Testimony on 'U.S. Strategic Posture' before the House Armed Services Subcommittee
Administrator Thomas P. D"Agostino ~February 27, 2008
Testimony on 'U.S. Strategic Posture' before the House Armed Services SubcommitteeAdministrator Thomas P. D"Agostino
Madam Chairwoman, thank you for the opportunity to discuss U.S. nuclear weapon policies and programs. My remarks focus on our efforts to transform the nuclear weapons complex into a 21st century national security enterprise. I will address why we believe that the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) concept should be pursued notwithstanding the recent decision by Congress not to fund completion of the RRW design definition and cost study.
Before I begin, I want to remind you of the tremendous progress made over the past few years in reducing the size of our nuclear weapons stockpile. As you recall, in 2002, President Bush and President Putin signed the Moscow Treaty, which will reduce the number of our operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads to 1,700 to 2,200 by 2012. In 2004, the President issued a directive to cut the entire U.S. nuclear stockpile—both deployed and reserve warheads—in half by 2012. But this goal was later accelerated and achieved 5 years ahead of schedule in 2007. As of the end of 2007, the total stockpile was almost 50 percent below what it was in 2001, when the President took office.
On December 18, 2007, the White House announced the President’s decision to reduce the nuclear weapons stockpile by another fifteen percent by 2012. This means the U.S. nuclear stockpile will be less than one-quarter its size at the end of the Cold War—the smallest stockpile in more than 50 years.
My Department of Defense colleagues are prepared to address fundamental questions of why in the post-Cold War era we continue to need nuclear forces and why, although dramatically reduced, we need the number of nuclear warheads in the stockpile that we plan to have. My testimony will focus more narrowly on our efforts to “transform” the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile and supporting infrastructure. In this regard, further stockpile reductions rest on (1) our ability to transform the nuclear weapons complex into a more responsive enterprise, (2) ongoing efforts to understand challenges to the stockpile and modern means of addressing these challenges such as the Reliable Replacement Warhead, and (3) efforts between successive Administrations and Congress to restore a consensus on the future nuclear deterrent, force posture and resulting nuclear weapons stockpile.
Transforming the Nuclear Weapons Complex
The Nuclear Weapons Complex is at a crossroads—maintaining the status quo is not an option we can afford. Delay and inaction will only increase the costs and elevate the risks associated with maintaining an aging stockpile. Regardless of stockpile transformation plans, these facilities need to be upgraded. The challenge for us will be to move from an aging nuclear weapons complex designed for the Cold War to a smaller 21st century national security enterprise that is integrated, modern, cost-effective, and that eliminates unnecessary redundancy, but that is also at the forefront of science and technology and responsive to future national security requirements.
Complex Transformation is more than simply replacing an aged physical infrastructure, it includes transforming our contracting, procurement and management practices to embrace the best in business and human capital practices. We also seek to leverage our core competencies in nuclear weapons design and engineering to advance our leadership in counterterrorism, nonproliferation, physical security, cyber security and support of the intelligence community. Our transformation strategy relies on four pillars:
Infrastructure improvements are a major part of complex transformation and we have made important progress in this area. For example, with the support of this Committee, in 2007, we produced tritium for the first time in 18 years, and the Tritium Extraction Facility (TEF) at Savannah River is now on-line. Still, some major facilities date to the Manhattan Project and cannot easily meet today’s safety and security requirements, and the capabilities they provide must be restored. Let me cite two key examples:
Plutonium “Pit” Production: A sufficient capacity to produce plutonium pits for nuclear warheads is an essential part of a responsive national security enterprise and is required for as long as we retain a nuclear deterrent. Currently, we have a very small production capacity at Los Alamos National Laboratory (about ten pits per year in Technical Area 55 (TA-55). This capacity took ten years to reconstitute, using aging scientific and manufacturing facilities. It is insufficient to support the stockpile for the long term and, if not redressed, requires maintaining a larger stockpile than would otherwise be desired. There are two key reasons why this is so:
As part of our transformation, NNSA has evaluated a variety of future pit production alternatives. NNSA’s preferred alternative is to retain and build on the existing production facilities at Los Alamos. Whether we continue on our existing path or if we move towards an RRW based stockpile, we will need a capacity to produce about 50-80 pits per year. To do this, we would use existing facilities in TA-55 with the addition of a new Chemistry and Metallurgy Research-Replacement (CMRR) Nuclear Facility. In addition to its role in pit production, the CMRR will be the sole facility where we will be able to carry out pit surveillance, essential to maintaining the existing stockpile, as well as plutonium and actinide research and analysis. Our approach would provide sufficient production capacity to support smaller stockpile sizes, particularly when coupled with potential reuse of pits. A production capacity of 50-80 pits per year is less than one-tenth of Cold War levels, when we were producing not ten or a hundred, but thousands of warheads a year.
