Debate Resumes on Administration's Nuclear Weapons Initiatives

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Publication date: 
23 March 2005

It will be "a hugely difficult decision" Ambassador Linton F. Brooks told members of the House Strategic Forces Subcommittee at a hearing earlier this month when he discussed the decision a President would make about the use of a Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP), more commonly known as a Bunker Buster. While Brooks' comment centered on the use of RNEP after it was deployed, it also describes the decisions Congress will make this year about funding several Bush Administration nuclear weapons initiatives.

Congress and the Bush Administration wrestled over several nuclear weapons initiatives last year. Surprisingly, the final Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill did not include requested funding for RNEP, Advanced Weapons Concepts, site selection for a Modern Pit Facility, and Nevada Test Site Enhancement Readiness (see During the debate that preceded the final funding decisions, critics charged that the Administration was underplaying the impact that RNEP use would have, the ultimate intentions of the Administration to build RNEP, and the magnitude of a decision to use any nuclear device.

A series of hearings have been held since the Bush Administration sent its FY 2006 request for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to Congress that seem to outline the Administration's strategy to counter the type of criticism leveled last year. The Administration requested funding for an RNEP study, planning for a Modern Pit Facility, a transition to an 18-month test site readiness, and for what has been known as Advanced Weapons Concepts. NNSA Administrator Brooks appeared before the House Strategic Forces Subcommittee earlier this month. The subcommittee chair is Terry Everett (R-AL) and the Ranking Minority Member is Silvestre Reyes (D-TX). Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman testified earlier before the Senate Committee on Armed Services.

Brooks' testimony was the more revealing of the Administration's approach to securing funding this year. Brooks explained that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld personally requested that NNSA seek $4.0 million for an RNEP feasibility and cost study (the Pentagon seeks similar funding.) Brooks said, "I want to emphasize that we're asking for funds to complete the study. That, unlike our proposals of the past, we're asking to analyze only one weapon rather than two and that, unlike last year, we are not providing any funds in our five-year projection beyond the study. Last year we allowed the erroneous impression to form that we had made decisions to produce this weapon. That's not true. And to avoid that impression we've clarified it in our budget submission."

Later in his testimony Brooks briefly outlined the Administration's position on the Modern Pit Facility. Said Brooks, "Last year, the Congress prohibited us from making a selection for a site for the so-called Modern Pit Facility . . . that will allow us to refurnish and remanufacture warhead pits. We are requesting in this budget $7.7 million to continue design work and I believe it is important that the prohibition against site selection not continue into the coming year." In response to a question about the annual production of the pit facility, Brooks stated, "One hundred and twenty-five is the lowest number analyzed in the environmental impact statement. I think it is unlikely that we would see something much lower. My guess is, as a practical matter, it's going to end up somewhere between that and the low 200s. But we don't know yet." The previous request was for a facility with an annual production of 450 pits.

Brooks next addressed the effect of using an RNEP. In response to this question from Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-CA), "I just want to know is there is any way an RNEP of any size that we would drop will not produce a huge amount of radioactive debris?," Brooks straightforwardly answered, "No, there is not." Brooks also answered a question about whether the proposed RNEP study would examine decreasing the power of current warheads. Brooks replied: "We are not looking at changing the yield of the physics package. We are looking at . . . a couple of aspects. One is a hardened case. The other is very precise control of the attitude . . . and that's a not-trivial technology issue. . . . What we're trying to make sure of is that the physics package survives intact a few meters into the ground." When asked how deeply RNEP could borrow into the earth, Brooks said that figure was unknown, suggesting it could be "a couple of tens of meters, maybe."

Brooks continued with an important point: ". . . I really must apologize for my lack of precision if we in the Administration have suggested that it was possible to have a bomb that penetrated far enough to trap all fallout. . . . I don't believe the laws of physics will ever let that be true. It is certainly not what we think we're doing now. What we're trying to [do is] get in the ground far enough so that the energy goes deep into ground to hold at risk deeply buried facilities. But it is very important for this committee to recognize what we on our side recognize. This is a nuclear weapon that is going to be hugely destructive and destructive over a large area. No sane person would use a weapon like that lightly, and I regret any impression that anybody, including me, has given that would suggest that this is going to be any easier a decision. . . . I do want to make it clear that any thought . . . [that] nuclear weapons . . . aren't really destructive is just nuts."

Regarding the RNEP study, Brooks framed one of the major issues that will be asked on Capitol Hill in coming months: "My [personal] view . . . is that the world's only superpower would be ill-advised to be in a position where there is something that we can't hold at risk somehow, because I think that weakens deterrence. But that's the debate that we need to have. . . . "