"In this year's budget, the NNSA requested $88 million for the first design and development stages of RRW1. Where did [the funding] come from? It came out of the Life Extension Program for the W80," notes Robert Nelson, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an independent scientific research and advocacy group. "We're worried about the long-term reliability of the stockpile, but to pay for [RRW] we are going to cut the very programs that maintain the reliability of the stockpiles." He adds that by cutting the funding for the maintenance programs for existing weapons: "It makes it impossible to reverse course."
Billions more will be needed to retool the production infrastructure if Congress decides to authorize RRW and Complex 2030, both proponents and opponents say. And members from both sides of the aisle on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development have expressed skepticism about the program. "Although a lot of time and energy went into determining the winning design for a new nuclear warhead, there appears to have been little thought given to the question of why the United States needs to build new nuclear warheads at this time," panel chair Rep. Pete Visclosky, (D–Ind.) said in a written statement. "Without a comprehensive defense strategy that defines the future mission, the emerging threats, and the specific U.S. nuclear stockpile necessary to achieve the strategic goals, it is impossible for Congress to appropriate funding for RRW in a responsible and efficient manner."
The RRW W76 replacement is also just the first. "If we're really going to have an impact as to a reduction in the stockpile, we have to address the whole stockpile," Steve Henry, deputy assistant to the secretary of defense for nuclear matters, said at a press conference announcing the design winner. "The RRW1 is to address the first portion, which is a submarine-based W76 replacement."
The NNSA has already launched a feasibility study for a second RRW specifically designed for an air-delivered weapon, according to NNSA's Harvey. A likely candidate for such an RRW2 would be the W78 warhead that sits atop land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, FAS's Kristensen says. It is nearly as old and also lacking insensitive high explosives and security features.
A Credible Deterrent
But the biggest impact of the replacement weapons program might be on the global nuclear arms situation. Whereas the U.K., France, Russia and China have similar modernization efforts underway or planned, building the RRW1 might provide a dubious signal to the rest of the world as well as potentially provoke accusations of a violation of nuclear nonproliferation and arms control goals. "If the United States, the strongest nation in the world, concludes that it cannot protect its vital interests without relying on new nuclear weapons for new military missions, it would be a clear signal to other nations that nuclear weapons are valuable, if not necessary, for their security purposes, too," Sidney Drell, arms control expert and physicist at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center said at the American Physical Society Conference in Denver this past March.
Nuclear weapons are intended to be a deterrent, making the price of a particular geopolitical prize that might be seized too costly to bear. Yet, the U.S. has no avowed nuclear enemies as in the days of the Soviet Union and certainly none that would require thousands of nuclear warheads to deter or destroy, according to critics of the RRW plan.
As a result, former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, former secretary of defense William Perry and former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn (a former chair of the Senate Committee on Armed Services) have argued for the elimination of such weapons. "We endorse setting the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons and working energetically on the actions required to achieve that goal," they wrote in an editorial that appeared in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year. But the first Reliable Replacement Warhead—and Complex 2030 behind it—is not designed with that goal in mind and, in the absence of policy statements from the current administration, it remains unclear what the role for nuclear weapons—old or new—in the U.S. might be.