Testing the No-New-Nuclear-Weapons Pledge

The Air Force is considering a replacement for the nuclear air-launched cruise missile. Will the NPR agree or adhere to Barack Obama’s no-new-nuclear-weapons pledge?

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By Hans M. Kristensen [updated March 18, 2010]

One of the important tests of Obama Administration’s nuclear nonproliferation policy will be whether the long-delayed Nuclear Posture Review will approve new nuclear weapons.

During his election campaign, Barack Obama promised not to build new nuclear weapons, a pledge that recently has been reiterated by the administration.

Yet the Air Force’s budget request for 2011 includes several projects that, if approved, would contradict the pledge.

The “No New” Pledge

During the presidential election campaign, Barack Obama pledge to “stop the development of new nuclear weapons” if elected president. The pledged lived on for the first few months after the election on the Obama administration’s White House foreign policy web page, but disappeared when the page was reorganized at the time of the Prague speech in April 2009.

Since the, the president has, to my knowledge, not repeated the pledge. But Under Secretary of State Ellen Tauscher echoed the election pledge last month when she explained that the Pentagon says it does “not need new nuclear weapons capabilities. They just want to be confident in what we have,” she said and declared: “We are not in the business of seeking new nuclear capabilities. They are not needed to preserve a strong, credible deterrent.”

New Nuclear Weapons

Yet “new” seems to be an elusive term. Even though Tauscher promised that the “RRW is dead and is not coming back,” the Air Force nuclear weapons support program includes “Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) Studies & Analysis” in both 2010 and 2011. Perhaps she meant RRW as it was known rather than ruling out future replacement warheads. [Update March 18, 2010: The US Air Force now says the reference to RRW studies and analysis is an error and that the item mistakenly was left in the budget request from the previous year]

More RRW Studies?
Despite a promise that the “RRW is dead and is not coming back,” the Air Force budget request includes RRW studies and analysis in both 2010 and 2011. Click for larger version.

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Another apparent contradictions with the administration’s no new nuclear weapons pledge is a new nuclear cruise missile to replace the current Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) that expires in 2030. The new weapon is known as the Enhanced Cruise Missile (ECM), and development of nuclear weapons requirements documents are planned for 2010 and 2011, along with a Phase 6.2 Study, also known as a Feasibility Study and Option Down Select study. [Update March 18, 2010: The US Air Force now says the reference to the ECM is an error and that the item mistakenly was left in the budget request from the previous year. But the reference to the LRSO is not an error]

A New Nuclear Cruise Missile?
The Air Force budget request includes what appears to be a replacement for the nuclear Air Launched Cruise Missile. Will the NPR approve? Click for larger version.

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The Enhanced Cruise Missile appears to be part of a program known as the Follow-On Long Range Stand-Off (LRSO) Vehicle to develop a replacement for the Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM).

The plan includes production of the Initial Capabilities Document (ICD) in early 2010, a Material Development Decision (MDD) in September 2010, and an Acquisition Decision in late 2011 or 2012. With that timeline, the NPR will have to make a decision.

New or Modified Warhead

One question is whether the new cruise missile will use a modified version of the existing W80-1 warhead currently deployed on the ALCM for B-52 delivery, or require development of a new warhead.

A W80-1 warhead is mated with an ALCM.

Until 2006, a life extension program (LEP) existed to extend the life of the W80-1. The LEP version was called W80-3. A parallel program to extend the W80-0 warhead would have produced the W80-2. But the Bush administration decided to “defer” the programs in pursuit of the RRW. That effort failed but the W80 LEP is still “archived,” according to the Air Force FY2011 budget request.

The remaining W80-1 warheads are scheduled to receive new neutron generators in 2015-2017, but a refurbishment of the nuclear explosive package is not planned until 2036-2039, according to the NNSA’s FY09 refurbishment planning schedule (no schedule exists yet for FY2010 or FY2011). No life-extension is planned for the W80-0, which will be retired.

Warhead Refurbishment Plan?
The National Nuclear Security Administration’s nuclear warhead refurbishment plan does not include a formal life-extension program for the W80-1 warhead. An expensive program would be added if the NPR approves the Air Force’s cruise missile plan.
Chart obtained under FOIA. Click for larger version.

