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Nuclear Warheads: The Reliable Replacement Warhead Program and the Life Extension Program

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Research rept. revised

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Current U.S. nuclear warheads were deployed during the Cold War. The National Nuclear Security Administration NNSA maintains them with a Life Extension Program LEP. NNSA questions if LEP can maintain them indefinitely. Congress mandated the Reliable Replacement Warhead RRW program in 2004 to improve the reliability, longevity, and certifiability of existing weapons and their components. Since then, Congress has specified more goals for the program. RRW has become the principal program for designing new warheads to replace current ones. The programs first step was a design competition. The winning design was selected in March 2007. If the program continues, NNSA would advance the design of the first RRW, assess its technical feasibility, and estimate cost and schedule in FY2008 start engineering development by FY2010 and produce the first deployable RRW between FY2012 and FY2016. Congressional actions on the FY2008 national defense authorization bills H.R. 1585, S. 1547 and energy and water appropriations bills H.R. 2641, S. 1751 have called this schedule into question. For details, see CRS Report RL32929, The Reliable Replacement Warhead Program Background and Current Developments. Each year, Congress would decide whether to fund the program as requested, modify it, or cancel it, and whether to continue or halt LEP. RRWs supporters argue that the competing designs meet all goals set by Congress. Some critics respond that LEP should work indefinitely and meets almost all goals set by Congress. Others maintain that the scientific tools used to create RRW designs have not been directly validated by nuclear tests, and that the accretion of changes resulting from LEP makes the link of current warheads to the original tested designs increasingly tenuous. In this view, nuclear testing offers the only way to maintain confidence in the stockpile. This report is intended for Members and staff interested in U.S. nuclear weapon programs.

Subject Categories:

  • Nuclear Warfare
  • Nuclear Weapons
  • Test Facilities, Equipment and Methods

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