The Bush administration is expected to announce this week a major step forward in the building of the country’s first new nuclear warhead in nearly two decades. It will propose combining elements of competing designs from two weapons laboratories in an approach that some experts argue is untested and risky.
The new weapon would not add to but replace the nation’s existing arsenal of aging warheads with a new generation meant to be sturdier, more reliable, safer from accidental detonation and more secure from theft by terrorists.
The announcement, to be made by the interagency Nuclear Weapons Council, avoids making a choice between the two designs for a new weapon, called the Reliable Replacement Warhead, which at first would be mounted on submarine-launched missiles. The effort, if approved by President George W. Bush and financed by Congress, would require a huge refurbishment of the nation’s complex for nuclear design and manufacturing, with the overall bill estimated at more than $100 billion.
But the council’s decision to seek a hybrid design, combining well-tested elements from an older design with new safety and security elements from a more novel approach, could delay the production of the weapon. It also raises the question of whether the United States will ultimately be forced to end its moratorium on underground testing to make sure the new design works.
On Friday, Bryan Wilkes, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration of the Energy Department, said the government would not proceed with the Reliable Replacement Warhead “if it is determined that testing is needed.” But other officials in the administration, including Robert Joseph, the under secretary of state for arms control and international security, have said that the White House should make no commitment on testing.
Congress authorized exploratory research for the weapon three years ago and has financed it at relatively low levels since. But now the costs will begin to increase.
If Bush decides to deploy the new design, he could touch off a debate in a Democratic-controlled Congress and among allies and adversaries abroad, who have opposed efforts to expand the arsenal in the past. While backers of the new weapon said that it would replace older weapons that could deteriorate over time, and reduce the chances of a detonation if weapons fell into the wrong hands, critics have long argued that this is the wrong moment for Washington to produce a new warhead of any kind.
As the administration tries to persuade the world to put sanctions on North Korea and Iran to halt their nuclear programs, those critics argue, any move to improve the American arsenal will be seen as hypocritical, an effort by the United States to extend its nuclear lead over other countries. Should the United States decide to conduct a test, officials said, China and Russia – which have their own nuclear modernization programs under way – would feel free to do the same. North Korea was sanctioned by the UN Security Council for conducting its first test on Oct. 9.
Administration officials and military officers like General James Cartwright, head of the Strategic Command, which controls the nation’s nuclear arsenal, argue that because the United States provides a nuclear umbrella for so many allies, it is critical that its stockpile be as reliable as possible.
“We will not ‘un-invent’ nuclear weapons, and we will not walk away from the world,” Cartwright said in an interview. “Right now, it is not the nation’s position that zero is the answer to the size of our inventory.”
He added: “So, if you are going to have these weapons, they should be safe, they should be able to be secured, and they should be reliable if used.”
The current schedule, which is subject to change, would call for the president to make a decision in a year or two and, if approved, to begin engineering development by fiscal year 2010 and produce the weapon by 2012.
The two teams competing to design the weapon, one at Los Alamos in New Mexico and one at the Livermore National Laboratory in California, approached the problem with very different philosophies, nuclear officials and experts said. Livermore drew on a single, robust design that, before the testing moratorium, was detonated in the 1980s under a desolate patch of Nevada desert. The weapon, however, never entered the nation’s nuclear stockpile.
The Los Alamos team drew on aspects of many weapons from the stockpile and pulled them together in a novel design that has never undergone testing.
A winner of the competition was to have been announced in November. But federal officials said they had a hard time choosing between the two designs, calling both excellent.
The question now, arms experts said, is whether a mix-and-match approach that combines the two will produce a clever hybrid or an unworkable dud. They said the nuclear laboratories, bitter rivals for many decades, have never before shared responsibility for designing a weapon.