- The Washington Times - Monday, May 9, 2005

The Bush administration faces strong opposition in Congress to funding for research to bolster the U.S. nuclear arsenal for the second year in a row, but it may receive a limited budget for one program, administration and congressional officials say.

The proposal that met most resistance from both Democrats and Republicans is the creation of a Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP), the “bunker buster” that would be able to break through rock.

“The Pentagon has been interested in improving our capabilities for several years, and there are hardened and deeply buried targets around the world,” said Linton Brooks, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

Last year, he said, the administration “looked at two different bombs” and at how to “harden and control the way they strike.”

But the proposal raised the prospect of beginning production, which was seen as premature in Congress.

This year, Mr. Brooks said, the request is focused on one bomb and is limited to research. The administration is asking for $8.5 million in the 2006 budget.

“This is a feasibility study,” Mr. Brooks said. “There will be a separate decision to go to a more complete design study, and then we’ll talk about production.”

Officials said their intention is to look at a penetrator built and deployed by the Clinton administration and to study whether they can “harden” its capabilities.

Late last month, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld pressed Congress to approve the request, telling a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, “It seems to me studying it makes all the sense in the world.”

Two weeks ago, a congressionally mandated study by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences said the RNEP could kill more than 1 million people if used in a heavily populated area.

The administration also is asking for $9.4 million next year for a Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program to remove or modify aging components, which it says can be achieved without violating Washington’s self-imposed nuclear testing moratorium.

Many members of Congress still have doubts about both programs. Mr. Brooks said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the latter program.

The negotiations come amid talks on the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in New York, where the United States is seeking to ensure that civilian programs are not used as cover for weapons programs in countries such as Iran.

Sources familiar with the congressional negotiations said several House Republicans are working hard to find a compromise on the RRW program.

“Some people are concerned that this is a secret plot to develop new weapons,” Mr. Brooks said. “We are not starting an arms race; we are replacing components.”

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said replacement warheads are not needed to preserve existing nuclear capabilities. “Each year, a representative sample of the existing arsenal is inspected to check for signs of deterioration, and limited-life components are replaced if necessary,” he said.

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