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Assuring Confidence in the U.S. Nuclear Stockpile
Prepared statement Harold P. Smith Jr., assistant to the secretary of defense for nuclear, Military Procurement Subcommittee, House National Security Committee, Washington, Tuesday, March 12, 1996

Defense Issues: Volume 11, Number 26-- Assuring Confidence in the U.S. Nuclear Stockpile The inability to replace stockpiled nuclear warheads, increasingly tougher environmental requirements, a zero-yield test ban treaty and a call to end underground testing have changed U.S. nuclear strategy.


Volume 11, Number 26

Assuring Confidence in the U.S. Nuclear Stockpile

Prepared statement of Harold P. Smith Jr., assistant to the secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs, to the Military Procurement Subcommittee, House National Security Committee, Washington, March 12, 1996.

Mr. Chairman and members of the subcommittee, I am honored to have this opportunity to appear before you. I will begin by stating that today, the stockpile is safe, secure and reliable.

My remarks will focus on the shared responsibility between the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy to assure high confidence in the nation's nuclear stockpile. This responsibility presents a new challenge because the nuclear weapons in our stockpile will be retained well beyond their intended design lifetimes without the benefit of underground nuclear testing.

The president recognized this challenge for the nuclear weapons program in his Aug. 11, 1995, speech announcing the U.S. position on a zero-yield Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty: "In order for this program to succeed, both the administration and the Congress must provide sustained bipartisan support for the stockpile stewardship program over the next decade and beyond. I am committed to working with the Congress to ensure this support."

The president further directed a new annual certification to assure the safety and reliability of the nuclear stockpile. Finally, he stated that he would be prepared to "exercise our supreme national interest rights under the CTBT in order to conduct whatever testing might be required" if a high level of confidence in the safety or reliability of a nuclear weapon type critical to our deterrent could no longer be certified. With this challenge and commitment in mind, I will review some of the changes in the nuclear weapons program and actions that are being taken to ensure that we -- and our potential enemies -- continue to have high confidence in the stockpile.

The end of the Cold War has wrought significant changes in the nuclear weapons program. Over the last decade, there has been an unprecedented shift in emphasis from design, development, fabrication and testing of new warheads to refurbishment and life extension of existing warheads. Our stockpile has been reduced in size and diversity of weapon types, and by the end of this fiscal year, the current inventory will become the oldest in U.S. history.

Today, we do not have the capability to manufacture replacements for the nuclear warheads that comprise our existing stockpile. We must comply with environmental requirements that are increasingly challenging and litigious. The extended underground test moratorium has evolved into a U.S. position for a zero-yield CTBT. Finally, without the traditional yardstick of underground testing, it will become ever more difficult to replace the shrinking cadre of nuclear weapons experts.

These changes have forced a shift in strategy at the departments of Defense and Energy and were addressed in the DoD's Nuclear Posture Review.

Approved by the president in September 1994, the Nuclear Posture Review continues to provide the DoD policy guidance, force structure and stewardship obligations for the enduring nuclear weapons stockpile. The NPR codified the national policy of lead and hedge as our approach to nuclear weapons and the attendant technology infrastructures.

The policy of lead and hedge simply means that the U.S. will lead strategic arms control efforts toward START [Strategic Arms Reduction Talks] II or smaller force levels, but retain the ability to hedge by returning to START I levels. It is our policy as part of this strategy that until START II ratification and entry into force, we will draw down and maintain our strategic forces at warhead levels consistent with START I.

Although primarily a DoD document, the NPR contains infrastructure requirements for the Department of Energy to ensure high confidence in the enduring stockpile, namely:


  • Maintain nuclear weapons capability without underground testing or the production of fissile material;


    • Develop a stockpile surveillance engineering base;


    • Demonstrate the capability to refabricate and certify weapon types in the enduring stockpile;


    • Maintain the capability to design, fabricate and certify new warheads;


    • Maintain a science and technology base;


  • Ensure tritium availability; and
  • Accomplish these tasks with no new-design nuclear warhead production.

To meet these requirements, we must provide an environment for the development of nuclear experts who can meet tomorrow's ever-increasing challenges. The DoE, with assistance from the DoD, is pursuing a Stockpile Stewardship and Management Program to meet NPR requirements.

