U.S. Weighing Nuclear Stockpile Changes

By Boese, Wade | Arms Control Today, May 2005 | Go to article overview

U.S. Weighing Nuclear Stockpile Changes


Boese, Wade, Arms Control Today


Existing nuclear weapons and infrastructure need a makeover if the United States wants to continue reducing its arsenal, a top Department of Energy official told Senate panels in April. But some lawmakers are leery that the initiative might open the door to new nuclear weapons and resumed nuclear testing.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces April 4, Linton Brooks, head of the National Nuclear security Administration (NNSA), said the U.S. nuclear infrastructure and stockpile, although safe and reliable, should ideally be revamped so that weapons are easier to maintain and more responsive to current and future threats. The NNSA, part of the Energy Department, maintains U.S. nuclear forces.

Failure to establish a responsive infrastructure capable of producing or refurbishing arms in a more timely fashion, Brooks argued, could prevent the United States from cutting its nuclear forces in the future. "Until we achieve a responsive nuclear weapons infrastructure, we're going to have to retain substantial non-deployed warheads to hedge against technical failure of a critical system or to hedge against unforeseen geopolitical changes," the NNSA head stated. The Bush administration announced last June that it intended to cut the total U.S. stockpile of more than 10,000 nuclear warheads "almost in half" by 2Of2. (see ACT, July/August 2004.)

The United States currently preserves its warheads through life-extension programs and verifies their viability through scientific and computer means without nuclear testing, which the United States halted in 1992. Although Brooks described these efforts in April 14 testimony to the Senate Appropriations energy and water subcommittee as "rigorous," he claims an unforeseen technical problem might still arise.

Brooks identified several deficiencies with the status quo. Noting April 4 that the United States last developed a new nuclear warhead 20 years ago, he said existing weapons were made for a different time when the emphasis was putting the biggest bang in the smallest and lightest package possible so several warheads could fit on a missile. Brooks explained this imperative led designers to craft weapons "very close to performance cliffs," meaning that the designs pushed the margins of what might work. Warheads also were made of materials and components that were not easy to refurbish, which was not a concern at that time because warheads were only to be in service for about 15-20 years, he added.

Brooks further asserted that existing weapons are out of sync with some present and future missions. Current warheads, he said, are too powerful and ill suited for destroying hardened and deeply buried targets or chemical and biological weapons. U.S. officials increasingly express concern that potential foes are building hardened bunkers deep underground to make their leadership and weapons impervious to U.S. attack.

The Bush administration had been studying modification of two existing high-yield warheads to make them more capable of penetrating deeper into the earth before exploding, but Congress blocked funding last year for the program, known as the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator. (see ACT, December 2004.) However, a request to complete the study for one of the warheads over the next two years appeared in the administration's proposed fiscal year 2006 budget released in February. …

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