Jeffrey LewisNNSA Denies Axeing RNEP

Congress zeroed out the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP) in the Energy Budget, reportedly at the request of NNSA. But the truth is a little more complicated.

Hans K scored a sweet RNEP slide. Check out his history of the B61-11.

Senator Pete V. Domenici (R-NM) recently announced that the Senate and House conferees negotiating the Energy budget—which funds nuclear weapons development—“have agreed to drop funding for continued research on the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP) project at the request of the National Nuclear Security Administration.” [emphasis mine]

This apparently came as news to the National Nuclear Security Administration.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

A little background (more background in my previous post, Wolf in Sled’s Clothing?). 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 …” An impact (or sled) test is exactly what it sounds like—slamming a B83 mockup into a giant block of concrete.
  • DOD asked for $4.5 M (withing PE 0604222F Nuclear Weapons Support), including 1.0 M for “studies and analysis” and $ 3.5 M to study how to marry an RNEP with a B-2 bomber.

The House Republicans and Democrats agreed 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 an impact test. The House expressed its understanding that “instead of conducting an RNEP study at a DOE national laboratory, the Department of Defense will conduct a non-nuclear penetrator study at a Department of Defense facility.”

The argument here is arcane, but straightforward: Since the test looks at the ability of a steel casing to penetrate concrete, the innards don’t make that much difference. The real difference is the folks conducting the test—DOD doesn’t design nuclear weapons (this being a democracy, marked by civilian control of the military and all).

The Senate and NNSA wanted to keep the sled test at Sandia National Laboratory (with, well, lots of nuclear weapons experience). The Senate described moving the experiment to another facility as “a waste of taxpayer resources.”

And we know how the Senate hates to waste taxpayer money.


NNSA also opposed the House provision, including the following paragraph in the “appeals” letter sent to Congress:

The House reduction also eliminates funding (-$4,000,000) for the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP). Until work was suspended late last year, this study was being carried out jointly by the Department of Defense (DoD) and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) at DoD’s request. The Administration continues to believe the proposed execution of an impact test is essential to complete this study. It would provide important information regarding whether earth penetrators (regardless of payload) could provide a feasible and affordable means to hold at risk hard and deeply buried targets. We have assessed the pros and cons of performing the proposed impact test at a DoD location in comparison with the sled track at Sandia National Laboratories (SNL) in New Mexico. Construction of the target, while on hold since December 2004 when the FY 2005 budget was signed, is close to complete at SNL. Moving the work to another location would increase costs significantly (many millions of dollars), require unnecessary and redundant safety analyses, and cause significant adverse logistical and schedule impacts. The DoD already spends over $200 million annually at SNL. Because the information developed in this study would also be valuable in the development of conventional earth penetrators, the Department supports renaming the program.

Since the eventual sled test would support both nuclear and conventional penetrators, NNSA was willing to compromise on the program’s name. Big of them, don’t you think?


So, the Cardinals went into conference with the House wanting the test at an unspecified DOD facility, and the Senate and NNSA continuing to maintain that Sandia was a perfectly nice place to slam some steel into concrete.

On October 25, some white smoke appeared, Senator Domenici emerged and announced the Conferees had an agreement to terminate RNEP “at the request” of NNSA. Domenici’s announcement was followed by several news stories, including one in which an “administration official” confirmed to F. Josef Hebert at AP “that a decision had been made to concentrate on a nonnuclear bunker-buster.”

NNSA spokesman Bryan Wilkes, however, refused to comment.

Then, on October 31, NNSA Policy Planning Director John Harvey emailed the text of the appeal to several dozen colleagues in the nuclear weapons and arms control community, noting that:

Many of you may have read news reports last week regarding NNSA’s views in connection with completion of a study on the feasibility and cost of a Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP). Directly below is language from the so-called NNSA “appeal” on RNEP that was transmitted to the Congress earlier this month. This language is an accurate reflection of NNSA’s current position on the RNEP study.

Harvey closed the e-mail by expressing his “hope this is a helpful clarification.”

Clear as a bell, to me. NNSA did not drop RNEP.

I want to be clear that Harvey’s e-mail merely reiterated NNSA’s past position with the brief explanatory text that I quoted. Harvey did not refer to Senator Domenici, his comments or the press release put out by his office. He referred only to “news reports” in a direct and professional manner.

A few days later, fragments of Harvey’s e-mail appeared in Dave Ruppe’s November 4, 2005 article, “Nuclear Bunker Buster Cut, Not Necessarily Killed.” A couple of sources sent me the e-mail, which I gather is now widely available (in no small part because so many people were asking why NNSA would suddenly drop RNEP).

In the end, Congress did terminate RNEP.


One question, however, remains unanswered: Where will DOD perform the impact test? If Sandia does it, then the program isn’t terminated, it just has a new name.

In his statement, Domenici enigmatically suggested that “he expects the final Energy and Water Appropriations Bill to continue to include language addressing RNEP and the Defense Department capabilities developed at Sandia National Laboratories.” [Emphasis mine]

That seemed to hint at some resolution on the Sandia issue, but the Energy and Water Conference report says nothing like that at all, merely noting:

The conference agreement provides no funds for the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP) feasibility study.


  1. James (History)

    FWIW, Sandia is located on a DOD facility—Kirtland Air Force Base.

  2. Allen Thomson (History)

    What does the “Size: 5K-7K or 30K Class” line in the slide mean?

  3. W. F. Zimmerman (History)

    This back and forth discussion misses the point. It’s obvious to me, at least, that since 1) there is at best a weak and ambiguous “no” from Congress 2) those who believe in this weapon believe it is a matter of paramount national security 3) earth-penetrating weapons have been around since WW2 and continue to evolve that 4) some level of effort is going to continue within DoD unless there is an unambiguous and unhedged policy declaration, which will never happen because of points 2) and 3). Why not just accept this as reality?