Don’t like the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator? How about the Reliable Replacement Warhead?

US officials announced that a team led by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory won the design competition for a new nuclear warhead. The design was the product of the 2004 Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program, which provided millions of dollars to explore making existing nuclear warheads last longer without diminishing their explosive power. Proponents of the design argue that the current stockpile of between 5,000 to 10,000 nuclear warheads is aging (the average age of warheads is 19 years) and its various designs antiquated.

Reliable Replacement Warhead

The Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which operates the nuclear weapons complex, reported to Congress that existing warheads are safe and reliable. The plutonium core of the warheads will last at least 85 years without degrading performance. Nonetheless, the Defense Department intends to go ahead with the new design, replacing the W76 warhead that arms the Navy’s 14-boat ballistic missile submarine fleet by 2012. And that’s just the beginning. Proponents dream of extending the Livermore design to all warheads. Senator Pete Domenici, whose state is home to Los Alamos, has called for speeding up the program.

There is opposition to the plan. Representative Pete Visclosky of Indiana, who chairs the House Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee, the body that funds the NNSA, argues that instead of replacing warheads, the agency should be “reconfiguring the old Cold War complex and dismantling obsolete warheads.” Visclosky warned in his March 2 statement that RRW funding could be eliminated. Representative David Hobson of Ohio, the subcommittee’s ranking member and former chair, makes the same argument: the agency is “focusing too much on the program and not paying enough attention to dismantlement and consolidation of the weapons complex.” Representative Ellen Tauscher of California, chair of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, is suspicious of the program, implying that if the design were to have capabilities different from existing warheads, she would kill it like she killed the administration’s Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP).

Outside government, voices were even more skeptical. Daryl Kimball, director of the Arms Control Association, said, “Clearly, the Reliable Replacement Warhead is a solution in search of a problem.” Steve Fetter, an Arms Control Association board member and dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, said. “Mainly, this is a program by the weapons labs for the weapons labs.” He used an interesting metaphor to describe the program: “It’s a self-licking ice cream cone.”

Sources: Arms Control Today (; Defense News (

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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