By Ian Hoffman, STAFF WRITER
Article Last Updated: 04/25/2007 02:51:27 AM PDT
The United States needs to decide the purpose and size of its nuclear arsenal before embarking on a plan for rebuilding its warheads and the factories that maintain them, a panel of nuclear weapons experts said Tuesday.
Those experts concluded that U.S. hydrogen bomb designers at Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos labs can, in theory, devise replacement warheads without nuclear testing, but the experts said a lack of essential cost, engineering and scheduling details made it impossible to decide whether pursuing the new warheads is more desirable than maintaining existing bombs.
The administration's multibillion-dollar plan for the new bombs and factories is faltering in Congress, and the panel of weapons officials assembled by the American Association for the Advancement of Science suggested in its report Tuesday that the plan's prospects are bleak without higher-level decisions from the White House and Pentagon.
"There really is no policy," said former Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory director Bruce Tarter, chairman of the AAAS panel that studied plans for the new replacement warheads. "That policy framework really is important if you're going to make this big of a change."
So far, the panel concluded, the president and his cabinet have not made any statements on "the role of nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War, post-9/11 world that make the case for, and define, future stockpile needs."
That assessment adds the influential voices of several former nuclear weapons lab directors and Energy Department weapons officials to fresh calls for a high-level U.S. review of what its nuclear weapons are for, how many it needs and whether new kinds of bombs are needed, such as bunker busters or enhanced radiation weapons.
"This reflects the mood of a growing number of defense and foreign policy leaders who understand that the nuclear posture is still a Cold War policy," said Daryl Kimball, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Arms Control Association.
Gen. James Cartwright, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, as well as former defense secretary William Perry and former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, have called for such a national nuclear policy debate. Whatever course is selected, the AAAS' experts concluded, building replacement bombs and new factories will be costly and span decades. The policy will need bipartisan support across several presidential administrations and congresses, and must balance weapons needs with arms-control needs, the panel said.
But not everyone agrees that such a revamp of U.S. policy is necessary before pursuing the new bombs. Former Livermore director Johnny Foster, one of the nation's first designers, dissented from the AAAS report, saying the new "reliable replacement warheads," or RRWs, ought not to be "held hostage to the resolution of domestic and international political nuclear weapons issues."
For now, the RRW program is limited to one project, the design of a replacement for the W76 warhead riding on U.S. submarine-launched missiles, Foster said.
"I don't think starting that very modest program is something you should call on the president to speak up about," Foster said.
Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Alamos, is chair of a House strategic forces subcommittee and represents a district that includes Livermore and Sandia National Laboratories, California, the two labs working on the first RRW design.
She said the panel's report reflected her desire that "clear policy objectives must be outlined so the program can move forward."
Several Republicans in Congress have called on the White House and Pentagon to get more involved in weapons policy. Last week, Sen. Pete V. Domenici, R-N.M., the ranking Senate appropriator on weapons matters, wrote Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, saying "your voice must be heard."
"You must answer critics who have argued that the RRW will lead to an arms race," Domenici wrote.
He also suggested that the new warheads could be linked with reconsideration of the administration's opposition to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, an idea that Tauscher raised last winter.
The senator's letter is a measure of the difficulty that the new warheads plan faces in Congress, said Kimball of the Arms Control Association.
"It's a cry for help: 'The administration needs to do a better job of selling this program on the Hill,'" he said.
The likelihood of a full-scale nuclear policy review before the end of President Bush's term is waning. The review requires key cost and scheduling figures being developed by Livermore scientists, plus outside reviews of their warhead designs — something that could last beyond the president's last budget request and put future U.S. nuclear policy before the next administration.
"I think it will be a major decision for the next president, assuming Congress maintains the program, to decide what to do," said Tarter.
Contact Ian Hoffman at email@example.com or (510) 208-6458.
[Would somebody please let Heather Wilson know that Sandia has been moved to Ellen Tauscher's district.]