Cold War over, but US Continues Designing New Nuclear Weapons Projects on Drawing Board Include Low-Yield, Antimissile Warheads

Article excerpt

IT'S tough to be a United States nuclear weapons designer.

For the first time since the dawn of the atomic age, no new warheads are rolling off production lines, while underground nuclear tests will be strictly limited or even banned in coming years.

But that doesn't mean the warhead-development business has dried up. Department of Energy (DOE) scientists are continuing to plan new nuclear weapons they feel the US might need in the future.

Among concepts being considered, according to newly-released budget documents, is a very low- yield nuclear warhead capable of destroying the chemical or nuclear warhead of an attacking missile with assurance.

"There will be requirements for new nuclear weapons in the future. We cannot with confidence say what they will be," says John H. Birely, deputy assistant to the secretary of defense for atomic energy, in a written response to a congressional inquiry.

Improved warhead safety is one reason to forge ahead with weapons work, according to Department of Defense and DOE officials. For instance, in recent years scientists have been developing warheads capable of withstanding the heat of a fire without dispersing plutonium.

The requirements of new delivery systems, or new "deployment environments," might also require new warheads, according to the DOE documents. Besides the antimissile nuclear weapon, this might mean an earth-penetrating warhead to threaten deeply-buried targets.

In fiscal year 1992, DOE scientists are in the first phase of design work on two new kinds of aircraft-carried nuclear weapons:* A "precision low-yield" warhead that would "reduce collateral damage to acceptable levels," according to the Pentagon.* A hypervelocity warhead that would fly to targets so fast it would defeat possible defenses. …