Uranium Component Production: As with plutonium, regardless of the type of stockpile we maintain, we will require a responsive capability and capacity to produce uranium components. Our uranium component production facilities date to the Manhattan Project. Securing these facilities from terrorism threats we face after 9-11 is increasingly difficult and costly, as is operating them to modern safety standards. Every warhead, whether refurbished or replacement, will require uranium component manufacture. Construction of the Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge will allow us to consolidate uranium storage with a significantly reduced security “footprint.”
Although our emphasis has been on maintaining the stockpile by embarking on complex transformation and examining the potential promise of RRW, we have not lost focus on meeting our commitments to the Defense Department and to other customers. As I pointed out earlier, last year we reconstituted a limited plutonium pit manufacturing capability and produced new pits for the W88 warhead. This year we will continue to produce new W88 pits and begin installing equipment to increase pit production capacity to 30-50 pits per year by 2012-14. In 2006 and 2007, respectively, we delivered the first refurbished B61-7 and B61-11 bombs to the Air Force. We intend to maintain on-time delivery of these weapons to the Air Force in 2008.
In addition, our 21st century national security enterprise will continue to leverage the scientific underpinnings of its historic nuclear weapons mission to respond to a full range of national security challenges beyond nuclear weapons. Indeed, the scientific capabilities and infrastructure developed for nuclear weapons are already being utilized by the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, and by the intelligence community, and are recognized as essential to fulfilling the responsibilities of these organizations. For example, the NNSA laboratories have participated jointly with other government agencies in addressing a wide range of national security challenges—all of which leverage NNSA’s core mission of nuclear weapons development and sustainability. Recent examples include:
Our challenge is to maintain these scientific and technical capabilities, which evolved from the weapons program when budgets were expansive, into the future when resources will be relatively constrained. We must find ways to leverage key capabilities by developing and strengthening strategic relationships with other federal agencies in meeting our nation’s security needs.
Our plan for transforming our physical infrastructure, released this past December and detailed in the draft Supplemental Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (SPEIS) as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), will consolidate special nuclear materials to fewer sites and locations within the nuclear weapons complex, close or transfer hundreds of buildings that are no longer required for the NNSA mission, and reduce NNSA’s overall footprint by as much as a third. Over ten years, we expect to eliminate at least 9 million square feet, or the equivalent of almost 200 football fields of floor space! Additionally, by eliminating multi-site redundancies and consolidating both mission and capability at our sites, we expect to dramatically improve efficiency and cut costs.
Evolution of Our Strategy for Sustaining the Nuclear Stockpile
Let us turn to the problem of stockpile stewardship and recall how we got to where we are today. In the years following the end of the Cold War, budgets for nuclear weapons programs were in “free fall”—funding was simply not available to sustain both R&D and production capabilities. A strategic decision was made to emphasize R&D to ensure future capabilities to certify the stockpile while neglecting production—we mortgaged the present to ensure the future.
That future was seen as science-based stockpile stewardship and life extension of our Cold War legacy warheads. When the U.S. stopped nuclear testing in 1992, it sought to replace this critical tool with a new Stockpile Stewardship Program (SSP) that: (1) emphasized science and technology coupled with a vigorous experimental program as a means to understand better the physics and chemistry of nuclear weapons and their operation, and (2) provided enhanced warhead surveillance tools so that we would have a much better chance of detecting the onset of problems in the stockpile.
