Published on Sunday, March 26, 2000 in the Washington Post
Clinton Administration Plan To Renovate Nuclear Missiles Stirs Opposition
by Walter Pincus
The Energy Department plans to renovate more than 6,000 aging nuclear warheads over the next 15 years, almost double the number that the United States is allowed to deploy under the START II arms reduction treaty, according to senior U.S. officials.

The added warheads will make up what Energy officials refer to as the "inactive reserve," some 2,500 to 3,000 refurbished warheads that would give the United States the ability to match another country's sudden production of additional warheads.

This plan, the legacy of a 6-year-old presidential decision, is coming under sharp criticism from arms control proponents. They contend that it is unnecessary and possibly counterproductive to maintain an arsenal of 6,000 warheads at a time when President Clinton and other U.S. officials are attempting to persuade India, Pakistan, North Korea, China and Russia to halt or restrain their nuclear weapons programs.

"While the president is talking about the dangers of nuclear weapons, technicians at the national laboratories are working to refurbish a stockpile the size of which is unaffected by any agreement or treaty," said Janne Nolan, director of international programs for the Century Foundation and a former official in the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

Robert S. Norris, a nuclear arms specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, has dubbed the plan "Cold War lite."

"This is the dark side of the stockpile. We will spend vast billions to refurbish warheads which we [cannot deploy but] haven't decided to throw away," Norris said.

On the other hand, a Defense Department official with responsibility for strategic weapons contended that until Russia ratifies START II, the United States must hedge its bets against a possible reversal of that agreement. After the treaty enters into force and "we gain confidence" that the Russians are abiding by it, the official said, "then we, too, can eliminate additional warheads."

The United States spends about $4.6 billion a year to maintain its nuclear arsenal. The Energy Department does not separately break out the cost of the 3,000 to 3,500 deployed warheads from the cost of the 2,500 to 3,000 that will be held in reserve. But to address what the acting head of Energy's defense programs called "shortfalls in production readiness," the department is requesting $55 million in the supplemental appropriations bill before Congress.

The funds are "essential," Brig. Gen. Thomas F. Gioconda told a House Armed Services subcommittee last week, to support "important workloads" at three plants involved in the refurbishing program: Pantex in Texas, Y-12 in Tennessee and the so-called Kansas City plant in Missouri.

The first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), signed in 1991, permits Washington and Moscow to maintain 6,000 strategic warheads on bombers, submarines and land-based missiles. The 1993 START II agreement would reduce that limit to between 3,000 and 3,500 deployed warheads. Neither treaty restricts the number of warheads kept in reserve.

Although the Senate ratified START II in 1996, the Russian Duma has delayed voting on it, so the treaty has yet to go into effect. Both sides have cut their arsenals to the START I level, but Congress has prohibited the U.S. military from going below 6,000 deployed warheads until Moscow ratifies START II.

Russian leaders--including Vladimir Putin, the almost certain winner of a presidential election today--repeatedly have promised to push the treaty through the Duma. Russian and American officials also have had preliminary discussions about a START III agreement that could further reduce nuclear stockpiles.

The plan to keep an "inactive reserve" of 2,500 to 3,000 more warheads than permitted to be deployed under START II is the product of a little-publicized Clinton administration nuclear policy called "lead and hedge." It was described to Congress in 1996 by Harold P. Smith Jr., then assistant to the secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs.

He said that while the administration "leads" by pushing for force reductions in arms control negotiations, the United States has to "retain the ability to hedge by returning to START I levels."

Smith said the policy was approved by President Clinton in September 1994 as part of a Nuclear Posture Review, an annual document setting guidelines for America's nuclear forces.

Michael Krepon, president of the Henry L. Stimson Center and an arms reduction advocate, said the Pentagon has pressed for the "inactive reserve" of warheads because its plan for how to fight a nuclear war is basically unchanged from a decade ago.

"The Pentagon has not revised targeting doctrine since the Cold War," Krepon said. "It has simply downsized the active requirement and put half of what they say they need on the shelf. But the war plan requirement for 6,000 detonations has never changed."

An informal Russian proposal to reduce the number of warheads on each side to 1,500 in the future START III talks has met opposition from some U.S. defense officials who contend that that number would not be enough to ensure deterrence.

The Russian military, strapped for funds, appears to be moving toward a 1,500-warhead arsenal in any event. But, Krepon said, the difference in the size of the Russian and U.S. stockpiles is so great that "the Russians are looking at a U.S. breakout level"--strategic jargon for the ability to field a vastly superior nuclear force.

Newly reconstructed B-61 bombs for strategic bombers already have gone into the U.S. stockpile, while the first refurbished W-87 warheads are now being delivered to the Air Force for rearming America's 50 Peacekeeper intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Peacekeeper carries 10 W-87s, each of which has 20 times the explosive power of the U.S. bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

The program also will see refurbished W-87s put on the 500 deployed Minuteman III ICBMs over the next five years. Additional W-87s will be placed in the "inactive" stockpile, available to replace those on the deployed missiles or to be put on any newly constructed rockets.

Meanwhile, plans are going forward to start similar refurbishment for the W-76 warheads carried by the Trident I sub-launched intercontinental missile; the W-80 warhead for sea- and ground-launched cruise missiles; and the W-88, the newest and most miniaturized U.S. warhead, carried by the Trident II sub-launched ICBM.

While adhering to a pledge made by President George Bush not to resume underground nuclear testing, the Energy Department also has a backup plan to resume such testing within three years if needed. One official said last week that the time frame could be shortened "to months" for limited testing.

Energy already is planning to step up the number of "subcritical tests"--tiny, contained explosions that do not involve an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction but do allow scientists to study how nuclear materials react to explosive force--from four last year to seven this year.

2000 The Washington Post Company