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March 2, 2007
Notes from the Pentagon

Modernized nuke
The Pentagon and Energy Department have chosen a new design for the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW), which is expected to be the mainstay of U.S. nuclear forces for decades to come.

The design for the RRW was chosen from two proposals drawn up secretly by the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California. A formal announcement is expected soon.

The modernized warhead will be larger than past warheads but will use existing plutonium pits for fuel. It will feature new primary conventional explosives as well as new electronics, Bush administration officials said. However, the size of the blast, or yield, created by the new warhead will remain the same.

Officials said a key requirement of the new design included ensuring the United States will be able to counter current and emerging nuclear threats, from North Korea and China to Russia and, possibly in the future, Iran.

The new design will meet Pentagon demands for a smaller stockpile of nuclear warheads, and it has increased safety and security features.

The challenge for designers was making a warhead with very high reliability in terms of its electronics and non-nuclear components, combined with high confidence the warhead will go off if used in a conflict without any prior underground testing, currently banned under an international agreement.

The need for a replacement warhead was identified several years ago by an advisory panel that warned that U.S. warheads, some developed in the 1960s, were aging beyond modernization, and that there was a dwindling pool of specialists who could design and develop the weapons. Those problems and a declining industrial infrastructure has increased the risk to the U.S. nuclear weapons complex.

The modernized warheads eventually will replace Navy and Air Force warheads. Deployment could begin in 2012 or 2014, with the first RRWs to be mounted on Navy missiles.

The Pentagon is reducing the number of warheads from about 10,000 to about 6,000 as part of the modernization program that has been under way for several years.

From the front
An Army lieutenant in Iraq says insurgents are continuing to increase the lethality of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), with low-technology techniques.

"Unfortunately, our brigade lost three more soldiers today to a catastrophic IED," the officer wrote in an e-mail on Tuesday.

"The insurgents are adjusting their methods and using diesel fuel to soften the pavement for IED emplacement. With the exception of today, we have been able to adapt to this technique by placing our sniper teams along ... IED routes."

The officer, now on his second tour in Iraq, said despite the losses, progress is being made. "It is amazing to see how and what the soldiers are doing to improve life and security for the Iraqi people," he stated.

DIA doubts N. Korea
Army Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate Armed Services Committee this week that his agency has its doubts that North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons under the recent Beijing agreement.

A little-noticed portion of Gen. Maples' prepared statement appears to throw cold water on the Feb. 13 nuclear deal worked out in Beijing in six-party talks with representatives from the United States, North Korea, China, South Korea, Russia and Japan.

The vaguely worded agreement calls for North Korea to shut down its reactor complex at Yongbyon as a first step toward disclosing and dismantling its nuclear facilities.

"While North Korea may agree to give up plutonium production, major uncertainties surround the conditions under which the North would entirely abandon its nuclear weapons capability, or of the likelihood of the North transferring nuclear weapons-related technology abroad," Gen. Maples said in the statement, which was updated from earlier testimony in January to reflect the Beijing accord.

North Korea set off its first underground nuclear test Oct. 9 and is demanding to be treated by other nations as a nuclear power.

China ASAT threat
Army Lt. Gen. Michael D. Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, also updated his testimony this week on the threat posed to U.S. satellites by China's secret Jan. 11 test of an anti-satellite weapon.

Gen. Maples said in his prepared remarks that the "anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon system ... destroyed an old Chinese weather satellite in orbit."

"This successful test demonstrates China's capability, should it choose, to eventually deploy an ASAT system that could threaten U.S. satellites," he said.

Gen. Maples said building space weapons is "financially taxing" for foreign states and that "most countries other than China assessed to be pursuing these capabilities are not expected to acquire them within the next few years."

The inference: China will acquire a deployable anti-satellite weapon in the next few years, based on its four ASAT tests, three of which U.S. officials say were unsuccessful.

Thomas Fingar, the deputy Director of National Intelligence for analysis, who U.S. officials say is known for holding pro-China views and who has sought to play down Chinese military developments in intelligence analyses, said at the same Senate hearing that China "will continue to pursue space and counter-space capabilities, as they demonstrated by the launch of the SE-19" the designation for the new space weapon.

Retired Vice Adm. Michael McConnell, the new Director of National Intelligence, made no mention of the Chinese ASAT weapon test in his prepared testimony and included only one paragraph in his 18-page statement on the Chinese military buildup, an omission other intelligence officials attributed to Mr. Fingar's influence.

Rumsfeld sighting
Former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his wife, Joyce, were the toast of the town at the Hoover Institution's annual reception at the Willard Hotel on Tuesday.

The former defense secretary said during the reception of several hundred people, most of them conservatives, that he has not been playing much squash lately because of a healing shoulder injury but has been active playing tennis and skiing. The former defense chief is said to be in the early stages of writing his memoirs.

The reception brought together a number of current and former Pentagon officials, and Mr. Rumsfeld talked extensively at the event with Douglas J. Feith, the former undersecretary of defense for policy.

  • Bill Gertz covers the Pentagon. He can be reached at 202/636-3274 or at

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