By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 29, 2005
The House Armed Services Committee has proposed appointment of a civilian commission to help the Pentagon determine how to integrate nuclear and nonnuclear weapons in planning the nation's strategic strike forces for the next 20 years.
Since the Bush administration put forward its Nuclear Posture Review in December 2001 that called for transitioning from a nuclear-dominated strategic force to one with major conventional components, the Defense Department has wrestled with how to achieve that goal. The challenge is how to modernize or replace the Cold War strategic strike triad of bombers and land- and sea-based long-range missiles and its thousands of accompanying high-yield nuclear bombs and warheads. One goal of the posture review, according to the House committee report, was to develop capabilities "that would lessen the overall United States dependence on nuclear weapons."
Inclusion of the commission proposal in the fiscal 2006 defense authorization bill, approved by the House Wednesday, illustrates congressional concern that there is a lack of basic future planning for the nation's nuclear arsenal in the aftermath of the posture review, a theme promoted over the past year by several House members including Rep. David L. Hobson (R-Ohio), who chairs the appropriations panel that funds the nuclear weapons programs.
"I think the time is now for a thoughtful and open debate on the role of nuclear weapons in our country's national security strategy," Hobson said in a speech in February. "Until we have a real debate and develop a comprehensive plan for the U.S. nuclear stockpile and the . . . [nuclear] weapons complex, we're left arguing over isolated projects."
The 12-member commission, which would be appointed by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld after consulting with the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees, would help identify the requirements for the new, mixed strategic forces and the changes then to be made in the nuclear stockpile based on threats extending to the year 2025. The panel would also deal with restructuring the present nuclear weapons manufacturing complex, which was established almost 50 years ago to build thousands of warheads. It now requires a thorough overhaul but awaits a determination as to how large a stockpile of nuclear weapons the United States plans to maintain.
The proposed commission would consider "policy, force structure, [nuclear] stockpile stewardship and estimates of threats and force requirements," the House committee said in its report released last week. Included in those categories would also be how today's strategic intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance programs, most of which rely on satellites originally designed to look down on Russian missiles, should be redirected.
The panel, whose members would be selected based on expertise in various aspects of nuclear strategy, would be authorized to hold hearings. It would report back to Rumsfeld 28 months after its first meeting, and he would give Congress a report one year later on what actions he had taken or planned to take based on commission recommendations.
Confusion over the administration's nuclear weapons program is reflected in the differing views of the goals of the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program, a $9.4 million item in the fiscal 2006 budget of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) budget. Originally put in last year's appropriations bill by Hobson, it replaced a Bush administration plan to research new concepts for making nuclear weapons more effective against bunkers holding chemical or biological weapons.
Hobson redirected the money for research to develop new components for warheads in the stockpile, aimed at keeping them reliable and safe without the need for nuclear testing, which has been halted. In testimony before a Senate Armed Services subcommittee April 4, Linton F. Brooks, administrator of NNSA, said the fiscal 2005 RRW money had not been spent, and the administration now proposed using the program to help "develop and produce by the 2012-2015 time frame a small build of warheads . . . without nuclear testing."
Brooks's testimony raised concerns among arms control experts and some members of Congress that the administration was using RRW to go back to its original idea that new warheads were needed. In a Congressional Research Service report on the RRW program, released last week, Steve Henry, deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear matters, described the RRW program as a possible means to replace aging components and at the same time relax some of the Cold War design requirements for high nuclear yields. Henry stressed the goal was "to reduce the likelihood of resumption of nuclear testing," not eliminate that potential need.
Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), a member of the House Armed Services panel, was one of those who feared the administration approach would make testing inevitable. Therefore, she and others added to the committee legislation some goals for RRW, one of which "is to further reduce the likelihood of nuclear testing." In a statement last week, Tauscher referred to that as a "mandated" objective.