By Peter Grier, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
THE cold war may be fading away, but the United States is pressing forward with plans for modernization of its nuclear arsenal.
An earth-penetrating warhead and a new nuclear depth bomb are among the weapons now under development by US government scientists. Concepts under evaluation include maneuvering reentry vehicles, and the Hypervelocity Glide Vehicle, a winged nuclear missile that could evade defenses while plunging toward targets at supersonic speed.
Defense officials admit that the world security structure is in a great deal of flux. But the Soviets still possess a formidable nuclear arsenal, and the US modernization program should continue until such time as "we have a better chance to evaluate the direction this new future world will take us," said Robert Barker, assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Atomic Energy, in secret Congressional testimony recently made public.
Dr. Barker's comments were made at a closed hearing of a House Appropriations panel. The transcript of this annual hearing, declassified and published in a 500-plus page book, is among the most detailed accounts of US nuclear weapons activities available, and is avidly scoured by experts outside government for hints about what is happening in this mysterious, closed world.
According to the transcript, the current US stockpile of warheads "has decreased by about 10 percent since 1985." References to exact numbers are deleted, though estimates place the US arsenal at some 12,000 nuclear weapons.
Production this year apparently promises to be disappointing. "Due to a combination of program slips and funding constraints" fewer warheads than anticipated will roll off production lines, according to the transcript.
Disruptions caused by safety problems at aging Department of Energy production plants were undoubtedly a major factor here. But production may have increased, even if it did not meet projected goals. In previous declassified documents, defense officials let slip the fact that warhead deliveries were supposed to go up 27 percent in 1990, largely due to the beginning of production of the Trident 2 missile's W88 warhead. And W88 deliveries have begun, according to this year's transcript.
New warheads are needed not just for new delivery vehicles such as the Trident 2, but to replace older bombs and missiles which may not have the safety features of modern designs, according to defense officials. …