Congress Skep­ti­cal of War­head Plan

Law­mak­ers and Ex­perts Ques­tion Ne­ces­sity, Im­pli­ca­tions of a New Nu­clear Weapon

The Washington Post Sunday - - Politics - By Wal­ter Pin­cus

Con­gres­sional hear­ings over the past sev­eral weeks have shown that the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s plan to move ahead with a new gen­er­a­tion of nu­clear war­heads faces strong op­po­si­tion from House and Se­nate mem­bers con­cerned that the ef­fort lacks any strate­gic un­der­pin­ning and could lead to a new nu­clear arms race.

Ex­perts inside and out­side the gov­ern­ment ques­tioned mov­ing for­ward with a new war­head as old ones are be­ing re­fur­bished and be­fore de­vel­op­ing bi­par­ti­san agree­ment on how many war­heads would be needed at the end of what could be a 30-year process. Sev­eral, in­clud­ing for­mer sen­a­tor Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), sug­gested link­ing pro­duc­tion of a new war­head with U.S. rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the Com­pre­hen­sive Test Ban Treaty, a move the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion has op­posed.

Rep. David L. Hob­son (R-Ohio), who orig­i­nated what has be­come the Re­li­able Re­place­ment War­head (RRW) pro­gram, wants the num­ber of war­heads in the cur­rent U.S. stock­pile de­clas­si­fied as “the first step for an hon­est di­a­logue on nu­clear weapons.” In­clud­ing war­heads that are de­ployed, in­ac­tive and in re­serve, the to­tal is as­sumed to be above 6,000.

“I sus­pect our po­ten­tial ad­ver­saries know the num­ber of U.S. nu­clear war­heads with much bet­ter pre­ci­sion than do the mem­bers of Congress,” Hob­son said at a re­cent con­gres­sional hear­ing. “I think I know the num­ber,” he added, “but I can’t talk about it.”

Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), the rank­ing mi­nor­ity mem­ber of the Se­nate Ap­pro­pri­a­tions sub­com­mit­tee that funds the nu­clear weapons com­plex, said at a hear­ing Wed­nes­day on the RRW pro­gram that Sec­re­tary of State Con­doleezza Rice and De­fense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates have “not been forth­com­ing” about their views on the is­sue.

Domenici, who sup­ports the pro­gram, said he has sent let­ters to Rice, Gates and na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Stephen J. Hadley, “urg­ing them to take a more ac­tive role in sup­port­ing the RRW pro­gram.” He told them, “You must an­swer crit­ics who have ar­gued that the RRW will lead to an arms race.”

The pro­gram in­volves not only co­or­di­nat­ing the de­sign and costs of a new war­head for the Tri­dent sub­ma­rine-launched in­tercon­ti­nen­tal mis­sile, but also a multi­bil­lion-dol­lar plan — called Com­plex 2030 by the De­part­ment of En­ergy — to mod­ern­ize the ag­ing nu­clear weapons fa­cil­i­ties where war­heads and bombs are de­signed, built and dis­man­tled.

Rep. Peter J. Vis­closky (D-Ind.), chair­man of the House Ap­pro­pri­a­tions sub­com­mit­tee that funds the nu­clear com­plex, said at a hear­ing late last month that the pro­gram is pro­ceed­ing “al­though the ad­min­is­tra­tion has not an­nounced any ef­fort to be­gin a pol­icy process to re­assess our nu­clear weapons pol­icy and the fu­ture nu­clear stock­pile re­quired to sup­port that pol­icy.” He also noted that the Pen­tagon’s De­fense Science Board re­ported last year that there has been vir­tu­ally no high-level, long-term ar­tic­u­la­tion of U.S. nu­clear weapons pol­icy.

