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US dumps bunker-buster - or not?

17 November 2005
US dumps bunker-buster - or not?

In late October, US Congressional leaders agreed to withhold USD4 million requested by the US administration to complete pre-engineering studies into the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP). Although it has been widely reported that the programme has now been cancelled, there is evidence that the RNEP project may yet continue under a new name.

The body in charge of US nuclear weapons programmes, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which operates within the US Department of Energy, has stated it wants to complete the RNEP study at Sandia National Laboratories, New Mexico, as planned, but with Pentagon funding. It proposes renaming the study. Although the NNSA had asked to drop Energy Department funding, reflecting a "change in policy" favouring research into conventional penetrator options, the nuclear option may not have been abandoned. The RNEP programme may be as much motivated by the development of new technology directly applicable to a new generation of lower-yield nuclear weapons, as by the perceived military need for a weapon that is able to destroy hard and deeply buried targets (HDBTs).

The conventional weapon is to undergo a 'sled test' early in 2006, in which a mock warhead will be slammed into a huge block of concrete at high speed to test impact. The results could guide government policy to fully developing either a conventional or nuclear earth penetrator. Much depends on whether the penetrator shell contains a mock nuclear warhead, as originally planned, or a mock conventional warhead. A mock nuclear warhead would signal the intention to continue the RNEP programme under a conventional guise. However, some insiders believe that further attempts to get additional funding approved in Congress may come up against the same obstacles as before.

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