses the RRW design team at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory -- is interested in learning more about any such requirements established by Gen. Kevin Chilton, head of Strategic Command, that might go beyond safety, security, reliability and maintainability features, said the aide.

Kodlick -- Chilton's spokesman at Strategic Command -- told GSN that his organization "cannot discuss specifics about the design requirements of a weapon system."

The military hopes to derive a better idea about what weapon components should be replaced in the coming years, as designs for life-extension and modernization efforts are drawn up, Thomas said.

"First and foremost is to get a great understanding of what subcomponents we have in the weapon now, that we really should look at [fixing or replacing] in the next five years," he told GSN last month.

"We do draw a fairly bright line between that maintenance and the addition of new features," Tauscher's senior aide said during a Dec. 10 phone interview. Congress would review carefully any proposals to expand the life-extension program with new features, the aide said.

For the chairwoman, the modernization program also must fit with the nation's strategy for nonproliferation around the globe.

"This is about achieving the high road and letting everybody in the world see what we're doing in a transparent way, and actually do what we say we're going to do," Tauscher said.

December 19, 2008
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WASHINGTON -- A key Air Force nuclear official said recently the United States might seek to improve its nuclear arsenal with such features as enhanced stealth or extended range -- ideas that could prove controversial on Capitol Hill (see GSN, Sept. 12).