Controversy Continues Regarding "Bunker Buster" Nuclear Weapon

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Publication date: 
15 April 2004

About a month from now, the House Armed Services Committee is scheduled to complete work on its FY 2005 defense authorization bill. One section of this bill is certain to raise considerable controversy: that surrounding the Bush Administration's proposal to continue research on the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP), more commonly known as a "bunker buster." David Hobson (R-OH), chairman of the House subcommittee responsible for actually funding the program has already signaled his continuing opposition to this weapon, predicting, "I don't think you'll see a lot of money put into that effort" when his subcommittee's appropriations bill is released in May.

Last year's controversy over this weapon has continued into this year, now heightened by a March report prepared by a national defense specialist at the Congressional Research Service (CRS). CRS is a much-respected component of the Library of Congress, and serves as a research unit that exclusively handles requests from Members of Congress. CRS reports are widely-regarded for their impartiality on issues. While this report is only three pages long, it has been discussed at several House and Senate hearings. Noting that the Administration has outlined a five-year projected cost of $484.7 million in its FY 2005 budget request, the CRS defense specialist states, "The FY 2005 request document seems to cast serious doubt on the assertions that RNEP is only a study." CRS reports are not posted by the Library of Congress, but a copy of this report can be found at:

Administration concern that hostile nations are hardening targets by deeply burying them underground led to its request last year for initial funding for research on the RNEP. The RNEP would adapt an existing nuclear warhead to "hold at risk" deeply buried or hardened targets. This proposal was very controversial, with considerable congressional debate in both the House and Senate. The final agreement in the FY 2004 Energy and Water Development Appropriations report stated:

"The conferees provide $7,500,000 for the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator study, instead of $5,000,000 as proposed by the House and $15,000,000 as proposed by the Senate. The conferees remind the Administration that none of the funds provided may be used for activities at the engineering development phases, phase 3 or 6.3, or beyond, in support of advanced nuclear weapons concepts, including the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator."

At least five hearings have been held this year at which the Administration's RNEP request has been discussed. Linton Brooks, Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, has been asked to explain the budget projections for this new weapon. Brooks' response has been consistent at these hearings: that the projected out year (e.g., beyond FY 2005) figures should be regarded as "place holders"in a five-year plan if the decision is made to continue beyond the constraints in the above report language. Furthermore, Brooks told committee members, the figures are intended to suggest what level of funding might be required if the Administration requests, and the Congress agrees to, a specific authorization for 6.3 developmental engineering and beyond of the RNEP.

In response to a direct question at one of the Senate hearings about whether the Administration has determined if it wants to proceed to Phase 6.3 engineering development of RNEP, Brooks replied "No, sir." This response has satisfied many, but not all, committee members. At a different hearing, Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) told Brooks that "many remain unconvinced that this is an appropriate path." Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) was blunter in her comments, citing the above- mentioned CRS study and saying, "I think that number casts doubts on the contention that this is just a study and that all we are doing is just a study, because I don't believe that there can be a commitment of nearly $500 million for just a study." Chairman Pete Domenici (R-NM) replied that he did not favor a new round of weapons development, but contended that scientists should be allow the study such a weapon.

At a March 11 hearing, House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman David Hobson (R-OH) made clear his sentiments regarding the Administration's nuclear weapons initiatives. To Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, Hobson said:

"I find it really hard to conceive of any circumstances under which this country would even use a nuclear weapon again whether or not the weapon is low-yield, whether or not it is a more robust version of an existing weapon and whether or not it would be used against a hard and buried target. Despite those constraints, DOE seems to think they should spend another half a billion dollars of taxpayers' dollars to explore and test the concept of Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator. This kind of, quote, 'Money is no object,' unquote thinking might have been the norm for the nuclear weapons complex during the Cold War years, but I think it's completely out of touch with the political and fiscal realities that we face today."

Hobson's position is counter to that of other Members of Congress who have direct jurisdiction over RNEP funding, such as Domenici, who chairs the Senate counterpart of Hobson's subcommittee. The future of this weapon will undoubtedly be another major source of contention as Congress considers what course it should support for the RNEP in FY 2005 and beyond.

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