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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

The Day, CT January 13, 2007

New Warhead Could Siphon Funds From Sub Builders

Two Labs Compete To Design New Tips For Trident Missile

By Seth Owen

A long-delayed decision on a replacement warhead for the missiles carried on Trident submarines may mean more work for nuclear warhead designers — but possibly at the expense of funding for submarines.

“What it means is less money for submarines. The cost is billions, at least enough for another Virginia,” said New York-based military analyst James Dunnigan, author of “How to Make War” and other books on military affairs.

The latest Virginia-class attack submarine, the Hawaii, was a $2.5 billion project.

The decision on the Reliable Replacement Warhead, expected next week, was due by the end of last year, but it's been a “forever moving target,” spokeswoman Julie Ann Smith of the National Nuclear Security Administration said in a telephone interview.

The NNSA, an agency of the federal Department of Energy, is responsible for choosing between designs submitted by two competing laboratories: Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. The nation's nuclear warhead programs have been under the civilian control since the Atomic Energy Commission was created in 1946. The programs later came under the Department of Energy when that cabinet-level agency was created in 1977.

“There are still interagency decisions being made,” Smith said this week. “There won't be a decision in the next several days.”

The two labs are competing to design a new warhead to replace the W76, mounted on the tip of the Trident II D-5 missile carried by Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines. The challenge is to design a warhead that the engineers can be sure will work, even though the 1992 U.S. moratorium on nuclear testing means it cannot be tested.

The W76 warhead arms most of the Trident missiles carried by the Ohio class. Production of the newer W88 warhead that was originally going to replace the W76 was stopped for safety and technical reasons after about 400 were made, according to estimates by GlobalSecurity.org, leaving about 3,000 W76 warheads to arm the rest of the missiles.

Each of the 14 submarines can carry 24 missiles, with each missile carrying up to three warheads, although the exact numbers and types of weapons loaded aboard each submarine is classified.

The older warheads need to be maintained and parts eventually replaced because of age, Dunnigan said.

“The problem with a warhead, like any electromagnetic device, is that it wears out as it ages, even if you're not taking it out and using it,” he said.

Critics of the Reliable Replacement Warhead program say, however, that replacing the non-nuclear components does not mean it's necessary to replace the nuclear core or design a new warhead.

“The current approach to surveil and evaluate the existing stockpile, replacing non-nuclear components and remanufacturing the plutonium cores, is viable,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington, D.C., in a telephone interview this week. “It's a radically different approach to design an entirely new warhead that will not be field-tested.”


Both of the nation's facilities that can design nuclear weapons are taking part in the RRW competition.

The Los Alamos design is expected to be a brand new design that uses existing components that have been tested, Kimball said. This approach is more radical because it introduces uncertainty about whether the warhead will work as expected when put together in a way that's never been tested, he said

Kimball said the Livermore labs design is expected to be a “more robust” version of an existing design in order to achieve the certainty needed.

“More robust in this context means more fuel for the bomb,” he said.

In both cases the challenge is to design a weapon that will go off as expected with the explosive power wanted without ever being tested in advance, Kimball and Dunnigan said.

Dunnigan said that is not an insurmountable problem because simulation technology has advanced to the point that engineers can know it will work with a “high degree” of confidence.

Still, not being able to conduct live tests unavoidably introduces some doubt into the process, Kimball said, which could prompt resistance in Congress.

“Congress could say, 'You'd better be sure it's reliable or we're not going to spend the money,'” Kimball said.

Some experts say the real purpose of the project is to bring work to the laboratories.

“There's a special interest that needs the work to survive,” said Dunnigan. The worry is that the country's ability to design nuclear weapons could suffer if the highly skilled scientists and engineers needed don't have enough work or are not challenged by the work they do have.

“The purpose of the program is to train and motivate future designers” said Dr. Michael A. Levi, fellow for science and technology at the Council of Foreign Relations in New York.

Published reports suggest that the final decision may end up supporting some hybrid program that combines the ideas of the two labs, a notion termed “peculiar” by Levi.

A hybrid program seems designed to meet bureaucratic needs by spreading the work around to everyone involved, instead of selecting the best design, Levi said. It could backfire, Levi warns, and end up not really motivating anyone because there would be no consequence to losing the competition.

The argument that the work is needed to preserve jobs at the labs and the ability to design warheads is something of a “straw man,” Dunnigan said, especially if it comes at the cost of other programs in the competition for other defense dollars.

If the country needed to recreate the ability to do the design work after a long layoff, it could be done, analysts said.

“You can restart a production line, but there's a buy-in cost. Everything comes down to money. It will cost you money. You see the problem with the Chinese, who are trying to buy-in to the high-performance jet engine business and having a devil of a time,” Dunnigan said.

“In 1943 the United States didn't have the capability to build nuclear weapons. Two years later, in 1945, we used one in combat,” said Levi. “I find it hard to believe we could not reconstitute a nuclear design capability if needed.”

And the two labs already have a considerable amount of work maintaining the current nuclear arsenal, said Kimball.

“They already have work,” he said. “It's not like a shipyard. If there's no contract to build a new sub, then it's not going to stick around. It will do other work or go out of business. In the case of Livermore or Los Alamos, they already have the equivalent of a hefty contract.”

NNSA, the agency overseeing the competition, has been embroiled in some controversy over the past year over a series of security breaches at the nation's nuclear labs. This led to the resignation last week of administrator Linton Brooks at the request of Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman.

The planned departure of Brooks does not affect the timing of the decision, NNSA's Smith said. “It's irrelevant,” she said. Brooks will be staying on until a successor is in place. Smith said Brooks is not playing a central role in the decision, which involves input from multiple agencies and is mostly being handled by mid-level officials.

Copyright 2007, The Day