Pentagon points to loopholes in nuclear road map

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 10, 2010

The latest Defense Department nuclear road map, released this week, reflects President Obama's repeated declaration that the United States will not build new nuclear warheads or conduct underground nuclear tests. But Pentagon officials have since made clear that the policy contains loopholes.

Using language hammered out to satisfy senior Defense Department officials who are looking ahead 30 years, the Nuclear Posture Review allows for new nuclear components to be deployed in older warheads if that is necessary to make them safer and more reliable and if the president and Congress approve, according to Marine Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters that as options are reviewed for extending the life of nuclear warheads, "strong preference" would continue to be given to refurbishment (leaving a nuclear package alone and upgrading nonnuclear components) or reuse (switching out older nuclear packages for designs used in other deployed or retired systems).

"Replacement of any nuclear components," Gates said, would be chosen only "if absolutely necessary [and] would require specific presidential approval."

Expanding on Gates's statement, Cartwright emphasized that any such replacement would utilize "designs not in the [present] stockpile but based on previously tested designs." His description is very close to that applied to the George W. Bush administration's planned Reliable Replacement Warhead program, which Congress killed in 2007 and which Gates had supported.

Thomas D'Agostino, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, which runs the nuclear weapons-building complex, said that until now, the long-standing life-extension program has used refurbishment to keep thousands of decades-old nuclear warheads certified as reliable. When Congress blocked the Reliable Replacement Warhead program, it imposed guidelines mandating "no new warheads for new military capabilities" and no testing.

Cartwright, however, said the door is still open for the testing option. Asked about a statement Gates made some time ago, in which he said testing could eventually be needed, Cartwright said: "We don't know what five years from now might bring. Nobody has ever removed from the commander or anyone else in that chain the ability to stand up and say, 'I'm uncomfortable. I believe that we're going to have to test, or I believe that we're going to have to build something new.' That's not been removed here."

Stephen Young of the Union of Concerned Scientists said the Nuclear Posture Review's stockpile-management section "leaves the door open to allow a future administration to extend the life of an existing warhead by essentially replacing it with a newly designed one." However, Young said, "This administration will almost certainly not do so, but will instead refurbish existing warheads or reuse existing components."

Between 1945 and 1992, the United States carried out 1,054 tests of nuclear devices. More than 300 were in the atmosphere, but since the atmospheric test ban of 1963, the rest have been underground. No underground tests have been done since a moratorium agreed to with the Russians in 1992 by George H.W. Bush's administration.

D'Agostino said hundreds of nuclear tests were of designs that were not used in weapons, but the Pentagon wanted to include in the Nuclear Posture Review the flexibility to take advantage of older nuclear-package designs that have lower yields but contain safer components, such as insensitive high explosives that would not detonate if dropped.

Introducing such a new nuclear package into one or more older but still-deployed warheads might also "facilitate the reduction in the total numbers of weapons that we might have, [while also] reducing the total number of types," D'Agostino said.

The warhead going through the life-extension program is the 31-year-old W-76, found on most Trident sub-launched intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBM. A second warhead, the B-61, found in the tactical nuclear bomb, will also continue to go through the program as planned, according to the Nuclear Posture Review. Both are set for refurbishment only.

Farther out, the warhead that might be the first to have its nuclear package replaced with a different, tested design is the W-78, now on the Minuteman III land-based ICBM.

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