Jeffrey LewisWolf In Sled's Clothing?

Dave Ruppe at Global Security Newswire got ahold of a letter from National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to an undisclosed member of Congress.

Dave reports that the letter claims NNSA will simply continue to develop the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator “under a new name”:

In a letter to a member of Congress earlier last month, however, the [NNSA] said it wanted to complete the study, including a pending “impact test” in which a mock warhead would be slammed into a huge block of concrete at high speed.

Text of the NNSA letter, obtained by Global Security Newswire, said the agency wants to complete the study at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico as planned, but with Defense Department funding and after renaming the effort.

“The administration continues to believe the proposed execution of an impact test is essential to complete this study,” the letter says.


“Because information developed in this study would also be valuable in the development of conventional earth penetrators, the [Energy] department supports renaming the program,” the letter states.

An “impact” (or “sled”) test is exactly what it sounds like. Think of crash tests for automobiles. The picture above shows Sandia’s Abuquerque Full-Scale Experimental Center slamming an F-4 Phantom aircraft into a concrete target. They have video, too.


I’ve got e-mails into Dave Ruppe and other folks, but I’d like to see the text of this letter. Dave’s a must-read reporter on these issues, but I think he’s wrong about what the letter says.

A little background: RNEP is funded by DOD and NNSA.

  • NNSA asked for $ 4.0 M for a “Phase 6.2/2A Air Force-led study [to] conduct of a B83 impact test, analyzing test data, and supporting integration meetings …”
  • DOD asked for $4.5 M (withing PE 0604222F Nuclear Weapons Support), including 1.0 M for “staudies and analysis” and $ 3.5 M to study how to marry an RNEP with a B-2 bomber.

The House decided to kill RNEP, with the following agreement among Democrats and Republicans: The House took the $4.0 M from NNSA for the B83 impact test and gave it to the Air Force for a conventional penetrator study, including the sled test. Here is the authorization language:

Penetrator study

The committee understands that Hard and Deeply Buried Targets (HDBTs) pose a threat to national security and that currently, the Department of Defense does not have the capability to hold many of these targets at risk. The committee further understands that the Commander, United States Strategic Command has a need to conduct sled tests that would evaluate the feasibility of various options for penetrator weapons that could be used against HDBTs.

The committee authorizes $4.0 million in PE 64327F for a penetrator test that would evaluate the feasibility of various options for different types of penetrators that could hold HDBTs at risk. The committee intends that this study be completed by the end of fiscal year 2006. Should additional funds above the $4.0 million be required for this study, the Secretary of Defense should submit a reprogramming request to the congressional defense committees.

The Appropriators followed suit. Now, if the letter in question refers to this arrangement, than NNSA is implementing the House Agreement—which is how I read Senator Domenici’s announcement last week that the Senate would honor a request from NNSA to drop RNEP in favor of a conventional penetrator study:

The focus will now be with the Defense Department and its research to earth penetrating technology using conventional weaponry. The NNSA indicated that this research should evolve around more conventional weapons rather than tactical nuclear devices. With this department change in policy, we have agreed not to provide DOE with funding for RNEP.

So RNEP really is dead, and Ruppe’s letter proves it. Sort of.

Everything is not hunk-dory. Eight House Democrats, led by Ike Skelton, expressed concern that the authorization bill’s “language could be construed to allow the sled test to inform whether a nuclear payload could be used in high-speed penetration of hard geologies.” That would be an end-run around the agreement, which would be bad.

The letter might confirm fears that NNSA is attempting to circumvent Congress by conducting a test. The letter indicates the sled test will provide information relevant to all earth penetrating warheads “regardless of payload.”

In the authorization bill, the eight Democrats indicated that they will press for additional language in Conference to ensure the sled test is “conducted in a manner that only informs conventional payloads, and if this is not technically feasible, there should be no further work in designing modified or new nuclear weapon designs based on the sled test data.” [Emphasis mine]

From Ruppe’s description of the sled test, the eight Democrats are right to push for more specific language in conference.

Anyway, Dave should know all this, because he reported it back in June.

Getting the text of the letter would help sort this all out.


  1. W. Zimmerman (History)
  2. John Field (History)

    Fifty years ago they built a bomb they could fire out of a cannon that’s a lot shorter than the penetration depth. The only problem they have is trying to build a conventional penetrator, so why not rename away the nuclear part?

    Then, if they make any progress at all, their options are still open. In all seriousness, who knows if they’ll change their mind down the road. That’s another day.