Congress Skeptical of Warhead Plan

Ex-senator Sam Nunn (D) worries about the international reaction to developing a new nuclear warhead.
Ex-senator Sam Nunn (D) worries about the international reaction to developing a new nuclear warhead. (By Peter Frey -- Uga Photo Services Via Associated Press)
By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 22, 2007

Congressional hearings over the past several weeks have shown that the Bush administration's plan to move ahead with a new generation of nuclear warheads faces strong opposition from House and Senate members concerned that the effort lacks any strategic underpinning and could lead to a new nuclear arms race.

Experts inside and outside the government questioned moving forward with a new warhead as old ones are being refurbished and before developing bipartisan agreement on how many warheads would be needed at the end of what could be a 30-year process. Several, including former senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), suggested linking production of a new warhead with U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a move the Bush administration has opposed.

Rep. David L. Hobson (R-Ohio), who originated what has become the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program, wants the number of warheads in the current U.S. stockpile declassified as "the first step for an honest dialogue on nuclear weapons." Including warheads that are deployed, inactive and in reserve, the total is assumed to be above 6,000.

"I suspect our potential adversaries know the number of U.S. nuclear warheads with much better precision than do the members of Congress," Hobson said at a recent congressional hearing. "I think I know the number," he added, "but I can't talk about it."

Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), the ranking minority member of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that funds the nuclear weapons complex, said at a hearing Wednesday on the RRW program that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates have "not been forthcoming" about their views on the issue.

Domenici, who supports the program, said he has sent letters to Rice, Gates and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, "urging them to take a more active role in supporting the RRW program." He told them, "You must answer critics who have argued that the RRW will lead to an arms race."

The program involves not only coordinating the design and costs of a new warhead for the Trident submarine-launched intercontinental missile, but also a multibillion-dollar plan -- called Complex 2030 by the Department of Energy -- to modernize the aging nuclear weapons facilities where warheads and bombs are designed, built and dismantled.

Rep. Peter J. Visclosky (D-Ind.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds the nuclear complex, said at a hearing late last month that the program is proceeding "although the administration has not announced any effort to begin a policy process to reassess our nuclear weapons policy and the future nuclear stockpile required to support that policy." He also noted that the Pentagon's Defense Science Board reported last year that there has been virtually no high-level, long-term articulation of U.S. nuclear weapons policy.

Gen. James E. Cartwright, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, which controls the nation's nuclear weapons, said at the hearing that he would like to challenge the proposed level of 1,700 to 2,200 warheads by 2012 as possibly too high, "based on new [conventional weapons] capability, not new nuclear capability."

Former defense secretary William J. Perry, also appearing at the hearing, said current nuclear policies were developed for the Cold War and are "really not appropriate to the world we live in today." A new nuclear plan is "long overdue" and should be shared with the appropriate congressional committees, he said. It should include "not only issues about what numbers we need," Perry said, "but on what a future trajectory of those numbers in our forces should be and what kind of R&D is needed to support it."

At the same hearing, Nunn said he does not favor dismantling the U.S. nuclear arsenal, but he expressed concern about the international impact of the RRW program. Nunn, a former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and now chief executive of the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative, told the House panel, "If Congress gives a green light to this program in our current world environment . . . I believe that this will be misunderstood by our allies, exploited by our adversaries, [and] complicate our work to prevent the spread and use of nuclear weapons."

Nunn suggested that the RRW program would be better received "in the context of a ratified test ban treaty." He cautioned that "we can't afford to do it in this atmosphere without being misperceived, not only by Russia but by many others."

Nunn quoted a recent study prepared for the Defense Department that said: "The world sees us as increasing emphasis on nuclear weapons. The world sees us as shifting from nuclear weapons for deterrence and as weapons of last resort to nuclear weapons for war-fighting roles and first use. . . . And the world sees us as blurring the difference between nuclear and conventional weapons -- use whatever fits best."

Perry said there are two "valid" arguments being made in support of the RRW program -- that it would maintain the capabilities of U.S. weapons designers and provide a new warhead that "cannot be detonated by a terror group, even if they were able to get their hands on it."

However, he said, development of the RRW program "will substantially undermine our ability to lead the international community in the fight against proliferation, which we are already in danger of losing." Noting that present U.S. nuclear weapons will retain their capabilities for 50 to 100 years, he said the program could be deferred "for many years."

At Wednesday's Senate hearing, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said bipartisan agreement on the program is necessary before Congress votes to spend funds to develop the new warheads.

The chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee, Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), said playing a major role in funding the nation's nuclear weapons poses important questions for him, and he is unsure how he will come out on the program. There are "serious questions to answer," he said. "The survival of this planet, I think, depends on our getting these things right."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company