Everything is going according to plan. Well, almost everything.

Buried in Vol. 2 (of 3) of the Air Force’s FY 2011 R&D budget (the entire budget encompasses 33 documents, some of them are more than 1,000 pages long) is an item referring to the “reliable replacement warhead.” This is the controversial Bush administration proposal (once, and perhaps still, supported by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates) to design a less complex nuclear warhead that is less prone to decay and dysfunction over time. This is important because every weapon in our current arsenal is at least 20 years old (and some are much older) and many of them are incredibly complex and thus, potentially, don’t work any more—but we don’t know it. Former nuclear weapons designer Thomas Reed analogizes a nuclear weapon to highly complex sports car: You can’t leave a Ferrari in the garage for 20 years, and then decide one day you want to take it for a spin, and count on it starting just like that.

Not that we are quite so neglectful as that. The U.S. has a lot of programs to gauge the potential reliability of our arsenal, but all of them stop short of the decisive step—fissile testing—because that is deed too internationally provocative and domestically unpopular. Our best guess is that the tests we do run are quite good. But at the end of the day, we can’t be sure that which or how many of our weapons will work and which won’t. Which, of course, undermines the basic purpose of the arsenal: to scare (“deter”) potential attackers from doing anything too rash lest they unleash the worst we can throw at them.

The answer was once said to be the “reliable replacement warhead,” a less complex design made from existing fissile material and no small measure of recycled parts that would incorporate everything we have learned from more than half a century of research, design, and testing. It would not be as powerful or as advanced as our most cutting-edge weapons, but that is the whole point. In being simpler, it would be more, well, reliable. Rather than a Ferrari in that garage think of it as maybe not quite a Model T but a ’57 Chevy.

The RRW is controversial because doves and disarmament advocates believe it amounts to building new nuclear warheads and thus moves in the wrong direction from where we should want to go (a world without nuclear weapons), sets a bad international example, and perhaps could spur a new arms race. President Obama has made opposition to the RRW a key component of his nuclear policy agenda. Vice President Biden and Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher have denounced it in vociferous terms. Nonetheless, one reads occasionally of rear-guard actions within the bureaucracy to keep the program alive.

Could this budget item be one such? The Air Force denies it, calling it a holdover from the last budget, essentially a clerical error (a cut-and-paste mistake perhaps?).

It was certainly a PR error. The last thing the Air Force or anyone in government who supports the RRW should want to do is draw attention to it—especially using the phrase “reliable replacement warhead,” which has become politically radioactive.

It’s rare that I can agree wholeheartedly with Hans Kristensen of the anti-nuclear Federation of American Scientists, but here he is (quoted by Kyodo News) on the apparent mistake: “Whatever new or modified warheads they plan will not get the name RRW.... Rather, new or modified warhead will probably emerge as part of the life extension program," that is, the current programs in place for assessing the operability of existing warheads.

Let’s hope he’s right. I for one am optimistic that he is. As I have written several times in this space, President Obama has virtually no chance of getting any of his nuclear agenda through the Senate unless he meets concerns, shared by all the Republicans plus Joe Lieberman, about the long-term reliability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. And they won’t rest satisfied simply with more support for the life extension program as currently practiced.

Meanwhile, memo to the Air Force: listen to Kristensen. His PR instincts are spot on. Bury the phrase “reliable replacement warhead” deep down in one of the big holes at the Nevada Test Site. And be more careful with the “cut-and-paste” function.

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