Gen. James E. Cartwright, com­man­der of the U.S. Strate­gic Com­mand, which con­trols the na- tion’s nu­clear weapons, said at the hear­ing that he would like to chal­lenge the pro­posed level of 1,700 to 2,200 war­heads by 2012 as pos­si­bly too high, “based on new [con­ven­tional weapons] ca­pa­bil­ity, not new nu­clear ca­pa­bil­ity.”

For­mer de­fense sec­re­tary William J. Perry, also ap­pear­ing at the hear­ing, said cur­rent nu­clear poli­cies were de­vel­oped for the Cold War and are “re­ally not ap­pro­pri­ate to the world we live in to­day.” A new nu­clear plan is “long over­due” and should be shared with the ap­pro­pri­ate con­gres­sional com­mit­tees, he said. It should in­clude “not only is­sues about what num­bers we need,” Perry said, “but on what a fu­ture tra­jec­tory of those num­bers in our forces should be and what kind of R&D is needed to sup­port it.”

At the same hear­ing, Nunn said he does not fa­vor dis­man­tling the U.S. nu­clear arse­nal, but he ex­pressed con­cern about the in­ter­na­tional im­pact of the RRW pro­gram. Nunn, a for­mer chair­man of the Se­nate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee and now chief ex­ec­u­tive of the non­profit Nu­clear Threat Ini­tia­tive, told the House panel, “If Congress gives a green light to this pro­gram in our cur­rent world en­vi­ron­ment . . . I be­lieve that this will be mis­un­der­stood by our al­lies, ex­ploited by our ad­ver­saries, [and] com­pli­cate our work to pre­vent the spread and use of nu­clear weapons.”

Nunn sug­gested that the RRW pro­gram would be bet­ter re­ceived “in the con­text of a rat­i­fied test ban treaty.” He cau­tioned that “we can’t af­ford to do it in this at­mos­phere with­out be­ing mis­per­ceived, not only by Rus­sia but by many oth­ers.”

Nunn quoted a re­cent study pre­pared for the De­fense De­part­ment that said: “The world sees us as in­creas­ing em­pha­sis on nu­clear weapons. The world sees us as shift­ing from nu­clear weapons for de­ter­rence and as weapons of last re­sort to nu­clear weapons for war-fight­ing roles and first use. . . . And the world sees us as blur­ring the dif­fer­ence be­tween nu­clear and con­ven­tional weapons — use what­ever fits best.”

Perry said there are two “valid” ar­gu­ments be­ing made in sup­port of the RRW pro­gram — that it would main­tain the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of U.S. weapons de­sign­ers and pro­vide a new war­head that “can­not be det­o­nated by a ter­ror group, even if they were able to get their hands on it.”

How­ever, he said, de­vel­op­ment of the RRW pro­gram “will sub­stan­tially un­der­mine our abil­ity to lead the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity in the fight against pro­lif­er­a­tion, which we are al­ready in dan­ger of los­ing.” Not­ing that present U.S. nu­clear weapons will re­tain their ca­pa­bil­i­ties for 50 to 100 years, he said the pro­gram could be de­ferred “for many years.”

At Wed­nes­day’s Se­nate hear­ing, Sen. Dianne Fe­in­stein (D-Calif.) said bi­par­ti­san agree­ment on the pro­gram is nec­es­sary be­fore Congress votes to spend funds to de­velop the new war­heads.

The chair­man of the Se­nate Ap­pro­pri­a­tions sub­com­mit­tee, Sen. By­ron L. Dor­gan (D-N.D.), said play­ing a ma­jor role in fund­ing the na­tion’s nu­clear weapons poses im­por­tant ques­tions for him, and he is un­sure how he will come out on the pro­gram. There are “se­ri­ous ques­tions to an­swer,” he said. “The sur­vival of this planet, I think, de­pends on our get­ting th­ese things right.”


Ex-sen­a­tor Sam Nunn (D) wor­ries about the in­ter­na­tional re­ac­tion to de­vel­op­ing a new nu­clear war­head.


Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) told of­fi­cials they should be more ac­tive in sup­port­ing the pro­gram.

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