The goal of the SSP was to predict the effects of aging in our warheads so that we could replace aging components before they degraded overall system reliability. The end of the Cold War provided this opportunity—our focus was no longer on a continuous cycle of fielding new warheads to provide new military capabilities, but on sustaining existing nuclear capabilities.
We call this “life extension”—the process of observing the aging of individual components of warheads and replacing them before they fail. Consider this challenge. Your vintage 1965 Ford Mustang—maintained as a collector’s item—has been sitting in your garage for 40 years. You monitor it for such items as a clogged carburetor, corrosion in the engine block, battery discharge, and you replace parts when you deem it necessary. But you don’t get to start the engine and take it for a test drive. The trick is to assure that if you do need it right away—to take your wife (or husband) to the hospital in an emergency—that it would work with certainty. That’s sort of what we have to do with nuclear weapons LEPs.
Following the Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, in 2003 we “took stock” of ten years of the SSP and came to some important conclusions.
First, the Stockpile Stewardship Program is working—today’s stockpile remains safe and reliable and does not require nuclear testing. This assessment is based on a foundation of past nuclear tests augmented by cutting edge scientific and engineering experiments and analysis, and improved warhead surveillance. Most importantly, it derives from the professional (and independent) judgment of our laboratory directors advised by their weapon program staffs.
Second, as we continue to draw down the stockpile, our laboratory directors are concerned that our current path—successive refurbishments of existing warheads developed during the Cold War to stringent Cold War specifications—may pose unacceptable risks to maintaining high confidence in warhead performance over the long-term absent nuclear testing.
These concerns arise as we move further and further away from designs certified with underground nuclear tests, resulting from inevitable accumulations of small changes from a continuous process of aging, and refurbishment of aging components, over the extended lives of these highly-optimized systems.
So, while we are confident that the stockpile stewardship program is working and that today’s stockpile is safe and reliable, it is only prudent to explore alternate means to manage risk in seeking to ensure stockpile reliability over the long term.
This is, in part, the impetus for our proposed work to study reliable replacement concepts: to ensure the long-term sustainment of the military capabilities provided by the existing stockpile, not to develop warheads for new or different military missions as is often portrayed.
Specifically, we have examined the feasibility of providing replacement warheads for the legacy stockpile. By relaxing Cold War design constraints that sought maximum yield in a minimum size/weight package, it would allow design of replacements that are easier and less costly to manufacture, are safer and more secure, eliminate most environmentally dangerous materials, and increase design performance margins, thus ensuring long-term confidence in reliability without nuclear testing.
Finally, we need to transform our complex with or without RRW. That said, we believe that RRW would offer means to transform to a more efficient and responsive, much smaller, and less costly nuclear weapons R&D and production infrastructure.
Urgency of RRW
We are often asked: If today’s stockpile is safe and reliable, why do we believe it is important to start on RRW now? Why not wait a few years when you know more? There are four main reasons why I believe it is important to complete the reliable replacement study now.
First, the study will provide critical information to insure that the next administration, as well as the bipartisan commission established by this Committee, can complete a timely review of U.S. nuclear posture as mandated by Congress.
Second, as I raised earlier, there are concerns about our ability to ensure the long-term safety and reliability of today’s stockpile absent nuclear testing. For example, the first RRW was intended to replace a portion of W76 warheads deployed on the Trident SLBM system. That warhead comprises a large fraction of today’s, and an even larger fraction of our future strategic deterrent force. It has no “back up.” Although we have not uncovered any problems with the W76, it is prudent to hedge against a catastrophic failure of that system by introducing a significantly different warhead design into the SLBM force. Our ability over the next 15 years to produce new plutonium parts is limited—the sooner we start the sooner we could achieve this diversity.
Third, after 9/11 we realized that the security threat to our nuclear warheads had fundamentally changed. The security features in today’s stockpile are commensurate with technologies that were available during the Cold War and with the threats from that time. Major enhancements in security are not easily available via retrofits in the life extension programs. The car analogy is again relevant. Today’s Mustang remains a high-performance automobile, has about the same dimensions and weighs only a few hundred pounds more than the first Mustangs, and has all the modern safety and security features we expect today—air bags, anti-lock brakes, GPS navigation, satellite radio, theft deterrent and alarm systems. The 1965 version had none of these features, not even seat belts! We deploy warheads today that have 1970-80’s safety, security and anti-terrorism features. It does not mean that these warheads are not safe and secure, but we can do better and we should do better. Based on our initial assessments, I believe that RRW provides opportunities to incorporate the latest technological advances for precluding unauthorized use in a post-9/11 threat environment.
