On Tuesday, October 25, the Chairman of the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee Pete Domenici (R-NM) announced that Senate Energy appropriators would recede to the House position and eliminate funds for the controversial Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP) from the fiscal year 2006 budget.

As a result, for the second year in a row, a bipartisan coalition of forces has denied funding for the RNEP, which should effectively end the research on nuclear earth penetrators.

The catalyst for the RNEP program was the Pentagon's 2001 Nuclear Posture Review, which called for the United States to develop "new nuclear weapon capabilities" to deal with targets located in deep underground, hardened bunkers. The next year, the Bush administration requested funds for research for a modified, high-yield bomb for this mission.

At first, Congress grudgingly supported research on the RNEP, also known as the "nuclear bunker-buster." But over the last four years, the depth and breadth of congressional opposition has grown as public interest groups, former military officials, and former weapons designers have campaigned against the nuclear bunker-buster. Much of the credit for the complete elimination of the RNEP funding from the fiscal year 2006 Energy Department appropriations bill goes to Domenici's counterpart in the House, Chairman David Hobson (R-OH).

Arguments for RNEP Not Credible

After a detailed examination of the proposal, Hobson did not buy the administration's arguments for the program. As he did last year, Hobson once again led the bipartisan opposition to the RNEP and prevailed in the end-of-year conference committee to reconcile differences between the House and Senate spending measures.

Administration officials have argued that the RNEP would make U.S. nuclear capabilities and threat of their use more credible in potential future conflicts, presumably with states such as North Korea or Iran. Although the "nuclear bunker-buster" became a symbol around the globe of the administration's "do as I say, not as I do" nuclear nonproliferation attitude, the administration insisted that program would only "slightly complicate" U.S. nonproliferation efforts.

Hobson and many of his Republican and Democratic colleagues realize the nonproliferation costs of trying to enhance the credibility of U.S. nuclear threats are high and the benefits illusory. Maintaining and expanding the role of U.S. nuclear weapons not only contradicts accepted international norms of nonproliferation behavior, but it invites countermoves by other countries. The devastating power and collateral effects of the proposed new weapons also make it clear that their use or threat of use is no more credible, necessary, or justifiable than existing nuclear weapons.

"Other than a Cold War 'Russia gone bad' scenario, I don't believe our nuclear stockpile is useful against our new foes," Hobson told a National Academy of Sciences gathering last year. "What worries me about the nuclear penetrator is that some idiot might try to use it," he said.

Hobson has good reasons to worry. Destroying a deeply buried bunker requires a high-yield blast too large to avoid dispersal of radioactive debris and fallout even if the weapon is designed to penetrate tens of meters before detonation. Even if new, smaller-yield nuclear weapons are developed and used against suspected chemical or biological weapons sites, the fallout would still be significant, and small errors in intelligence and targeting could disperse rather than destroy deadly chemical or biological material. Improvements in specialized conventional munitions offer significant and more practical capabilities without the risk of crossing the nuclear threshold.

The Debate Evolves

The RNEP may be dead, but the debate in the United States over the roles and missions of existing and possibly "new" nuclear weapons is far from over.

In response to the Nuclear Posture Review and a 2001 Bush National Security Presidential Directive, the Pentagon is still pursuing a revised "Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations" that calls for maintaining an aggressive nuclear posture with weapons on high alert to strike adversaries armed with weapons of mass destruction (WMD), pre-emptively if necessary. Details of the draft doctrine are reported and analyzed in an article by Hans Kristensen published in the September issue of Arms Control Today, the monthly journal of the Arms Control Association.

And, even though it failed to convince Hobson on the RNEP, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has won his initial support for a program to research new "reliable replacement warheads to sustain existing military capabilities" that will supposedly lower costs and not require nuclear explosive proof testing. NNSA Administrator Linton Brooks told Congress the goal of the effort should be to develop and produce a "small build" of the new warheads by 2012-2015.

Reliable replacement warheads may sound more attractive, but the rationale for the program is dubious, the scope is vague, and it is potentially dangerous. Congress must carefully define the scope and direction of the program.

Why? New replacement warheads are not necessary to preserve existing U.S. nuclear-weapon capabilities. Each year, a representative sample of the existing arsenal is inspected to check for signs of deterioration, and limited-life components are replaced if necessary. The reliability of existing warheads has been and can continue to be maintained if the weapons labs avoid unnecessary alterations to the existing weapons during refurbishment.

Worse still, if weapons scientists get the green light to build more rugged nuclear weapons and the program is given carte blanche, the weapons labs may, in the end, be able to achieve their controversial new nuclear weapons research ambitions denied with the defeat of the RNEP. In a revealing comment to The Oakland Tribune earlier this year, the former NNSA deputy administrator Everet Beckner said, "[T]hat's not the primary objective, but [it] would be a fortuitous associated event."

Finally, replacing existing, well-proven nuclear warhead designs with "new" and "improved" replacement warheads or warhead components could, if carelessly pursued, increase pressure to conduct nuclear explosive proof tests. Even if it does not, replacing existing systems with more robust systems would likely require costly testing and retrofitting of the delivery systems to carry the new "replacement" warheads.

Rather than continue to pursue its obsession with a new generation of  more "usable" nuclear weapons, the White House should focus the NNSA on its primary mission: maintaining the reliability of the remaining nuclear stockpile without testing, while dismantling the tens of thousands of excess strategic and tactical weapons here and abroad.

This analysis was written by Daryl G. Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control Association.

Related Links:

Arms Control Association, www.ArmsControl.org

Domenici: RNEP Funds Dropped from Appropriations Bill, Press Release from the Office of Senator Pete V. Domenici (R-NM), 25 October 2005

"Fire in the Hole: Nuclear and Non-Nuclear Options for Counterproliferation," By Michael A. Levi, Carnegie Paper No. 31, November 2002