Arms Control Wonk ArmsControlWonk


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:


(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:


`(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.


Hiroshima, afterwards, and the “atomic dome”

The 60th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is an appropriate time to review the status of nuclear weapons in the world.

It’s okay, it’s quite bad, and it’s unbelievably insane.

It’s okay, in that not everything the Bush administration is doing is incredibly stupid and or insane.

In particular, the Bush administration decision to lower the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is a good thing. At least, it’s okay.

But clearly it does not recognize the fundamental change represented by the end of the Cold War.

At its peak, the global nuclear arsenal was around 65,000 weapons, or so say my friends at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Now, it is probably somewhat under 20,000, and will probably continue to decline gradually in the years to come.

More than 90% of those weapons are in the hands of the United States and Russia.

In other words, the size of the arsenal has dropped, but the paradigm has not changed. The United States still retains enough nuclear weapons to liquidate most of the entire globe and, for good measure, probably initiate a nuclear winter. So does Russia.

That is insane.

Globally, it’s also okay, in that compared to everything that could have happened, human history has not (yet) ended in nuclear annihilation, and the number of countries maintaining nuclear weapons is far less than most analysts predicted in the 1960s.

The bad part is everything else.

Starting with the Nuclear Posture Review, from calls for more usable nuclear weapons, to seeking to build an enormous new facility to produce new pits for nuclear warheads, to reducing the time it would take to resume nuclear testing.

And don’t even get me started on the nonproliferation policies.

Okay, just one: the Administration’s official North Korea policy for the entire first term was “we can’t talk to you.”

Sometimes, just to show flexibility, this was alternated with a policy that said “give us all our demands, dismantling and dumping your entire nuclear program, and then we can talk to you.”

I promise something more wonky for my next post.


The Bush Adminstration has said, time and time again, that the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, or SORT, more commonly known as the Moscow Treaty, shows that relations with Russia are just fine. This came up, naturally, in the context of the Bush administration’s withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which prohibited nationwide missile defenses.

The problem is, time and again, Russia makes concerted efforts to maintain a robust nuclear threat against the United States. (And, of course, the United States does the same.) (Except, you know, against Russia.)

This was highlighted most recently by another announcement that Russia intends to maintain what U.S. analysts call the SS-18 “Satan” ICBM, the heaviest rocket in Russia’s strategic forces, carrying 10 warheads each.

Getting rid of this monster (and getting rid of its American equivalent, the “Peacekeeper,”) was the driving goal of U.S. arms negotiators from the day the first negotiation on nuclear forces started.

But of course, in the happy go lucky Bush adminstration, it’s every man for himself! We will reduce our deployed forces even if you don’t, so we really don’t need to bother with that pesky verification stuff. It’s too hard. Work is hard. Agreeing is hard.

So, don’t bother. Freedom of action is good. Constraint on the United States is bad.

So, because we can’t constrain ourselves, we can’t constrain anyone else. (Unless of course we invade them.)

This administration could not plan itself out of a wet paper bag. So, if relations are (or were, prior to Iraq) so good with Russia, take the time to put in writing an agreement that might hold when relations aren’t so good. Common sense.

I also want to plug the excellent resource, Russian strategic nuclear forces. It’s a lovely website, with lots of good information. If I find time, I’d like to do a more detailed version of this post, with information on manuevering warheads and others such stuff, and I would rely on that source for much information.

And of course, to some extent, this post contradicts Jeffrey’s recent writing on Russia’s declining submarine patrols. More discussion to follow.

PS: More shameless self-promotion: CNN yesterday ran the UCS animation on the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, with voiceover by moi, explaining how, no matter how big the bomb is, it can’t reach deep enough to attack bunkers built with regular mining technology:

It’s not the answer. What they’re trying to destroy are bunkers underground. Simple fact is, physics tells you that if you put a bunker 300 meters underground, it doesn’t matter how big the bomb is. It still can’t reach that bunker. It’s just too deep; it’s too far away from the explosion. It’s safe. So it’s an endless chase we can’t win.


Chemical and biological weapons released by the “bunker buster, as seen in our animation.”