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A decision to use a modified version of the existing W80-1 in the new cruise missile would involve reviving the $200 million per year W80-3 LEP program.

New or Just “New”

Nuclear weapons modernization programs risk triggering a contentious debate similar to the dispute over the RRW and whether Obama’s no-nuclear-weapons pledge can be trusted.

Does a new “weapon” refer to the warhead on the missile or the delivery vehicle itself or both? And how new must a weapon be to be considered “new” – does it require an entirely new design or can a modified design be considered a “new” weapon?

Government officials have to be crystal clear when they present the results of the NPR to make sure the administration’s nonproliferation policy doesn’t get stuck in the mud of misunderstandings and contradictions about what constitutes a “new” nuclear weapon. A lot is at stake.

Additional Information: Pentagon Eyes More Than $800 Million for New Nuclear Cruise Missile

This publication was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

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2 Responses to “Testing the No-New-Nuclear-Weapons Pledge”

  1. Distiller March 13, 2010 at 3:51 am #

    That new cruise missile will be tied in with the NGB programme.

    The real hilarious point of that request for a new cruise missile is that the Air Force just recently dumped their AGM-129, which should have been perfectly good for another 15 years. They stated high maintenance costs as the reason (or something like that). But that sounds like BS, and the only real reason for the early retirement should be much more serious, like that it had been compromised for example – if you concede that Air Force decision making is a logical process …

    Regarding the warhead question – “no new” makes about as much sense as “no more testing”. Exactly zilch. And it is dangerous. Since getting rid of nuclear weapons is not realistic, the whole nuclear complex – from digging stuff up to the mission ready weapon on the missile or aircraft – needs to be kept alive, as otherwise the capability is not sustainable in the long(er) term. Even the U.S. will at one point have to make sure the nuclear capability would actually work in the real world (= resume testing, even if it is on a limited scale), and not just its components and in the virtual world of a superfast computer. And the other nuclear powers without the extensive virtual capability will reach that point considerably sooner. Just a question of time! Instead of a zero tests regime an annual (accumulative) yield limit for tests would make everyone feel better. Just my 2 Euro-cents.

  2. yousaf March 15, 2010 at 5:31 pm #

    New == Less Credible.

    As I wrote to the WSJ: Be Sure of Our Deterrent While Moving to Fewer Nukes.

    You advocate for developing new nuclear warheads based on the premise that a credible deterrent in the eye of our enemies is one that will work. But you fail to mention that the new warheads proposed to be developed under the Reliable Replacement Warhead program would remain untested.

    Would you fly on an airliner that had never had a test flight, even though its aerodynamics may be well understood? So why would you — or more importantly our enemies — believe untested new weapons would work better than the tested ones we have?

    On the other hand, if the proposed RRWs are eventually tested, it will be more difficult to stop other adversarial nations from doing the same. Either way, the RRW program is detrimental to U.S. security vis-à-vis proliferation and deterrence calculus.

    Reply: I don’t advocate developing new nuclear weapons; nor do I believe an untested weapon would work better than a tested one. What I do in the blog is to ask the administration, Congress, and the debate to be clear about what “new” means and how modified a warhead can be before it should be considered “new.”

    As it turns out, the reference to RRW work in the budget request was a mistake by the Air Force, left in from the previous request. Yet I anticipate that replacement warheads will pop up again, not in the exact format that the RRW was but as part of modified warheads in the Life Extension Programs. The references to the Enhanced Cruise Missile and Phase 2 and Phase 6.2 were also a mistakes, the Air Force says, left in from the previous request. Good thing we got them weeded out before Congress votes on them. But the reference to the Follow-On Long Range Stand-Off (LRSO) vehicles with Initial Capabilities Document (ICD) in early 2010, a Material Development Decision (MDD) in September 2010, and an Acquisition Decision in late 2011 or 2012 were not mistakes. HK

    Clarification: Sorry, in the letter I wrote “you” meant the WSJ editorial board, not you. I agree with you 100%. yousaf

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