Why US Lab Is Designing A Bomb No One Asked For

Plan could threaten nuclear nonproliferation

No one in the government asked for it and the Air Force says it does not need it.

Yet the Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico, one of America's nuclear-weapons research facilities, is working on an atomic bomb that would have capabilities beyond those in the current United States arsenal.

The bomb, carrying an "old" nuclear explosive device and a new guidance system, would soar on wings like a glider after its release from a radar-dodging B-2 bomber. It would drill deep into earth or concrete, its explosion crushing "hardened" bunkers hundreds of feet below ground while causing little surface damage.

The project symbolizes US determination to maintain the most- advanced arsenal possible absent global disarmament and amid rising concerns over a growth of deeply buried command-and-control and armsmaking complexes in Russia, Iran, Libya, Iraq, and North Korea. But it also comes as President Clinton is using American power and prestige to support global efforts to curb the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and reduce the number of nuclear warheads.

Caught between these contradictory goals, the project, known as the Bomb Impact Optimization System (BIOS), embodies a fierce debate over the direction of post-cold-war US nuclear-arms policy.

At issue is whether BIOS would breach a pledge not to design or build new warheads. If other countries perceive such a breach, they could be less willing to adhere to US-backed arms-control initiatives, some experts warn.

"It is not in the best interest of the US if the rest of the world thinks it is still business as usual, as this will undermine support for nonproliferation," warns Jeremiah Sullivan, a University of Illinois physicist and member of the JASONS, independent experts who advise the government on nuclear-arms policy. "We don't need better nuclear weapons."

BIOS raises other questions, including the accountability of the scientists, military officers, bureaucrats, and defense contractors who make up the nuclear-weapons complex. The complex is in the throes of a post-cold-war overhaul, and some experts have doubts about its willingness to stop after 50-plus years producing nuclear weapons. The way BIOS has been funded may fuel those concerns.

While Sandia has spent $16 million since October 1995 on BIOS, the project has no separate listing in the budget of the Department of Energy (DOE), which runs the nuclear laboratories. Instead, the name of the account from which the funds have been drawn has been different for each of the past three fiscal years. The DOE is unable to say how much money it expects to spend on BIOS in the coming fiscal year.

The nuclear-weapons complex has had a "history of fiscal inattention" and absence of sufficient executive-branch and congressional oversight, says Stephen Schwartz of the Brookings Institution in Washington. He recently completed the most comprehensive study ever of the costs of the US nuclear program.

BIOS is still in the concept stage, although scientists have used a new computer-driven process to produce a prototype nose cone. That and other aspects of the program were briefly detailed by C. Paul Robinson, the head of Sandia, in a statement to a House subcommittee April 10.

"Sandia is investigating the feasibility of modifying a B61 payload," Dr. Robinson said. "This effort includes analysis, design, model fabrication and testing, and ground and flight testing of a functional prototype."

A safer version

BIOS would be a follow-up to the B61-11, a conventionally dropped bunker-buster that replaced the B53 in February. The B53 is a 9,000-pound behemoth that produces a blast equivalent to 9 million tons of TNT, according to Pentagon sources. The government decided the stockpile of these bombs had become unsafe after some 30 years in the armory.

By contrast, the B61-11 weighs 750 pounds. It is the atomic payload of an existing bomb "repackaged" inside a needle-nosed body made from depleted uranium, which is extremely hard and more dense than lead. Unlike the B53, the B61-11 is small enough to be carried by a B-2 stealth bomber.

The idea behind a gliding version of the B61-11 is to better protect the $2.2 billion B-2 and its crew by allowing them to release the weapon a safe distance from antiaircraft defenses around their target. The bomb would glide on its wings the rest of the way, guided by an on-board radar that would also activate the fuse of the nuclear payload.

"Standoff capability is something that people have wanted in weapons for years," says Heinz Schmitt, Sandia's vice president for weapons systems, in defending BIOS. "This is very much exploratory in nature."

But Pentagon and DOE officials say they have not asked for a modified version of the B61-11. Adds Capt. Leo Devine, an Air Force spokesman: "The Air Force has no requirement for it."

Still, DOE and Pentagon officials support the objectives of BIOS program. They say such work is not barred by any arms-control accords and is justified under a new nuclear-weapons program designed to allow the US to adhere to the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

The CTBT bars for all time test blasts used to verify new warhead designs and spot defects in weapons. Seen as a way of preventing states like Iran from developing nuclear bombs, the US sought a means by which it could sign the CTBT while maintaining a reliable armory well beyond its design life span.

The result was the $40 billion Stockpile Stewardship and Management Program. It requires labs to develop ways to simulate test explosions.

The labs are also charged with "maintaining" weapons-design skills without breaking the US pledge not to make new warheads. But therein lies the source of the dispute.

The government defines a new weapon as a new nuclear payload. It holds that repacking old payloads in new bodies or upgrading nonnuclear components does not result in new weapons, even if it adds capabilities to the stockpile.

In the case of BIOS, "we are looking at it from the point of view of what is the technology that it will take to put on wings and fly a current bomb," says Assistant Energy Secretary Victor Reis, head of the DOE's nuclear-weapons programs.

To ensure it does not cross the line between a simple modification and a new weapon, he explains, BIOS will not move beyond the concept stage unless cleared by the Nuclear Weapons Council, a multiagency body that sets US nuclear requirements.

A 'new' bomb?

Still, Dr. Reis, a former council chairman, says the panel sees BIOS as "a maintenance of our capability for nonnuclear devices" and thus "not a new weapon." That is not how many arms-control experts see BIOS. To them, the US went too far already by deploying the B61-11. BIOS, they say, takes the country further down that dangerous path.

"There is certainly no need for us to do this with our enormous superiority in conventional weaponry," says Frank von Hippel, former assistant director of national security in the White House Office of Science and Technology. He and other arms-control experts contend that how the US defines a new weapon is of no concern to Russia and China. They say these countries see the US trying to enhance its nuclear capabilities, giving them incentive to continue improving their own.

These experts also agree that states like Iran would likely seek weapons of mass destruction no matter what the US was doing. But by continuing to upgrade its stockpile, they say, the US could hurt international support for its counterproliferation policies.

Enhancements to US nuclear capabilities could also stiffen the Russian parliament's refusal to ratify the long-delayed START II treaty, which mandates further cuts in Russian and US atomic warheads, some experts say.

Critics also question Sandia's pursuit of BIOS without a formal directive or a military requirement. Some are concerned that laboratory scientists are trying to create a formal program where one did not exist. If the viability of BIOS is shown, they say, the Air Force is unlikely to turn it down.

"The purpose of the laboratories has always been to make new types of nuclear weapons, and this indicates that this has not changed," says Mr. Schwartz of the Brookings Institution. "Why are we still on a cold-war footing? Why are they masquerading behind stockpile stewardship?"

Officials deny such allegations. They say there is no guarantee the US can maintain a reliable stockpile beyond the life span it was designed for without test blasts. Given the post-cold-war uncertainties, they say, it is only prudent to ensure that the current arsenal is as effective as possible.

If there are policy contradictions, they say, those are for Mr. Clinton to sort out. "This is decided at the very top," Reis says, adding that BIOS does bring up "new questions to answer."

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