Energy Department to Study Modifying Nuclear Weapons

By Bleek, Philipp C. | Arms Control Today, April 2002 | Go to article overview

Energy Department to Study Modifying Nuclear Weapons


Bleek, Philipp C., Arms Control Today


THE ADMINISTRATION IS moving ahead with plans to study modifications to existing nuclear weapons that would enable them to more effectively threaten underground facilities, Energy Department officials said in March interviews and testimony to Congress.

The move to study nuclear warhead modifications was presaged by a Pentagon report, leaked in December, on destroying hard and deeply buried targets, as well as the administration's January 9 press briefing on the nuclear posture review. (See ACT, January/February 2002.)

At the briefing, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy J. D. Crouch stated, "We are trying to look at a number of initiatives," including modifying existing nuclear weapons to give them "greater capability against.. hard targets and deeply buried targets," such as command-and-control and weapons-storage bunkers.

The hard and deeply buried targets report, submitted to Congress last October, indicated that the Defense and Energy departments had formed a joint nuclear planning group "to define the appropriate scope and options selection criteria for a possible design feasibility and cost study." In its February budget request for 2003, the administration requested funds for both feasibility and cost studies for a "robust nuclear earth penetrator."

A National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) spokesperson indicated in late March that the "feasibility study" and the "design definition and cost study" would be conducted over two to three years, at a cost of about $45 million. NNSA Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs Everett Beckner told the Senate Armed Services Committee March 14 that possible modification of two existing warheads, the B61 and the B83, would be studied.

Both weapons have yields "substantially higher" than 5 kilotons, Beckner indicated, meaning that a new earth-penetrator would not be a "low-yield nuclear weapon," as defined by U.S. law. The 1994 Defense Authorization Act bars "research and development which could lead to the production by the United States of a new low-yield nuclear weapon. …

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