Shameless—but timely—piece of self-promotion here.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, where I work, along with Physicians for Social Responsibility, produced an excellent animation on the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, also known as the nuclear “bunker buster.”

This is a big bomb, based on the B83, with a yielf of up to 1.2 megatons, or roughly 70 times this size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It is intende to attack underground storage site and command centers.

The Senate is debating an amendment offered by Senator Edward Kennedy to the Defense Authorization bill to remove funding for the new weapon for the next fiscal year. A vote is likely on Tuesday, 26 July 2005, but the outcome it practically assured. Why? Because three weeks ago, in the Energy & Water appropriations bill, Senator Dianne Feinstein offered a similar amendment and it lost 43-53.

However, opponents of the “bunker buster” picked up to votes they had lost before, specifically Senators Collins (R-ME) and Voinovich (R-OH); another vote might gain more ground.

More significantly, last year, Congress eliminated all funds for the program, based on the leadership of Representative David Hobson, chair of the House Energy & Water appropriations subcommittee. Despite Senate support, Hobson’s position won out in the end.

Since last year’s vote, the National Academy of Science’s National Research Council has weighed in on the issue as well, with an authoritative report that confirms what many critics of the weapon have been saying:

Herman Kahn, The Original “Dr. Strangelove”

  1. The explosion cannot possibly be contained underground, and deadly radiation would spread hundreds of miles downwind.
  2. Tens of thousands to a million or more people would likely be killed if this weapon is used.
  3. Despite its enormous yield, it is ineffective against bunkers that are deeper than 300 meters underground, a distance reached easily by current tunnelling technology.
  4. In attacks against underground stocks of chemical or biological weapons, the explosion is more likely to release the deadly agents above ground than it is to destroy them.

These facts are also shown clearly in the animation I mentioned above. Check it out.

Oh, and tell your Senator to support the Kennedy amendment.


Now these guys knew how to operate.

George W. Bush loves missile defense. Loves, loves, loves. So does Donald Rumsfeld. And Dick Cheney. So do a legion of members of Congress, most of them Republicans.

For that matter, so do most Americans. At least they like the idea of it. (Sadly, if you poll them, they think we already have one.)

Who doesn’t love missile defense?

Well, for one, the military.

At least, they don’t love long-range missile defenses.

Give them a short-range defense, against an imminent, likely threat, and they will deploy anything you give them, even if they are not sure if it will work.

(See, for example, the Patriot anti-missile system, which performed abysmally in the first Gulf war, in 1992.)

But hand them a system intended to defend against long-range missiles – a threat we’ve “faced” for 40 years – and they want some proof it will work before they agree to take it.

This is perfectly clear if you examine what has happened on missile defense in the last two and half years.

In December 2002, President Bush declared that he would deploy long-range anti-missile systems in 2004.

The deadline became September 30, 2004, conveniently before the November elections.

The Missile Defense Agency dropped all other priorities (like, say, for example, testing to see if the system actually works) and put everything into getting missiles in silos.

By September 30, five interceptors were in. But was the system turned on? No. Why not?

Well, someone realized that the military folks who actually operate the system might need to sign off on taking control of it.

That would be, primarily, Strategic Command, which was given overall responsibility for missile defense, and Northern Command, where the system is largely being fielded.

So, the Missile Defense Agency said that the Commands were doing “reviews” and once those reviews were done, the system would be turned on.

What information did the Commands have to go on? Well, the Pentagon’s own Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, David Duma, who in his annual report nicely stated that he had no bloody idea if the thing would work or not:

Numerous ground tests and exercises have demonstrated system interconnectivity and limited interoperability. However, the components of BMDS remain immature. It is not possible to estimate the current mission capability of the BMDS with high confidence.

So, what did the Commands do? They took a pass. They said – not publicly, but privately – no, we don’t want this. We don’t know what it can do.

