Keith J. Costa - InsideDefense.com
June 27, 2007 -- Senate appropriators have marked up legislation that would provide $66 million for the National Nuclear Security Administration's Reliable Replacement Warhead program in fiscal year 2008, setting the stage for a showdown with their House counterparts who want to eliminate funding for the effort.
The mark-up, approved by the Senate Appropriations energy and water development subcommittee yesterday, would allocate a total of $32 billion for the Energy Department, which includes NNSA, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation. The full committee will consider the bill tomorrow afternoon.
No changes in the Reliable Replacement Warhead, or RRW, budget line are expected during the full panel mark-up, congressional sources tell InsideDefense.com.
For NNSA, which manages a wide range of nuclear weapons and nonproliferation activities, the subcommittee endorsed $9.6 billion in spending for FY-08, $178 million more than the White House requested, according to a statement from the panel.
The Bush administration has been moving forward with preliminary plans to retire nuclear warheads designed during the Cold War, and deploy newly designed RRWs in their place. The first Cold War-era nuclear warheads to be replaced in this fashion would be W-76s that are now deployed on the Navy's submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
Earlier this year, the Defense Department-led Nuclear Weapons Council chose an RRW design submitted by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, CA, over a competing design from Los Alamos National Laboratory, NM, as the system that could be used with such missiles. RRWs are supposed to be less expensive, safer and more environmentally friendly than Cold War-era warheads, and they are supposed to be deployable without conducting full-blown underground tests.
Administration officials are convinced RRWs are needed in order to continue abiding by a U.S. self-imposed moratorium on such tests. However, critics say work on the new warheads would undermine American nonproliferation policy, which aims to stop other countries from developing nuclear arsenals in part by setting an example of decreasing reliance on nuclear weapons.
In any case, deploying the Livermore design is not a done deal. Congressional approval for this kind of move, along with continued funding, would be needed before any RRWs are fielded.
Meanwhile, NNSA and Navy officials have been collaborating on a cost study for deploying RRWs.
Indeed, much of the money the administration sought for RRW in FY-08 would be used to complete a "Phase 2A design definition and cost study," according to an Energy Department budget document released in February. "Once this acquisition planning is completed and if the [Nuclear Weapons Council] decides to proceed to engineering and production development, funding will be requested in the outyears . . . to support an executable program," the document states.
Four congressional committees have jurisdiction over the RRW program. The House has already approved the House Armed Services Committee's FY-08 defense authorization bill, which cut the program's budget by $45 million. House authorizers want to slow work on the project until a proposed bipartian panel examines overall nuclear weapons policy for the nation.
The Senate Armed Services Committee in its version of the defense bill reduced RRW funding by nearly the same amount.
The House Appropriations Committee, for its part, eliminated funding for RRW and called for a new strategy for transforming the nation's nuclear arsenal and related infrastructure before proceeding with plans for new warheads. The full chamber started work on the committee's bill earlier this month, but a final vote has been put off until later this summer.
The House panel's decision on RRW is expected to remain untouched by the chamber when a final vote on the spending bill takes place. Thus, the different course of action taken by Senate appropriators in approving $66 million for the project means lawmakers from both chambers will have to work out a compromise in a future conference.
The Senate subcommittee's money, though, would only come with strings attached. For instance, NNSA would be restricted to work related to the Phase 2A study, and it may not begin any initial work on a follow-on RRW device, which some have dubbed the RRW-2, according to a Senate Appropriations Committee spokesman.
Senate appropriators also recommended blocking funds for NNSA's project to rebuild and streamline infrastructure in the nuclear weapons complex, which includes Los Alamos, Livermore and the Nevada Test Site, until the agency is done with its study.
Stockpile stewardship programs, which attempt to verify the safety and efficacy of existing nuclear warheads without full-blown testing, would not be affected by this prohibition, Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM), the energy and water development subcommittee's ranking member, said in statement yesterday. Much of the work on stockpile stewardship, including the use of advanced computers to create virtual simulations of weapons behavior, occurs at labs like Los Alamos and Livermore.
"While we await completion of the RRW feasibility study, which will answer many questions regarding the future stockpile, our bill directs . . . NNSA not to undertake transformational activities and instead focus on improving the security and focus on the scientific future of the laboratories," he said. -- Keith J. Costa