The Bush administration's plan to study the feasibility of building new, replacement nuclear warheads -- possibly without the need for testing -- has sparked a sharp response from arms-control advocates on Capitol Hill and outside the government.
Linton F. Brooks, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which builds and manages the nuclear stockpile, told a Senate Armed Services subcommittee Monday that the administration wants to begin "concept and feasibility studies on replacement warheads or warhead components," so that 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."
Linton F. Brooks, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, described plan for "studies on replacement warheads."
His statement ignited concern among some House and Senate members that the administration wants to resume studies of new concepts for future warheads, something Congress rejected last year. At that time, Congress took funds the NNSA had sought for new concepts and used them to initiate the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program. An idea of Rep. David L. Hobson (R-Ohio), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that handles the NNSA's budget, the RRW program was limited to studying replacement parts for updating current warheads, which were designed almost 30 years ago.
Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, supported Hobson's program as a way to block the development of new warheads. Yesterday she said: "They are determined to build new weapons, and whatever logical argument we come up with in a bipartisan way, they jump the fence." Tauscher said that when Brooks appeared last month before the House Armed Services panel, he did not discuss the feasibility studies that he described to the Senate subcommittee.
A spokesman for Brooks said yesterday that the NNSA administrator spoke more broadly about the RRW before the Senate subcommittee because that panel traditionally focuses on future nuclear weapons developments, while the House committee is more concerned with next year's budget.
Although Brooks talked about studying replacement warheads, as well as replacement components, NNSA spokesman Bryan Wilkes said yesterday: "The focus of the RRW program is to extend the life of those military capabilities provided by existing warheads, not develop warheads for new or different military missions."
Wilkes added: "Because we are at the early stages of R&D [research and development], we don't know how much of the warhead we would need to replace to meet the objectives of the program."
The concern of Tauscher that new warheads are implicit in the proposed RRW study was reinforced by a statement from Mira R. Ricardel, the acting assistant secretary of defense for international security policy, which Brooks placed in the record at the Monday hearing.
"We don't need a smaller Cold War era nuclear stockpile; we need capabilities appropriate for 21st century threats," Ricardel said. "That means we need to conduct a range of studies on potential weapon concepts including the completion of the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator study," she said.
Under Hobson's leadership last year, Congress cut out the funds for studying that weapon, called the bunker buster. The Bush administration is seeking to restore those funds to complete the study in 2007.
Discussing the RRW program, Brooks said that if the studies prove its technical feasibility "and if, as I expect, the Department of Defense establishes a requirement, we should be able to develop and produce by the 2012-2015 timeframe a small build of warheads in order to demonstrate that an RRW system can be manufactured and certified without nuclear testing."
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said he views the RRW program "with extreme skepticism" and that it appears Brooks is "trying to dress up a new nuclear weapons program in nice clothing."
"This is not the way they [the administration] were talking last year," he said, adding, "Congress should be highly suspect and not write a blank check."