To help hash out military requirements for two new low-yield nuclear warheads called for in the Trump administration’s new Nuclear Posture Review, the bi-agency Nuclear Weapons Council is planning a series of road trips to key Department of Energy nuclear weapons labs and production facilities this spring, a senior Pentagon official said here Thursday.
“I’m hoping to be able to do it sometime in April,” Guy Roberts, assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs, told sister publication Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor at the ExchangeMonitor’s annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit.
The secretive Nuclear Weapons Council — which includes senior officials from the Pentagon and the Department of Energy (DoE) — plans to make two or three separate trips, each lasting two to three days, Roberts said.
The council will stop at “key” facilities overseen by DoE’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), with an aim of completing the tours before the end of the 2018 fiscal year on Sept. 30, said Roberts.
On Wednesday, Steven Erhart, then-acting NNSA administrator, did not rule out the possibility that DoE would do some work in fiscal 2019 on the first of the two low-yield nuclear warheads the administration proposed in the Nuclear Posture Review issued on Feb. 2.
However, Erhart said, the NNSA would not produce any new or modified warheads until the Pentagon determined its requirements for the weapons. Those requirements would be vetted by the Nuclear Weapons Council, which among other things is charged by Congress with “[c]oordinating and approving activities conducted by the Department of Energy for the study, development, production, and retirement of nuclear warheads.”
In addition, the NNSA might need authorization from Congress to produce the low-yield warheads. The White House on Feb. 12 requested $15 billion for the NNSA in fiscal 2019: about a 16-percent raise compared with the current appropriation. Budget documents released to date do not mention the warheads, but DOE as of deadline had not issued its detailed budget justification.
While the council has not finalized its travel agenda for the NNSA field trips, Roberts told the Monitor possible first stops “will be something like going out to Savannah River, maybe to Y-12.”
The Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C., helps produce the tritium gas critical to maintaining the destructive potency of aging nuclear weapons, and DoE is considering building new facilities there to manufacture fissile warhead cores known as plutonium pits. The Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico is currently the only NNSA facility with a pit plant.
Y-12, in Oak Ridge, Tenn., is the planned hub for the NNSA’s uranium-enrichment programs. The agency needs uranium for the secondary stages of its thermonuclear warheads, and to produce tritium gas. The NNSA also must produce highly enriched uranium to power the Navy’s nuclear warships and submarines. The U.S. has lacked domestic uranium refining capabilities since 2013, but has a stockpile of the material the NNSA estimates will last into the next decade at least.
Besides those first proposed stops, Roberts said the council also plans to visit the major NNSA weapons labs: Los Alamos; the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California; and the Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M.
The United States already has low-yield gravity bombs, but needs a more-reliable missile-launched, low-yield option to discourage Russia from using similarly powerful weapons to quickly escalate a conflict it cannot win with conventional weapons.
At the Nuclear Deterrence Summit Wednesday, Erhart said the first new low-yield warhead would be a dialed-down version of the W-76 warhead now deployed on Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles carried by Ohio-class submarines.
The second low-yield warhead would be fitted on an as-yet unidentified cruise missile, which would be launched by a naval submarine or surface ship. In a Thursday panel discussion at the Deterrence Summit, former NNSA Administrator Linton Brooks speculated this new cruise-missile might resemble the Long-Range Standoff Weapon Lockheed Martin is developing for the Air Force, tipped with a W80-4 warhead.
The Nuclear Weapons Council is a Pentagon-heavy body that coordinates civilian-led nuclear weapons programs at DoE — which makes warheads — with military-led weapons programs at the Pentagon — which quarterbacks development and acquisition of delivery vehicles, launch platforms, and command-and-control infrastructure.
The council’s membership includes: the Defense Department’s undersecretary for acquisition, technology, and logistics; the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and one senior DoE official designated by the secretary of energy.