DOD Officials Update Congress on Nuclear Weapons Program
By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 9, 2014 The United States should press on with cutting nuclear stockpiles under the New START treaty with Russia, even as U.S. and NATO planners must reconsider their options following Russian aggression in the Ukraine, Pentagon experts told Congress yesterday.
Andrew C. Weber, assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs, testified as part of a panel of witnesses before the House Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces subcommittee on fiscal year 2015 atomic energy defense and nuclear forces. Elaine Bunn, deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense policy, also testified.
Weber said the 2015 budget request for Defense Department nuclear forces programs would support DOD and Energy Department efforts to modernize and sustain “a safe, secure and effective nuclear weapons stockpile.”
However, “stark budget realities continue to stress our efforts to update an aging stockpile and infrastructure,” he cautioned the subcommittee. During January visits accompanying Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to nuclear and research laboratories, Weber said, he heard Hagel emphasize while speaking with the nuclear workforce “that we are going to invest in the modernization required to maintain an effective deterrent.”
The department’s most vital modernization efforts include life-extension programs for the W76-1 submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead and the B61-12 gravity bomb, Weber said. The W76 was manufactured from 1978 to 1987, and the B61 reached full production in 1968.
Life-extension programs repair or replace components of nuclear weapons to meet military requirements. According to National Nuclear Security Administration officials, extending the time that a weapon can safely and reliably remain in the stockpile helps to maintain a credible nuclear deterrent without producing new weapons or conducting new underground nuclear tests.
“The B61 life-extension program, which [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey] referred to as ‘a bright note’ is currently undergoing development engineering, and prototypes are being assembled for early testing,” Weber said.
“Due to sequestration impacts, the schedule for first production has been revised to the second quarter of 2020,” he said. “This will just” -- with emphasis on “just” -- “meet U.S. Strategic Command and NATO operational requirements.”
The B61-12 program, Weber said, will replace the four current models of the bomb with one, and “enable the retirement of the B83, the last megaton bomb in the stockpile.”
Stable funding for the B61 life-extension program is necessary to keeping the B2 strategic bomber viable and to maintaining U.S. commitments to NATO allies, Weber told subcommittee members.
“The world is safer today from the threat of full-scale nuclear war than it was during the Cold War,” he said. “While the role and numbers of [nuclear] weapons are being reduced, maintaining a safe, secure and effective nuclear stockpile is critical to deterring potential adversaries and assuring U.S. allies and partners. We ask for your support for the president’s fiscal year 2015 budget request.”
Bunn’s opening remarks yesterday followed Weber’s, and she zeroed in on Russia after telling members she meant to go beyond her prepared statement.
“Russia’s unexpected and dangerous aggression in Ukraine, in violation of international law, compels us to revisit our expectations about future Russian behavior and to reassess a number of U.S. and NATO policies [on Russia],” she said.
But two national policies will remain unchanged, she noted: “First, strengthening NATO’s collective defense.”
NATO is seeking “all options” to build collective defense capacity among member nations through expanded defense plans, exercises and deployments, she noted.
Second, Bunn told committee members, “this administration, like its predecessors, has sought a stable, strategic nuclear relationship with Russia -- especially during times of turbulence elsewhere in the relationship.”
“We will continue to implement the New START treaty ratified by the Senate in December 2010, … because it’s in our national interest,” she said. “The inspections and notifications under the treaty give us a window into Russian strategic forces and limits them for the duration of the treaty.”
Bunn outlined the department’s plan, announced yesterday, for its strategic nuclear force structure under the New START limits. The new limits will take effect by February 2018, and will maintain the U.S. nuclear triad of sea-, land- and air-based nuclear delivery platforms.
“Our 700 deployed strategic forces will look like this: 400 deployed [intercontinental ballistic missiles], 240 deployed [submarine-launched ballistic missiles], and 60 deployed nuclear-capable heavy bombers,” she said.
The United States also will maintain 100 nondeployed launchers and bombers, Bunn said, including 54 ICBM launchers backed by 50 “warm” ICBM silos -- which she described as “empty, but still functional” – 40 submarine launch tubes and six bombers.
The structure provides “flexibility, survivability [and] responsiveness of our nuclear forces,” she said, and ensures “an array of options is available under a broad range of scenarios.”
Bunn noted the plan preserves a “just-in-case upload capability” for each leg of the triad.
Returning to the subject of Russia, the policy chief said Moscow seems as determined as Washington is “to preserve the strategic nuclear stability embodied in the New START treaty.”
(Follow Karen Parrish on Twitter: @parrishAFPS)