Repliable Replacement Warheads


The Replacements – great 80s band. (copyright, Daniel Corrigan)

The Reliable Replacement Warhead program is hot, very hot. It is all things to all people. Very pliable, as it were.

A Hill staffer told me, in fact, that the Department of Energy is just giddy about the possibilities for this program.

That, of course, is a very worrying sign.

Jeffrey has blogged many times on this sexy thing – this is one of the uber posts. I’m just going to add in some information here for wonks, on what half of Congress is thinking.

The House put extensive language in the Defense Authorization bill trying to get some clarity about what the program would actually do. The language sets out seven objectives for the Reliable Replacement Warhead program which, vastly simplified, are to:


The W88 – a candidate for replacement?

1. increase the reliability of the stockpile;
2. reduce the likelihood of a need to test;
3. use components that have already been tested;
4. ensure the ability to produce replacement warheads;
5. reduce the size of the overall stockpile;
6. fulfill current missions of the stockpile; and
7. complement and perhaps replace the Stockpile Life Extension Program.

This generally look like reasonable goals. The biggest are 2 and 5, and perhaps the trickiest is 6. Would a heavier warhead, less close to the technical edge of reliability but also perhaps with a lower yield, have the same mission but perhaps be more “usable” – and thus in the minds of many nuke-heads a better deterrent for these uncertain times? That is certainly something many reasonable folks, including Chairman Hobson, might – and damn well should – oppose.

So of course the devil is in the details. To try to learn more about that little devil, the bill also calls for a report from the Department of Energy on the program, what warheads might be involved, how it compares to Life Extension, and what it might cost in resources.

Clearly, given all these requirements and objectives, there is a lot going on here.

Clearly, more analysis needs to be done. The Congressional Research Service report (download) that Jeffrey cited does lay out some good questions, but look for a piece in Arms Control Today from UCS’s Rob Nelson in the near future that should be even more insightful.

In the meantime, below is the language from the House bill itself, which is H. R. 1815, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2006. The section sets out objectives for the program and requires a report on it:

SEC. 3111. RELIABLE REPLACEMENT WARHEAD PROGRAM.

(a) In General- Subtitle A (50 U.S.C. 2521 et seq.) of title XLVII of the Atomic Energy Defense Act is amended by adding at the end the following new section:

`SEC. 4214. RELIABLE REPLACEMENT WARHEAD PROGRAM.

`(a) Program Required- The Secretary of Energy, in consultation with the Secretary of Defense, shall carry out a program, to be known as the Reliable Replacement Warhead program, to develop reliable replacement components that are producible and certifiable for the existing nuclear weapons stockpile.

`(b) Objectives- The objectives of the Reliable Replacement Warhead program shall be—

`(1) to increase the reliability, safety, and security of the United States nuclear weapons stockpile;

`(2) to further reduce the likelihood of the resumption of nuclear testing;

`(3) to remain consistent with basic design parameters by using, to the extent practicable, components that are well understood or are certifiable without the need to resume underground nuclear testing;

`(4) to ensure that the United States develops a nuclear weapons infrastructure that can respond to unforeseen problems, to include the ability to produce replacement warheads that are safer to manufacture, more cost-effective to produce, and less costly to maintain than existing warheads.

`(5) to achieve reductions in the future size of the nuclear weapons stockpile based on increased reliability of the reliable replacement warheads;

`(6) to use the design, certification, and production expertise resident in the nuclear complex to develop reliable replacement components to fulfill current mission requirements of the existing stockpile; and

`(7) to serve as a complement to, and potentially a more cost-effective and reliable long-term replacement for, the current Stockpile Life Extension Programs.’.

(b) Report- Not later than March 1, 2007, the Nuclear Weapons Council shall submit to the congressional defense committees a report on the feasibility and implementation of the Reliable Replacement Warhead program required by section 4214 of the Atomic Energy Defense Act (as added by subsection (a)). The report shall—

(1) identify existing warheads recommended for replacement by 2035 with an assessment of the weapon performance and safety characteristics of the replacement warheads;

(2) discuss the relationship of the Reliable Replacement Warhead program within the Stockpile Stewardship Program and its impact on the current Stockpile Life Extension Programs;

(3) provide an assessment of the extent to which a successful Reliable Replacement Warhead program could lead to reductions in the nuclear weapons stockpile;

(4) discuss the criteria by which replacement warheads under the Reliable Replacement Warhead program will be designed to maximize the likelihood of not requiring nuclear testing, as well as the circumstances that could lead to a resumption of testing;

(5) provide a description of the infrastructure, including pit production capabilities, required to support the Reliable Replacement Warhead program; and

(6) provide a detailed summary of how the funds made available pursuant to the authorizations of appropriations in this Act, and any funds made available in prior years, will be used.

