Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld yesterday defended plans to resume studying the feasibility of an earth-penetrating nuclear warhead, saying many countries are burying targets underground and "we have no capability, conventional or nuclear" to go after them.
Last year, Congress, by a single vote, refused to continue funding what was begun in 2002 as a three-year technical study. The goal is to see whether the nation's nuclear weapons laboratories could come up with a concept for a warhead casing that could carry a nuclear device down through rock or hardened earth, keeping it intact to explode and destroy an underground facility.
Full Text: Defense Sec. Rumsfeld's appearance in front of the House Armed Services Committee
Opposition to the study came from House and Senate members who saw it as the United States working to create a new nuclear weapon when Washington is attempting to stop other countries, such as Iran and North Korea, from having atomic weapons.
At the House Armed Services Committee meeting yesterday, Rumsfeld said what was involved was a feasibility study and not development of a weapon. Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified that Gen. James E. Cartwright, the new chief of Strategic Command who has to deal with countering underground targets, "certainly thinks there's a need for this study," and that the other Joint Chiefs agreed.
"It's not a commitment to go forward with a system," Myers said.
On Tuesday, Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman, whose laboratories had halted work on the project when the budget was eliminated, said Rumsfeld had asked that he support resumption of the study and funds had been included to complete it in fiscal 2007. The Defense Department is "a very important customer and one that we try to work with effectively and so we have done so at their request," Bodman told a Senate panel.
He described the project as "design work" that does not involve nuclear materials. Instead, he said, "it involves understanding the physics of having a projectile hit the earth, and to determine just how deep the device goes and what happens to the internal structure."
Bodman said questions include whether the warhead can "retain sufficient structure that a nuclear device that might be inside . . . or a non-nuclear device, be protected until it reaches some depth in the ground."