Fourth, the RRW effort thus far has provided a critical opportunity to ensure the transfer of nuclear design and engineering skills from the generation who honed these skills with nuclear testing to the generation who will replace them. These skills are absolutely vital to the nation, not just for sustaining our deterrent but in such areas as nuclear counterterrorism which will become even more important in the future. In a few years, nearly all of the older generation will be retired or dead. Without this opportunity coming at this time (and not five years hence), we would not be able to sustain key capabilities.
Response to Arguments Against RRW
A number of concerns have arisen in our deliberations with Congress and others about the RRW program. Specifically, critics argue that:
On that last point, the United States has a coherent and rationale policy overarching nuclear weapons programs as reflected in the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), the Presidential directive (NSPD-28) addressing command and control and safety and security of U.S. nuclear forces, and the Nuclear Weapons Stockpile Plans issued annually by the President, among others. But we have not done as good a job as we should communicating these policies to Congress and the public. We are, however, doing better and I will return to this at the end of my statement.
How is our proposed reliable replacement strategy consistent with non-proliferation and arms control? Some of you may be convinced that there might be valid reasons for going forward but are concerned that these reasons do not outweigh an overriding concern that such efforts could undermine U.S. leadership in the fight against proliferation. I appreciate such concerns, but ask that you consider the following points:
In summary, our vision to transform the nuclear stockpile and supporting infrastructure through reliable replacement concepts is complementary to, not inconsistent with, our nonproliferation policies and with the long-term goal of global nuclear weapons elimination.
Let me turn in more detail to the nuclear testing issue. I am most concerned about some misunderstandings expressed in the public sphere about our views on the possible need for nuclear testing. Let there be no doubt: Today’s nuclear weapons stockpile is safe and reliable and has not required post-deployment nuclear testing to date, nor is nuclear testing currently anticipated or planned. But keeping this stockpile healthy is becoming an increasingly difficult challenge. Periodically we identify problems with warheads that in the past would have been resolved with nuclear tests. Our SSP has worked well so far to help us to avoid that prospect. The considered judgment of the national weapons laboratories directors, however, is that maintaining certification of the finely-tuned designs of an aging Cold War stockpile through the LEP effort and absent nuclear testing involves increasing risk.
An alternative path is a stockpile based on replacement warheads that, unlike Cold War legacy warheads, would be designed for certification without additional nuclear tests. Indeed, our experts best technical judgment today is that it will be less likely that we would need nuclear testing to maintain the safety, security, and reliability into the future of the nuclear stockpile if we pursue a reliable replacement path employing all the tools of the SSP, including advanced quantitative means, than if we continue to rely on today’s legacy warheads. In December, I provided Congress classified information giving further details on these matters.
Why then do we think it’s feasible to field an RRW without nuclear testing? There are four basic reasons:
These four factors, taken together, provide a solid foundation for our confidence that we can certify RRW designs without nuclear tests.
Factors Affecting Future Adjustments to our Nuclear Posture
It is important for us to describe how our concept for transformation—in light of evolving geopolitical threat environments—could provide opportunities for further stockpile reductions. In this regard, the current plan for the nuclear force posture—developed in the 2001 NPR—established objectives for a range of deployed nuclear warheads, a nuclear force structure, and nuclear stockpile for 2012 as well as a general approach to sustain this force beyond 2012. Future administrations will of course adjust, refine and make changes to our posture in response to future events and circumstances. These changes might be unilateral or taken in concert with other nuclear powers. In any case, these changes will be governed by three basic factors: (1) the future geopolitical threat environment, (2) the success of technical efforts underway to ensure a safe, reliable and credible nuclear deterrent for the foreseeable future and to transform the nuclear weapons R&D and production infrastructure that supports it, and (3) our progress in fielding other strategic capabilities, including missile defenses and conventional precision strike.