© Interim Report- Not later than March 1, 2006, the Nuclear Weapons Council shall submit to the congressional defense committees an interim report on the matters required to be covered by the report under subsection (b).

In its report&, the House Armed Services Committee provides much more language on its thinking, expounding on each of the seven objectives it set out in the bill. For now, I’ll leave it to you to figure out if this helps or not, but here it is:

Reliable Replacement Warhead program

The budget requests $9.4 million within Directed Stockpile Work for the Reliable Replacement Warhead program.

The committee notes that in the aftermath of the Cold War, the Stockpile Stewardship Program was designed to enable the continued certification of the existing stockpile in the absence of nuclear testing. The National Nuclear Security Administration’s Life Extension Program is a component of the Stockpile Stewardship program to ensure the continued safety, surety and certification of the stockpile by extending the life of nuclear weapons that have already undergone testing. The 2001 Nuclear Posture Review and other studies by the Department of Defense and Department of Energy have highlighted the importance of looking past the Cold War-era designed defense nuclear complex to a responsive infrastructure of the future, one objective of which is to be able to produce replacement warheads.

The committee firmly believes that the nation must ensure that the nuclear stockpile remains reliable, safe, and secure and that national security requires transforming the Cold War-era nuclear complex. Thus, the committee supports the Reliable Replacement Warhead program. To clearly articulate the congressional intent underlying this program authorization, the committee further states the key goals of the program.

First and foremost, in order to serve as a credible strategic deterrent, the stockpile must be reliable, safe, and secure. The committee understands that by designing and replacing components and warheads in our existing arsenal, the nuclear weapons complex can take full advantage of modern design techniques, more environmentally safe materials, and efficient manufacturing processes in a way that can make our arsenal more reliable, safe, and secure. The committee believes that the Reliable Replacement Warhead program offers the opportunity to improve certain safety features. In particular, the committee expects the National Nuclear Security Administration to inform Congress about the extent to which the Reliable Replacement Warhead program can improve security features to prevent accidental or unauthorized detonations. The committee expects that the budgeting and reporting of the Reliable Replacement Warhead program will be consistent with the traditional nuclear weapon acquisition process of designating work related to new weapon or weapon modification development and production. Based on Nuclear Weapons Council briefings, the committee encourages the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy to focus initial Reliable Replacement Warhead efforts on replacement warheads for Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles. The committee understands that the purpose of the program is to fulfill the current mission requirements of the stockpile.

A second objective of this program is to further reduce the likelihood of the resumption of nuclear testing by increasing warhead design margin and manufacturability.

The third objective of utilizing components whose basic design parameters are well understood, or are certifiable without the need to resume underground nuclear testing reinforces the second objective. As part of the report required by section 3111 ©, the committee expects a discussion of how these two objectives will be accomplished, including the degree to which reliable replacement warheads will be based on design parameters that have been proven through prior successful nuclear tests.

Fourth, the Reliable Replacement Warhead program has a goal of ensuring the country has a nuclear infrastructure that is flexible enough to meet future requirements that cannot be predicted today. The goal of achieving a more flexible nuclear infrastructure was identified in the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review, but has not been realized in large part due to a lack of program focus. The Reliable Replacement Warhead Program will try to provide that focus.

Fifth, the Reliable Replacement Warhead program may permit reductions in the size of the nuclear stockpile since fewer weapons should have to serve as a hedge against technical uncertainty and reliability concerns. As part of the report required by section 3111 ©, the committee expects an estimate of the reductions that can be achieved if the Reliable Replacement Warhead program is successfully implemented. The report should discuss options for future dismantlement based on stockpile reductions that may be achieved if the Reliable Replacement Warhead program is successful.

Sixth, and related to the responsive infrastructure objective, is the goal of ensuring that the human capital aspect is not neglected. The nuclear complex is rapidly losing its design and production expertise, a concern highlighted by several studies in the past decade. The Reliable Replacement Warhead program will help train and sustain the weapons designers and engineers whose expertise is essential in ensuring the stockpile remains, reliable, safe and secure into the future.

