Thursday, April 6, 2006

The Bush administration is designing a new nuclear warhead that will replace aging stockpiles of weapons and counter emerging threats, according to Energy Department officials.

The Reliable Replacement Warhead is being drawn up at two Energy Department nuclear weapons laboratories and, if produced, would be the first new strategic warhead in more than a decade.

The warhead is part of a nuclear modernization program revealed Wednesday before the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces by Thomas P. D’Agostino, deputy administrator for defense programs in the department’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

“It will improve the performance of individual warheads, and it will let us transform the infrastructure to be much more responsive, and because it does these things, it will allow us to keep far fewer warheads …,” NNSA Director Linton Brooks said in an interview yesterday.

Mr. Brooks said the warhead has very good support in Congress, which must fund the program. If the design is approved in November, it could be developed and produced by 2012, he said.

Mr. Brooks said the warhead is in many ways a “component replacement” program but that so many replacements and upgrades will be made that it could be considered new. It will be easier to build, use less dangerous materials and will involve new designs for greater safety, security and greater performance margins, he said.

The warhead has been described by U.S. officials as having a “modular” design that will allow it to be adapted to various delivery systems, including missiles, bombers or submarines.

“These replacement warheads have the same military characteristics, are carried on the same types of delivery systems and hold at risk the same targets as the warheads they replaced, but they have been redesigned for reliability, security and ease of maintenance,” Mr. D’Agostino said.

Modernizing the U.S. nuclear weapons complex is needed to counter “unanticipated events or emerging threats,” he said. It also will boost “the ability to anticipate innovations by an adversary and to counter them before our deterrent is degraded,” he said.

The U.S. nuclear modernization effort comes as both China and Russia are building up their strategic nuclear forces. Both nations were described in a recent Pentagon study as states at “strategic crossroads.”

China is deploying three new types of long-range nuclear missiles, and Russia has developed new strategic missiles designed to defeat U.S. missile defenses.

Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week that he supports the new warhead. The replacement warhead is “the key to transforming our aging Cold War nuclear weapons stockpile,” Gen. Cartwright said.

The U.S. nuclear warhead arsenal is being cut from about 10,000 warheads to about 6,000 over the next six years.

Another key goal of the new warhead program is to restore the infrastructure for producing nuclear weapons that has decreased sharply in both people and facilities since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

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