Jeffrey LewisRNEP Raises Its Ugly Head, Again

No sooner did Congress hash out a compromise to terminate the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, then Billy Mullins (below)—an Air Force official with a title too wonky for even this blogger and kind of a letdown after yesterday’s image—tells Congress that DOD is going to go ahead and develop RNEP anyway.

Here is what Mullins—who led the hunt for that nuclear bomb we lost in Savannahtold George Cahlink of Defense Daily:

“There is some misunderstanding that the Defense Department has dropped the nuclear part of the [Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator]. Without the nuclear portion, the RNEP is not very attractive,” Billy Mullins, the deputy director of strategic security for the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for Air and Space Operations, told Defense Daily recently.

[snip]

Mullins, however, said those critics are wrong and the Defense Department will continue developing the 5,000-pound bomb as a nuclear weapon, including a crucial underground test where the bomb will be launched on a sled track and rammed into concrete. He said the bomb would not use a nuclear warhead as the result of long-standing arms control agreements against underground testing, so nuclear funding is not needed for fiscal 2006.

Mullins said the test will offer key information about how deeply the bomb can penetrate into reinforced targets, the weapon’s guidance system and how well the bomb’s casing will hold up. He said researchers could plug data from that test into computer models to determine how the bomb would react if a nuclear warhead were attached.

A couple of weeks ago, I noted that an NNSA official denied that the Administration had dropped its request for RNEP—something the Senator Pete Domenici claimed when announcing the demise of the program (NNSA Denies Axeing RNEP, ACW, 15 November 20005).

So, Mullins’ churlish threat to continue to developing RNEP is not really surprising, save his tone, which is more K-12 than SES.

Mullins’ acted like the Congressional setback was no big deal, telling Cahlink that “nuclear funding”—whatever that means—was not needed since the sled test will use a dummy bomb. He either doesn’t know—or doesn’t care—that this statement bears no relationship to compromise being negotiated within the relevant Congressional Committees, a compromise that centers on questions such as where DOD conduct the sled test (Opponents want an Air Force facility with no nuclear weapons expertise; supporters think Sandia is a nice place to slam steel into concrete) and what legal and technical parameters will be imposed (Opponents want some; supporters want none).

I painstakingly walked through these issues in a previous post—Wolf In Sled’s Clothing? (ACW, 5 November 2005).

Mullins’ comment, however, demonstrates something that Congressional Democrats warned might happen—that the Air Force would circumvent Congress’ intent to terminate (and terminate is what the Energy Appropriators claim they did) the program.

Eight House Democrats, writing in the House Defense Appropriations Report, warned they were “concerned that the committee report language is written vaguely enough that conventional testing of penetration weapons could be used as a proxy to inform nuclear applications as well.”

Mullins confirmed this warning, telling Cahlink that “researchers could plug data from that test into computer models to determine how the bomb would react if a nuclear warhead were attached.”

That suggests to me the Democrats have a good case to make the language in the Conference report more specific:

This sled test should be 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.

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