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Big Week for Nuclear News

7:00 AM, Feb 9, 2010 • By MICHAEL ANTON
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Last week was a big one for nuclear news.  First, the Obama administration submitted its proposed budget for the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (that’s the agency that, among other things, maintains our warheads).  Second, an unnamed administration official announced an “agreement in principle” with the Russians for the START follow-on treaty. 

Big Week for Nuclear News

These two things are connected beyond the obvious point of contact.  The former is meant to be a down payment on the latter.  The administration has been put on notice that it faces substantial opposition in the Senate, not only to the ratification of this new treaty (whatever it ends up being called), but to its other arms control priorities as well.  The price, say a coalition of 41 mostly (but not entirely) Republican senators, is a serious commitment to upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal. 

The administration is therefore loudly trumpeting its request for 13.4 percent increase in funding for the NNSA.  Included in that is a $600 million (or nearly 10 percent) bump for the so-called “Weapons Activities” category, a catch-all that includes the all-important “stockpile support” line. Why is that so important?  Because what those senators want is “funding for a modern warhead,” which—if there were any—would be in that budget line. 

Is it?  Aye, there’s the rub.  Not that I can see.  It’s true, the administration is spending more money.  But not on a new warhead design or on any upgrade of an existing design. Rather, the money is going toward a number of other efforts.  There is, for instance, more “Life Extension” of the W76, an older-generation SLBM warhead that 20 years ago was slated to be replaced by the more advanced W88—production of which was subsequently cancelled in 1992.  There is also money for similar life extension for the B61, a bomb whose design goes back to the 1960s (though some variants are much more recent).  There’s funding for a “study” of the W78, one of the two types warheads on our 450 remaining Minuteman III ICBMs.  The rest is dedicated to modernizing and maintaining key capabilities that would allow us to make more substantive upgrades to the arsenal later. 

Alas, that does not seem to be in the offing now.  But the administration deserves credit for not killing off or starving those essential capabilities, and indeed for helping them maintain readiness for future work, should the order ever come.  It also deserves partial credit for not completely killing off the “Plutonium Sustainment” program, which (among other things) has been responsible for arguably the greatest nuclear success story of the young century: The reconstitution, from scratch, of the ability to produce W88 pits without fission testing.  This is important because we only produced around 400 W88s before closing the Rocky Flats production facility in 1992, and just about every year we take one apart to conduct component testing to make sure the others still work.  The nature of that testing is so exacting that the warheads, like Humpty Dumpty, cannot be put back together again.  Or at least they couldn’t until we figured out how to make new pits.  But after this year no more new pits will be made.  That’s the bad news.  The good news is that apparently this budget keeps the capability alive, just in case.  There were rumors that the administration was going to kill this program, so this counts as good news indeed. 

And there is other good news, but not the news that those senators will be looking for.  Indeed, all indications are to the contrary.  I would note the not-infrequent repetition of the phrase “consistent with the principles of the Stockpile Management Program defined in Section 3113 (a)(2) of the National Defense Authorization Act of Fiscal Year 2010 (50 U.S.C. 2524),” which appears in the budget request six times.  It’s a mouthful.  Here’s what it means: Congressional Democrats inserted, into the FY 2010 defense bill, language repealing the Bush administration’s directive to the Energy Department to get to work on a “Reliable Replacement Warhead.”  So any activity undertaken with this new funding must be “consistent with the principles” of not working on anything that might remotely be considered a new warhead design. 

Wondering why you didn’t hear Jon Kyl or Joe Lieberman speak out in favor of this budget?  Now you know why.  Of course, they haven’t attacked it either—probably because they recognize that it could have been much worse, and because they believe that the game is far from over. 

Which it probably is not.  And which brings us back to that treaty.  President Obama desperately wants it ratified.  To get it, he knows he is going to have to make serious concessions to the “Gang of 41” (the Senate signatories to a letter to the president on this).  This budget is intended to thread a narrow needle: Spend more money, keep alive some important programs, but don’t do anything that might upset arms controllers or complicate international negotiations.  Will the senators buy it?  I doubt it. 

If anything, the probable outline of the deal with the Russians will only complicate matters.  The last reported sticking point was missile telemetry.  We wanted data from the Russians on their advanced SS-27 ICBM, which is supposed to be capable of beating any missile defense technology currently in development.  They wanted telemetry for our interceptors.  Telemetry on ICBMs has been a staple of prior treaties; defensive interceptors have never been covered.  The sudden breakthrough suggests that we gave in.  Did we?  No details—leaked or otherwise—have as yet come out.  If that’s really what happened, expect the Gang of 41 to be unhappy about it.  The rest of the treaty—steep cuts to our warhead stockpile and delivery systems—is already problematic enough. 

The administration is going full tilt on the communications front, with Vice President Biden as chief spokesman.  He telegraphed the budget request with an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, and this Wednesday will give what is being billed as a major speech “on the future of the United States’ nuclear deterrent capabilities.”  The salesmanship has so far been not bad.  The administration has gotten some much-needed good press on the national security front thanks to the increased funding request.  Whether that can be sustained is another matter.  Ultimately, successful salesmanship depends on the product being sold.  So far, it appears there isn’t one. 

It’s still possible that the administration is willing to make deal: Work on something that looks a lot like the Reliable Replacement Warhead while billing it as something totally different.  What’s certain is that one side is going to have to give on something it doesn’t want to give on, or else there will be no ratification—not this year, not ever.

Correction and Update:

An original version of this post attributed a quote to the lead U.S. negotiator on the START follow-on treaty, that the US and Russia had achieved an “agreement in principle.”  In fact, the lead U.S. negotiator -- Assistant Secretary Rose Gottemoeller -- did not say that; the quote is rather from an unnamed administration official.   I regret the error.

Also, Vice President Biden’s speech, originally scheduled for tomorrow, February 10th, has been postponed to Thursday, February 18th, owing to the snow in D.C.  Gives new meaning to the phrase “nuclear winter”!

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