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Dazed and Confused by RRW - Part 4

Welcome to the final post in my series on the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program and the future of U.S. nuclear stockpile stewardship. In this post, I'll review where RRW stands today, and touch briefly on some of the political dimensions of the debate over the program.There's a lot of material on this program from the government, from outside experts and from policy advocates of all orientations that I won't be able to cover, so to those interested in reading more, I recommend checking out CDI's guide to government documents on RRW, as well as articles on the program at the Arms Control Association website and over at Arms Control Wonk.w76.jpgIn May 2005, the two nuclear design labs, Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore, began an 18-month RRW Feasibility Study, as mandated in the fiscal year 2006 Defense Authorization Act. The study consisted of a design competition between the two labs (both with help from Sandia) to produce plans for the first RRW warhead, a replacement for the W76 submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead.The preliminary designs were completed and submitted in March, and underwent peer review in the labs in May. Currently, the teams are back at the drawing boards, incorporating suggestions from the peer reviews and from the Project Officers Group, the representatives of the nuclear stockpile's Department of Defense "customers." By November, NNSA is expected to pick a winning design.As reported in Defense Tech last week, however, RRW is well on its way to expanding beyond a single warhead design. It has been clear for some time that one RRW design would not be enough to replace all nine warhead models currently in the stockpile. Still, many RRW observers were disappointed and concerned to hear that the Senate is planning to commission a design competition for the next RRW warhead and to allocate $62 million for RRW in 2007 more than double the departments $27 million request, and the programs $25 million budget for 2006 before the first feasibility study is even completed.The arguments in favor of RRW have mostly been described in previous posts: redesigning the stockpile to increase performance margins would, if possible, help put to rest concerns about the effect of modified manufacturing practices on warhead performance, and would provide work for the nuclear weapons complex.The arguments against RRW, meanwhile, take issue with both the programs desirability and its feasibility.The first argument against the program is that, according to the programs opponents, there is no need to change the current warhead designs. In the example of the pit remanufacturing debate discussed in my last post, this means that the programs opponents believe that the new pits have been proven conclusively to be as reliable as the old pits, and can be incorporated into existing warheads.(Dr. Jeanloz, by the way, is on the record as an RRW "skeptic," rather than an outright critic, but several other experts have offered views similar to his as arguments against RRW.)NTS.jpgThe second main argument against RRW is that a significantly modified warhead design which has not been tested cannot possibly be as reliable as a tested design. Critics who advance this argument point out that independent assessments predating RRW by government advisory bodies such as the JASONs found that "entirely new designs for the nuclear subsystem... would be expected to require nuclear-explosion (underground) testing before being accepted for the enduring stockpile."This assessment contradicts the NNSAs assessment that the RRW designs will "be certifiable and producible without nuclear testing" even though the plans call for "redesigning" the warheads' nuclear subsystems. Nuclear testing is almost universally regarded as a very bad thing the Bush Administration is formally committed to continuing the current testing moratorium, in no small part due to concern that a U.S. test would inevitably lead to Chinese and Russian tests.Critics who cite this concern point out that even if the nuclear weapons complex ever brought itself to certify a warhead design which had never been tested, U.S. Strategic Command, as the stockpile's "customer," would be unlikely to accept such an unproven product.It is worth noting, by the way, that there are certain modest modifications which can increase warheads' performance margins to a certain extent without adding uncertainty these changes are not controversial, and are being considered outside of RRW.Finally, critics point out that the program's supposed contributions to the goal of "stockpile transformation" are not consistent with each other.On the one hand, RRW is supposed to lead to long-term cost-savings by producing a stockpile which can be maintained without a complex stockpile stewardship effort. On the other hand, RRW is also supposed to "continuously exercise" the nuclear weapons complex and "enable" the transition to a "responsive infrastructure."The two goals are clearly incompatible a good-for-a-century warhead design which met Congress' goal of reducing the cost and complexity of stockpile maintenance would not meet NNSA's goal (and Congress' secondary goal) of keeping the production complex "exercised" for a possible future arms race. (Ryan jokes that to some people, RRW seems to stand for "Reliably Recurring Work.")signpost.jpgAs the Congressional Research Service points out, "RRW is a new program with no specific, tangible product yet defined. In deciding how to proceed on RRW, Congress has a number of options available to it." It is possible that a version of the program will emerge which can satisfy the concerns of all sides of those who worry that the current stockpile stewardship paradigm will lead to a dangerous accumulation of minor changes, and of those who worry that a significant overhaul of warhead designs will destroy, rather than fortify, confidence in the stockpile. Until such a version emerges, though, we can expect to see both confusion and controversy continue to rage.- Haninah Levine

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