U.S. Sticks to Plan for Interoperable Nuclear Warheads, Despite Criticism

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An unarmed Minuteman II intercontinental ballistic missile test-launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The United States plans to develop interoperable nuclear warheads for use on both land-based and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
National Journal
Douglas P. Guarino
April 16, 2014, 9:58 a.m.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is stick­ing to a plan to de­vel­op con­tro­ver­sial new war­heads for the U.S. nuc­le­ar ar­sen­al, but op­pon­ents of the pro­ject are hold­ing out hope that of­fi­cials could still change course.

When it rolled out its fisc­al 2014 budget re­quest last year, the ad­min­is­tra­tion in­cluded a 25-year plan that it said could ul­ti­mately re­duce the num­ber of war­heads in the stock­pile by cre­at­ing weapons suited for mul­tiple tasks.

The first such war­head, to be called the “IW-1,” would re­place both the ex­ist­ing W-78 war­head cur­rently fit­ted on Air Force ground-based mis­siles, as well as the W-88 war­head cur­rently used on Navy sub­mar­ine-based mis­siles.       

The pro­pos­al promp­ted con­cerns from law­makers on both sides of the aisle, in part due to a dra­mat­ic pro­jec­ted cost surge start­ing around the year 2018, and con­tinu­ing through 2024 and per­haps bey­ond. At its peak in the early 2020s, this spend­ing “bubble” would reach a level of nearly $3 bil­lion per year — more than double what the United States cur­rently spends on war­head life-ex­ten­sion pro­grams.

The dra­mat­ic in­crease largely would have been the res­ult of the num­ber of war­head-re­fur­bish­ment pro­jects go­ing on sim­ul­tan­eously dur­ing that time peri­od. But by slid­ing the IW-1 pro­ject back by five years as part of a re­vised plan the ad­min­is­tra­tion is­sued with its fisc­al 2015 budget re­quest this year, the up­tick in pro­jec­ted spend­ing between now and the early 2020s is far less steep.

It re­mains to be seen, however, wheth­er a sim­il­ar spend­ing surge would oc­cur later in the 2020s or early 2030s, notes Steph­en Young, a seni­or ana­lyst with the Uni­on of Con­cerned Sci­ent­ists.

“The bot­tom line is that they cer­tainly have made the next 10 years ap­pear to be far more sus­tain­able, but “¦ it cer­tainly looks that when they have [mul­tiple] war­heads in pro­duc­tion, they’ll have a bump in [spend­ing] again,” said Young.

As an op­pon­ent of the plan to build in­ter­op­er­able war­heads, Young said he has con­cerns that ex­tend bey­ond cost alone. On the tech­nic­al side, he wor­ries that the cre­ation of in­ter­op­er­able war­heads could cre­ate safety risks.

One of the Na­tion­al Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s goals is for the IW-1 war­head to use in­sens­it­ive high ex­plos­ives, which are be­lieved to be safer than con­ven­tion­al high ex­plos­ives used for set­ting off a nuc­le­ar-war­head im­plo­sion, Young notes. In or­der to do this, of­fi­cials will have to mix and match parts from the two ex­ist­ing weapons the IW-1 is meant to re­place, a move that he fears could cre­ate its own un­fore­see­able risks.

Along with some oth­er nuc­le­ar watch­dogs, Young would prefer that the ad­min­is­tra­tion stick with known quant­it­ies, and simply re­fur­bish the ex­ist­ing W-78 and W-88 war­heads as they are.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion, however, ar­gues that the plan to trans­ition to in­ter­op­er­able war­heads fits with­in its goal of re­du­cing the over­all num­ber of war­heads in the U.S. ar­sen­al as it works to­ward com­ply­ing with the New START arms-con­trol deal with Rus­sia.

“One of the main reas­ons that we are mov­ing to in­ter­op­er­able war­heads is so that we can ac­tu­ally re­duce the size of the hedge,” Act­ing NNSA Ad­min­is­trat­or Bruce Held said last week, re­fer­ring to ex­tra war­heads the United States holds in re­serve.

“The [in­ter­op­er­able war­head] strategy al­lows us to main­tain a safe, se­cure and re­li­able de­terrent based on a smal­ler” ar­sen­al, said Held, speak­ing at a hear­ing of the House Armed Ser­vices Sub­com­mit­tee on Stra­tegic Forces.

Dur­ing a sep­ar­ate hear­ing be­fore the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Sub­com­mit­tee on Stra­tegic Forces last week, Held warned that ad­di­tion­al budget cuts in fu­ture years would “break” the cur­rent life-ex­ten­sion strategy and “put the na­tion in a very dif­fi­cult po­s­i­tion,” with “im­plic­a­tions for our nuc­le­ar de­terrent and “¦ our abil­ity to re­duce the size of the stock­pile.”