Finally, the Reliable Replacement Warhead program should serve as a complement to and potential future replacement for, the existing Life Extension Programs. The potential of the Reliable Replacement Warhead program to provide for a credible nuclear deterrent and a flexible, responsive infrastructure in a cost-effective manner is an important aspect of this program. At some future point, the committee would expect a life-cycle cost estimate for the Reliable Replacement Warhead program in addition to the requirement to provide five-year cost estimates in the annual budget justification documents. This life-cycle cost estimate would specifically address the issue of pit production, and whether a modern pit facility is still required if the program leads to a significantly reduced arsenal. For the purposes of the report required by section 3111, the committee understands that submission of life-cycle costs estimates would be premature. The report required by section 3111 should, however, provide an assessment as to when a life-cycle cost estimate, to include all construction and decommissioning costs, would be feasible based on projected program milestones. The report should also discuss the impact on the Department of Defense, specifically its delivery platforms, of introducing reliable replacement warheads, to include a cost estimate of the potential impacts.

The report required by section 3111 should detail the planned use of fiscal year 2006 and prior year funds. The report is required by March 1, 2007, but the committee also requires an interim report due by March 1, 2006, that provides as much information on the required report topics as can be provided.

The committee recommends $9.4 million for the Reliable Replacement Warhead program, the amount of the budget request. Should additional funds be required above those authorized and appropriated, the committee directs the Secretary of Energy to submit a reprogramming request to the congressional defense committees.

If you are still reading, congrats. The Senate bill has, I believe, weaker language on this, but sadly I have to leave now and can’t provide convenient quotes for you. Next time.

Comments

  1. Michael Roston (History)

    “Would a heavier warhead, less close to the technical edge of reliability but also perhaps with a lower yield, have the same mission but perhaps be more “usable” – and thus in the minds of many nuke-heads a better deterrent for these uncertain times?”

    Stephen –
    This point needs clarification.

    Are you suggesting that an RRW would be more usable like the “mini-nukes” and “RNEPs” we are most concerned with when we speak of “usable” nukes?

    It seems like if the weapons have the same mission, they cannot be used any more or less than they would be now – the mission, not the yield, determines the usability of a weapon. If you design a weapon with a gigantic yield and intend to use it, it is much more “usable” than a weapon with a small yield you intend to keep in the basement.

    If the argument is that the RRW will change the missions intended of the weapons (which ultimately are designed in Omaha, and not Los Alamos or Livermore), that is another point, and a very provocative one.

    Forgive me if I am getting wrapped up in commoner understandings of the semantics of “usability.”

  2. Michael Roston (History)

    Oh, sorry, I made one mistake in my previous comment: these days, it seems the missions of our weapons are being designed not in Omaha, but at this address:

    3031 Javier Road, Suite 300
    Fairfax, Virginia 22031-4662

  3. Stephen Young (History)

    I think I disagree, but perhaps we are both just not being clear.

    Right now most US weapons are relatively high yield, most in the 100 to 300 kiloton range, and the mission they were designed for is to destroy hardened targets in Russia.

    One could easily conceive of a new warhead that nominally has the same mission, but because it could be more accurate, it could have a considerably lower yield. Thus, it might be seen by some as more “usable” in scenarios outside Russia. Same mission, but other missions happen to now be thought possible as well.

    This would not take it into the “mini-nuke” range, but perhaps simply back to Hiroshima size.

    I would be strongly opposed to developing such a weapon.

  4. Stephen Young (History)

    For those pondering Michael’s second post, he is, I’m fairly certain, referring to Keith Payne at the National Institute for Public Policy, who directed a study on nuclear policy published in January 2001. Most of the coauthors strolled directly into high-level positions in the Bush administration, including Payne, though he subsequently left.

    I’m not clever enough to get a link in the text, so I’ll just give it here, to the study:
    http://www.nipp.org/Adobe/volume%201%20complete.pdf

  5. EARL (History)

    well, from a strictly plebian point of view, it looks like that classical specification of having it and eating it, with all the crap about ‘pre-tested’ components, costs less, less filling too, perhaps we may can make them dual use as a floor wax and a dessert topping…

    the space shuttle started off the same, it was going to be a grand improvement and a stepping stone to a new future, nobody wants to design the next increment…..

    here is a hint guys, the atomic boom technology is a dangerous diversion of funds and technology, it will never turn into a silver bullet for axis-ittes, give it up…

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