Geopolitical uncertainties are likely to dominate future considerations of an adjusted force posture. Will Russia succeed in transforming to a democratic society with rule-of-law, respect for human rights, and integration, both economic and political, with the West? Will China’s military modernization and political trajectory affect the ability of the United States to protect key interests in the Pacific region? Will nuclear programs of North Korea, Iran, or emerging proliferants cause a proliferation “cascade” in which U.S. allies and friends in key regions contemplate “going nuclear”? How such questions evolve over the next decade and more will affect how future administrations assess national security needs—including plans for assurance of allies—and adjust the level of deployed nuclear warheads (up or down), the composition of deployed nuclear forces, or both.
There are other major uncertainties that are largely domestic in nature, and related to our efforts to sustain and, as necessary, modernize our forces. With regard to nuclear delivery systems, the planned force of 450 Minuteman III ICBMs will begin to reach end-of-life in 2018. Will there be support to develop and deploy a follow-on capability to the Minuteman III ICBM? If so, when and how many will we deploy? If the ICBM force is not replaced at its end-of-life but retired, other nuclear force elements may need to be bolstered to take its place. There are comparable decisions regarding a possible next generation long-range bomber (sooner) and/or replacement of nuclear ballistic missile submarines (later) that will factor in as well to considerations of adjusting the future nuclear posture.
With regard to the development of U.S. non-nuclear strategic capabilities, there is another set of uncertainties. Will prompt, long-range conventional global strike weapons be developed and deployed? How many? What types? With what effects? What will be the future direction and scope of ballistic missile defenses? What technical advances/breakthroughs (e.g., hypersonic delivery systems) by the U.S. or potential adversaries will occur? Could these affect the military balance? Answers to these questions will determine whether such capabilities could complement nuclear strike capabilities or conceivably replace nuclear weapons for certain missions and thus lead to further adjustments in our posture.
With regard to the nuclear warheads themselves, our long-term goal is to rely more on the capabilities of the infrastructure and less on reserve warheads in the stockpile to respond to unforeseen events. Until we are confident that we have the capability to respond to unexpected developments, however, we will need to retain more reserve warheads than otherwise would be desired. Specifically, our inability to produce plutonium pits in sufficient quantities means that additional warheads are kept in reserve to hedge against technical problems that could arise in the stockpile or adverse geopolitical changes.
If we have an opportunity to realize the benefits of the RRW program, and a more responsive infrastructure that the RRW could facilitate, there will be opportunities for additional stockpile reductions. We are examining a series of potential milestones, reflecting progress on RRW and a responsive infrastructure, that would allow consideration of further adjustments to the reserve stockpile. Accomplishing these milestones would represent levels of confidence gained, or uncertainties reduced, as we proceed forward with stockpile and infrastructure transformation. At various points, accumulated progress would be assessed to see if further adjustments to the reserve stockpile are warranted. To the degree that geopolitical trends evolve in more favorable directions, opportunities exist to consider options for lower deployed as well as reserve forces.
Current Status of the RRW Program
As I said at the beginning of my statement, the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2008 did not fund completion of the RRW design definition and cost study. The Departments of Defense and Energy continue to believe that the warhead features characteristic of the RRW are the right ones for ensuring the future of our nation’s nuclear deterrent. Moreover, Congress specifically requested that the Administration continue related work in FY 2008 in three key areas:
NNSA’s FY 2009 budget request continues and extends FY 2008 related activities in the following areas:
Completion of the RRW study was not funded in part due to concerns that the Administration had not fully communicated its policies which guide nuclear forces, posture and programs, including the RRW program. The Administration will shortly provide to Congress a second paper to accompany its white paper on nuclear policy transmitted to Congress in July 2007 by Secretaries Rice, Gates and Bodman. This second paper outlines in detail the overall strategy which guides nuclear weapons programs including the size of the nuclear weapons stockpile and operationally-deployed strategic forces, and how we manage the risk of a less-than sufficient warhead production infrastructure. Our goal is to restore a consensus with Congress to complete the reliable replacement study as a means to insure that the next administration, as mandated by Congress, can complete a timely review of its nuclear posture.
Let me conclude my statement here. I thank the Chairwoman and the Committee for the opportunity to discuss these critical issues for our nation.