BMD Focus: Penetrator bites the dust

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst  |  Dec. 23, 2005 at 2:00 PM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 23 (UPI) -- Is the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator dead? Congress has killed it. But it may come back to life in one form or another yet.

The RNEP was colloquially known as a "bunker buster." It was conceptualized as a nuclear weapon designed to preempt the launch of nuclear weapons. It was designed to drive deep into the ground before exploding in order to destroy hardened silos and deeply protected nuclear launch facilities and weapons creation complexes.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, always an enthusiast for new, high-tech weapons with which U.S. forces can strike first and hardest, was a longtime supporter of the RNEP. But at a time when important but immensely costly active ballistic missile defense programs are being developed and deployed on all fronts, and with a serious, unanticipated insurgency continuing to rage in Iraq, cuts had to be made somewhere.

Two Rumsfeld loyalists have left major positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense in the past two year -- Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Under Secretary of defense for Policy Douglas Feith. A third, Pentagon Comptroller Dov Zakheim, left somewhat earlier. And now speculation is swirling in Washington that Rumsfeld's own days in office are numbered and that he might be replaced in the New Year by Gordon England or Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn. All this was bad news for the RNEP.

Also, the Democrats loathed it -- and it was a safer political target to go after than BMD systems. Their position is that RNEP will be costly, there are far more important programs that need to be funded, and conventional munitions will do the job anyway.

Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-CA., put the Democratic position on the RNEP very clearly when hailing its demise.

"I'm pleased that the FY 2006 Defense Appropriations Bill will not allow the creation of new nuclear weapons, but it instead provides our military with resources to destroy hard and deeply buried targets with conventional weapons," Tauscher said,. "I continue to oppose the RNEP or development of any dangerous and unpredictable nuclear weapons that would gravely endanger American troops on the ground if used."

But the Democrats could not have killed the RNEP if they did not have powerful support across the aisle from the GOP Majority in the House of Representatives. "The magazine "Arms Control Today," the magazine of the Arms Control Association, noted in its December issue that as early as 2004, Rep. David Hobson, R-Ohio, the influential chairman of the House Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee, led a successful drive to eliminate funding for it. However, ACT continued, in the spring of this year the Bush administration "sought to revive funding for studying the weapons part of its fiscal year 2006 budget request, asking for $4 million for the Energy Department and $4.5 million for the Air Force to study the weapon."

Rumsfeld and other GOP leaders in the House still, therefore, had hopes of reviving it, at least as a new study run through the Department of Energy. Burt, significantly, Hobson and the Democrats had a powerful ally in the Senate. Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee announced Oct. 25 that he would zero out the funding again.

Even the U.S. nuclear industry was lukewarm about the RNEP. It too had other priorities rather than a contentious hot potato for a mission that it believed could be successfully carried out with conventional munitions.

Domenici said his move was prompted by the action of the National Nuclear Security Administration in dropping its support for the project. "The NNSA indicated that this research should evolve around more conventional weapons rather than ... nuclear warheads," he said.

Even after all that, it was far from a done deal that the RNEP would stay dead. In spring 2005, ACT noted, "The administrations ought to revive funding for studying the weapons part of its fiscal year 2006 budget request, asking for $4 million for the Energy Department and $4.5 million for the Air Force to study the weapon."

And as late as Nov. 13, ACT noted, Hobson was quoted in a local Ohio newspaper, the Columbus Dispatch, as saying he did not think Rumsfeld and the Pentagon had given up hope of reviving it.

Also, in a response to ACT, the NNSA denied that it wanted to scrap the RNEP program and said it only wanted to rename it. Planned RNEP activities would be "valuable in the development of conventional earth penetrators," it said.

In the impenetrably complex jungles of Congress and the Department of Defense, one can never be sure of the success or final extinction of any program and the most improbable initiatives sometimes revive when one least expects it. However, with so many other major issues pressing on BMD and other national security issues, and so many Republican lawmakers bucking the Pentagon and the White House on more national security issues than ever before, RNEP's prospects look bleak for the foreseeable future. The Defense Appropriations bill went through without it, as Tauscher noted, and as ACT concluded, "now there is no Energy Department program (either) because of Hobson and Domenici."

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