Pre­vi­ously, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion had strongly op­posed cuts to the in­ter­op­er­able pro­gram that Con­gress im­ple­men­ted for fisc­al 2014, along with a re­quire­ment that it more thor­oughly study al­tern­at­ives to the strategy be­fore fully com­mit­ting to the plan. It was able to sal­vage the over­all strategy — which calls for the de­vel­op­ment of a total of three in­ter­op­er­able war­heads — by push­ing the IW-1 plan back by five years, however.

Now, the re­vised stock­pile stew­ard­ship and man­age­ment plan is “really pretty rock bot­tom” and can no longer sur­vive ad­di­tion­al cuts, Held said.

In par­tic­u­lar, he raised con­cerns about the safety of aging fa­cil­it­ies where weapons work is com­pleted and po­ten­tial delays to plans to re­place them.

“An area of in­creas­ing con­cern for me is nuc­le­ar safety,” Held said. “Our in­fra­struc­ture for en­riched urani­um in Oak Ridge [Ten­ness­ee] is 70 years old — we can’t wait un­til the year 2038 to get new fa­cil­it­ies.”

Young and oth­er crit­ics have ar­gued, however, that the United States might be able to save money — and thus give it­self some more abil­ity to cope with fu­ture budget con­straints — if it simply re­fur­bished the ex­ist­ing war­heads.

One Cap­it­ol Hill aide noted last June that while NNSA es­tim­ates put the cost of the IW-1 pro­ject at roughly $14 bil­lion over 10 years, re­fur­bish­ment of the Navy’s oth­er nuc­le­ar war­head, the W-76, is cost­ing “only about $3 or $4 bil­lion.”

In ad­di­tion, Young says he isn’t con­vinced the in­ter­op­er­able war­head strategy would ne­ces­sar­ily lead to over­all stock­pile re­duc­tions. In any case, he ar­gues, any such cuts would be a long way off.

Young points to lan­guage in the fisc­al 2014 stock­pile stew­ard­ship and man­age­ment plan that ori­gin­ally rolled out the in­ter­op­er­able war­head strategy. It says that “when fully im­ple­men­ted” the strategy will of­fer “the po­ten­tial to con­sider” re­duc­tions to the stock­pile hedge. The re­vised fisc­al 2015 ver­sion of the doc­u­ment does not of­fer any ad­di­tion­al in­sight re­gard­ing the tim­ing of po­ten­tial re­duc­tions, Young said.

“That would be roughly in the 2045 timeline be­fore they fin­ish” build­ing all the in­ter­op­er­able war­heads, he said. “So we’re talk­ing about maybe in 30 years we can think about cut­ting the hedge. “¦ It’s just ri­dicu­lous.”

In a re­sponse provided to Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire by NNSA Deputy Press Sec­ret­ary Der­rick Robin­son, the agency ac­know­ledged that it can’t “guar­an­tee” the re­duc­tion in the hedge.

“What we can do is ex­ecute, in co­ordin­a­tion with the [Nuc­le­ar Weapons Coun­cil], the 3+2 strategy for stock­pile mod­ern­iz­a­tion which will provide great­er flex­ib­il­ity in hedging the act­ive stock­pile,” the agency says.  Un­der the strategy, the fu­ture U.S. ar­sen­al would com­prise three war­head designs, one of which would be in­ter­op­er­able on bal­list­ic mis­siles, an­oth­er on bombs and the third on cruise mis­siles.

Any de­cision to move for­ward with a hedge re­duc­tion “would be made by the pres­id­ent in con­sulta­tion with” the De­fense and En­ergy de­part­ments “and any oth­er ap­pro­pri­ate gov­ern­ment agency,” ac­cord­ing to the NNSA state­ment.

While crit­ics ar­gue the United States might be able to mod­ern­ize its nuc­le­ar forces with less money, some Re­pub­lic­ans in Con­gress con­tin­ue to ar­gue the ad­min­is­tra­tion is not re­quest­ing enough funds for the pro­ject.

Sen­at­or Dav­id Vit­ter (R-La.) and oth­ers dur­ing budget hear­ings last week hauled out over­sized charts de­pict­ing how the United States has so far spent less per year on nuc­le­ar-weapons mod­ern­iz­a­tion than the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion pro­jec­ted dur­ing polit­ic­al ne­go­ti­ations over New START rat­i­fic­a­tion in 2010.

Not all pro-nuc­le­ar ad­voc­ates are ne­ces­sar­ily wed­ded to the in­ter­op­er­able strategy, though.

Sher­man Mc­Corkle, lead­er of the new Stra­tegic De­terrent Co­ali­tion that aims to con­vince Amer­ic­ans of the im­port­ance of main­tain­ing the stock­pile at a time of fisc­al dif­fi­culty, told GSN in Feb­ru­ary that the group is not op­posed to study­ing the in­ter­op­er­able strategy in more de­tail be­fore de­cid­ing wheth­er to com­mit to the plan.

“That de­cision is not yet ripe,” Mc­Corkle said.

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