The head of the nation's nuclear weapons programs proposed yesterday that Congress approve funds to study the feasibility of building a new, more reliable nuclear warhead that could be deployed without nuclear testing in less than 10 years.
Saying that the current Cold War stockpile is inadequate technically and militarily, Linton F. Brooks, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, told the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces, "We want to explore whether there is a better way to sustain existing military capabilities in our stockpile absent nuclear testing."
Recognizing that such a proposal could be highly controversial, Brooks emphasized that a new nuclear warhead is "still just a vision, nothing more," and that even planning for a feasibility study is "at the very early stages of development."
But he insisted that the yields of most of the nuclear warheads in the current stockpiles, built to attack Soviet hard targets, "are probably too high." Because their casings were not designed to penetrate earth, "we have no capability against hardened, deeply buried targets." He also described the current stockpile as "unsuited for some specialized missions" caused by post-Cold War situations.
"Today's stockpile may not be the stockpile you want to have 20 years from now," Brooks concluded.
Although Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) had to leave the afternoon session early to attend the White House ceremony awarding the Medal of Honor to a Floridian, he gave an indication of the questions that others will raise in discussing the new warhead feasibility study.
"Is it an opportunity to have a serious review and discussion of nuclear weapons and nuclear policy?" Nelson asked before he departed. "Or is it just an excuse to develop a new nuclear weapon and to return to nuclear weapons testing?"
After Nelson had left and following his prepared testimony, Brooks said that the warheads would be designed to be less sensitive to aging and would be easier to certify as safe and reliable. "They would reduce the possibility that the United States would ever need to conduct a nuclear test in order to diagnose or remedy a reliability problem," he said.
Brooks said money for the feasibility study would be taken from what Congress approved last year to initiate a so-called Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program that was originally proposed to study replacement parts for current warheads, designed almost 30 years ago and now being updated.
Those funds and new ones added in the proposed fiscal 2006 budget would be used "to begin concept and feasibility studies on replacement warheads or warhead components that provide comparable military capabilities to existing warheads," Brooks said.
If those studies produced a feasible program, he added, by 2012 to 2015 "we should be able to demonstrate through a small build of warheads that a reliable replacement warhead can be manufactured and certified without nuclear testing."
Brooks also said that the new warheads would reduce the need to keep nondeployed warheads from the Cold War stockpiled in case aging problems occur with deployed weapons. "Right now, the only way you can maintain those hedges is to maintain a large number of nondeployed weapons," he said.