As DoE continues to address NPR infrastructure requirements, the SSMP will provide a structured approach to deal with the lack of underground testing and no new nuclear weapon production. In the past, underground nuclear testing was the ultimate arbiter of the stockpile. Absent this arbiter, the DoE must develop new approaches to ensure high confidence in our nuclear deterrent. The SSMP must include: enhanced surveillance of the stockpile, expanded computational capability such as the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative, above-ground experimental facilities, subcritical plutonium experiments at the Nevada Test Site and the ability to return to underground testing, a limited capacity to remanufacture warheads in the existing stockpile and an assured source for tritium.

The DoD is satisfied with the progress that is being made by the DoE to fulfill its responsibilities as delineated in the NPR, but much remains to be done. For example, The Nuclear Weapons Council endorses the DoE's dual-track approach of pursuing a commercial light water reactor and accelerator produced tritium sources by 2005 and 2007 respectively, but both approaches must overcome technical and institutional challenges.

In the case of warhead fabrication, we must first establish a baseline capacity to replace those warheads routinely consumed by the quality assurance and reliability test program and be capable of expanding this capacity to handle precipitous failures of a type of warhead.

We must be ever more vigilant in the stockpile surveillance program and demonstrate that systemic failures can be anticipated with sufficient time to implement corrective actions. The two departments must continue to certify high confidence in the stockpile without the benefit of underground nuclear testing.

In its effort to improve its corporate expertise in aging nuclear weapons, the DoD is becoming a more active partner with the DoE as warheads and components are assessed and certified. At the individual level, the DoD will increase the number of personnel assigned to the DoE weapon laboratories.

The DoD-chaired project officers groups will take a more active role in warhead assessment while gaining a more detailed understanding of weapon life extension procedures. At the department level, the joint DoD/DoE Nuclear Weapons Council will remain the official forum for resolving interdepartmental issues between the DoD customer and the DoE supplier of nuclear weapons technology.

Additional information briefings will continue to be given to the NWC for review of critical issues involving the health of the nuclear weapons stockpile.

As an example of interdepartmental cooperation, the DoD and DoE are currently formalizing a new annual certification procedure directed by the president for stockpiled weapons. This challenging task is being led by my office with the support and concurrence of representatives of the services, the Joint Staff, [U.S.] Strategic Command, DoE and the DoE laboratories.

This new process will include an annual survey of the health of the entire stockpile. It will complement the newly implemented dual revalidation process, which requires a detailed technical analysis of individual warhead types over a two to three year period. These two new reporting processes will provide timely information on warhead ,safety and reliability for the NWC.

The SSMP will require continuing support from the departments of Defense and Energy, the Congress, the administration and the public. The DoD and DoE must jointly establish methods to measure success of the SSMP at specific intervals. We cannot afford to wait 10 to 15 years to judge the success of the program.

DoE must demonstrate the ability to produce tritium and to rebuild all weapons types in the stockpile. Warheads consumed by the surveillance process must be replaced with certified warheads without the benefit of underground nuclear testing, a major undertaking.

Most importantly, opportunities must exist to attract, train and retain world-class scientists and engineers who will be the next generation of stockpile stewards. The safety and reliability of our nation's nuclear stockpile demand an experienced cadre of our nation's best.

Since the Manhattan Project, the United States has invested heavily in the development, production, deployment and maintenance of the national nuclear deterrent. Nuclear weapons, even at significantly reduced levels, remain a core component of future national security strategy. Our DoD/DoE shared responsibility is to ensure high confidence in our nuclear deterrent without underground nuclear testing. This enduring responsibility must have the resources necessary to ensure that the stockpile remains safe and reliable, today and in the future.

Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, absent nuclear testing, the potential for erosion in stockpile confidence will undoubtedly increase with time. To maintain high confidence is a challenge that exceeds those previously faced by our stockpile stewards, but I believe we are on the right track. The president recognized this challenge in his Aug. 11, 1995, speech and remains committed to this challenge. The people in this room and the agencies they represent must meet this daunting requirement. ...


Published for internal information use by the American Forces Information Service, a field activity of the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs), Washington, D.C. Parenthetical entries are speaker/author notes; bracketed entries are editorial notes. This material is in the public domain and may be reprinted without permission. Defense Issues is available on the Internet via the World Wide Web at