It’s funny. If you look at the homepage of Strategic Command, it leads with a lovely mission statement that includes missile defense:

Provide the nation with global deterrence capabilities and synchronized DoD effects to combat adversary weapons of mass destruction worldwide. Enable decisive global kinetic and non-kinetic combat effects through the application and advocacy of integrated intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR); space and global strike operations; information operations; integrated missile defense and robust command and control.

But if you look at the issue areas where it is actually doing work – the links in the left hand column – the only missile defense link is for tactical ballistic missile warning.

So, the ballyhooed missile defense program, the driving goal of the Bush administration when it first came to office, sits in limbo. The Missile Defense Agency says, in essence, it could be turned on at any time.

But the Pentagon’s spokesperson, Lawrence Di Rita, made it clear that the system may never declared operational:

I don’t know that such a declaration will ever be made.

I don’t know what else to say.

Lewis adds … For an excellent review of the operational challenges posed by the missile defense system, read:

M. Elaine Bunn, Deploying Missile Defense: Major Operational Challenges, Strategic Forum 209 (August 2004).

Bunn asks a lot of awkward questions like “Who will have weapons release authority?”

Also, I am really more of an Altman man, myself.

Update from Stephen Shocking news – the Director of the Missile Defense agency, Lieutenant General Henry A. Trey Obering III, says that the anti-missile system has a chance in hell of working:

We have a better than zero chance of successfully intercepting, I believe, an inbound warhead.

It is also irrefutably true that, if a warhead is incoming, and I am standing quite near to its impact point, and I threw a golf ball at it, I have a better than zero chance of hitting it and causing it to fail to explode.

But should the President or the military plan anything based on any confidence in my aim?

PS Though, in my own defense, I did once throw a tennis ball through the only open window in a moving school bus as it drove by. (But the bus continued to operate.)


These probably won’t help, but just in case.

Today’s quiz is on who is making it easier for terrorists to get the bomb.

1. Which country is currently known to be exporting highly enriched uranium, in other words, bomb-grade nuclear material?

a) North Korea
b) Nigeria
c) the United States of America
d) Iran
e) all of the above

2) In what country is the legislature currently headed toward weakening current law that seeks to phase out the export of highly enriched uranium?

a) Russia
b) South Africa
c) the United States of America
d) France
e) all of the above

If you answered c) to both questions, you are smarter than the average member of Congress.

That’s right, even as suicide bombers cause havoc in Iraq, London and around the globe, the United States still regularly exports more than enough highly enriched uranium to make a crude but reliable nuclear bomb.

Typically, the uranium is enriched to 93 percent, high enough to make turning it into a bomb not much harder than getting two lumps of sufficient size and smashing them together.

Even more shocking, Congress is close to agreeing, in the Energy bill, to gut a current law that seeks to phase out these exports over time.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, where I work, has produced a handy-dandy fact sheet that explains all this in glorious detail, but the skinny is that one Canadian company, MDS Nordion receives U.S. bomb-grade uranium and uses it in a small nuclear reactor to produce medical isotopes. Some of those isotopes are imported in to the United States and used to treat cancer patients and the like. No one denies we need the isotopes.

Under U.S. law, however, Nordion is supposed to be cooperating with the United States to convert to using low enriched uranium, which cannot readily be used to make bombs. They are not.

Instead, like any good for-profit business, rather than spending the tens of millions it might cost to convert, they are spending much less on lobbying efforts to try to change U.S. law, and so far it seems to be working.

Some folks have noticed this dastardly effort, like the New York Times editorial page, but supporters have managed to avoid the nuclear terrorism angles and focused on the supposed – but imaginary – threat to the supply of isotopes.

In fact, as Physicians for Social Responsibility documents, there is an excess of production capacity for these isotopes around the globe. The problem is, Nordion currently controls the distribution of isotopes in the United States, and so prevents competition in the U.S. market.

Opponents of Nordion have had some success. Led by the “Odd Couple” combination of Senators Kyl and Schumer, the Senate removed the dangerous provision from its version of the Energy bill. However, as soon as it went into conference, the chairman’s mark settled on the bad House version, and an attempt to revert to the Senate provision failed today, Tuesday 19 July 2005.

So, just in case, it might be time to think about buying a shovel.