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Failure to Launch

Inside the Bush administration's dream of resurrecting the nuclear weapons complex—and the old-school Republican congressman who stood in its way

Representative Dave Hobson is a Republican in the old mold. Stocky, silver-haired, and congenial, the 71-year-old Ohio congressman is a fiscal hawk and a gun-rights supporter but has no truck with the religious right. He works hard in the legislative trenches tending to the arc of suburban and rural counties near Columbus that he's represented since 1991. Like his home territory, the legislative terrain Hobson occupies is solid if unexciting; he's the guy you might catch on c-span picking through a military construction bill.

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Two things color Hobson's views on policymaking: his success as a small businessman—he became wealthy from commercial real estate—and the four military bases in his home district. He is strong on defense, but in a nuts-and-bolts, look-after-the-troops way. He's proud of his efforts to privatize military housing, for instance, and his fight to get more armored Humvees to the troops in Iraq. (He's been there several times.) He also believes in tight budgets—a sign on his desk reads, "It's the national debt, stupid"—though he isn't dogmatic about it.

"Dave's a businessman who also happens to be a politician," says John Kasich, a powerful former Ohio congressman and Fox News commentator who is one of Hobson's closest friends. "Dave's not anti-pork, believe me, but the spending has to make sense." Hobson frequently won't sign off on a measure unless it has, in a phrase he often uses, "a business plan"—a clear set of achievable goals and a sensible way of reaching them.

Which is why this respected conservative has emerged, to his own surprise, as one of the toughest opponents of the Bush administration's extraordinarily ambitious attempts to expand the nation's nuclear weapons complex. The irony is that Hobson strongly believes the United States should have a state-of-the-art nuclear capability and a credible nuclear deterrent; he's even crafted a program that he believes would ensure this. Yet on nuclear policy, he says, President Bush has committed a cardinal legislative sin: putting forth grand ideas without a business plan or even a coherent notion of their impact on national security.

But that isn't what most disturbs Hobson. During conversations in his House office, decorated with military mementos—flags, a musket, an Army helmet, mounted swords and scabbards—the otherwise easygoing congressman becomes stern, even angry, as he recounts the White House's record of outright dissembling and abysmal planning. His complaints evoke the familiar criticisms of the president's handling of the war in Iraq. But, Hobson says, his experience was particularly troubling because it involved a debate about real weapons of mass destruction—perhaps the most sensitive security issue facing any president. Once a true believer, Hobson has come to a stark conclusion about the administration's approach to nuclear weapons: "They lied."

Shortly after he became chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development in early 2003, Hobson came across a curious item in the proposed budget for the nation's nuclear weapons program. (As part of the Department of Energy, the program fell under the subcommittee's purview.) At the time, Hobson admits, he didn't know much about this dense, sobering subject. "Only senators were supposed to get involved in nuclear weapons issues," he explains. But he was ready to influence an issue larger than the opening of a new veterans clinic in his district. Ever confident in his ability to wield a sharp red pencil, he settled down with the $6 billion weapons budget.

The item that gave him pause was something called the Modern Pit Facility, a proposed factory for manufacturing a critical nuclear weapons component—grapefruit-sized, hollow plutonium spheres that are encased in high explosives to form the triggers of thermonuclear bombs. Even with 6,000 warheads deployed, more than 4,000 kept in reserve, and thousands of additional pits in storage, the Bush administration was insisting that a new pit production line was essential for upgrading the stockpile.

Hobson was worried that restarting pit production might push countries like Iran and North Korea to speed up their nuclear efforts, or even prod Russia and China to boost their warhead programs. More than that, though, the proposal's sheer scale and redundancy bothered him. For years, the nation's weapons labs had certified that the existing stockpile was in perfect working order, and weapons planners said they needed only small numbers of new pits for making specialized warheads.

Pileup Nuclear Warheads, 2007

North Korea

Fewer than 10

Pakistan*

50

India*

75

Israel*

100

United Kingdom

200

France

350

China

410

United States

10,300

Russia

16,000

Estimated totals. * Indicates lowest estimate. Source: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Pit production had stopped in 1989 when the government's plant in Rocky Flats, Colorado, was shuttered due to major safety lapses and leaks of plutonium and other lethal materials. President Bush himself had declared that he wanted to shrink the nuclear stockpile to a minimum, and had recently negotiated with Russia to slash each country's deployed warheads by more than half—to 2,200 or fewer—by 2012. Yet the Modern Pit Facility would fabricate as many as 450 pits a year—roughly the same number being produced during the 1980s, in the era of mutually assured destruction.

Hobson voiced his concerns to Linton Brooks, the newly appointed head of the National Nuclear Security Administration (nnsa), an Energy Department unit that oversees the weapons complex.

"I said, 'First of all, I don't think you need 450 pits a year,'" Hobson recalls. "What kind of signal does that send to all these other countries? Second of all, I didn't think we had that kind of money."

Sensing that the nuclear priesthood was not going to take direction from a small-town congressman, Hobson was not prepared for a cakewalk. And yet, "without any consultations or questions, they just came back to us and said, 'Okay, we don't need that capacity. We'll cut it,'" says Hobson. "I thought, 'Gosh, this is an easy job.'"

Today, Brooks says that the administration was never actually set on fabricating 450 pits a year. "It was the high end of the range," he says.

For Hobson, though, this unexpected reversal was an epiphany. "These were nuclear weapons we were talking about, and they hadn't given it more thought than that?"

Few of the ideological blueprints from the foreign-policy hawks who swept into office with George W. Bush were as ambitious as those for reenergizing the idle nuclear weapons production complex. The United States still had its massive Cold War arsenal, but the bombs' role in defense planning was waning. Nuclear weapons were the ultimate dumb bombs, so indiscriminately destructive that many military planners regarded them as largely useless. During the Clinton years, some officials had even argued for their abolition, though the hawks prevailed and set up an expensive "stockpile stewardship" program to maintain the weapons and nourish the politically influential weapons labs.

In early 2001, the National Institute for Public Policy, a right-leaning think tank, issued a policy paper by a group of prominent neoconservatives who argued for a radical new strategy. The United States might be able to make do with a smaller nuclear force, they said, but it urgently needed new types of warheads for specialized missions such as destroying deeply buried bunkers.

But the real novelty of the proposal was its rationale: New warheads were required not to deal with specific threats such as the Soviet Union, but to prepare for unknown threats that might one day materialize. It was a "what if" strategy, a dramatic example of the neoconservative mantra that American military power needs to be essentially unfettered and boundless.

Three months after 9/11, the Bush administration issued a new Nuclear Posture Review, a sweeping policy statement that radically redefined nuclear strategy precisely along the lines urged by the National Institute for Public Policy. (The document was classified, but large portions were leaked.) This was not surprising, since six of the think-tank study's authors had assumed key positions in the new administration, including then-deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley, dod deputies Stephen Cambone and Keith Payne, and nnsa head Brooks.

The new policy fully embraced the "what if" doctrine. No expense would be spared in creating a "revitalized defense infrastructure." No longer would nuclear bombs be kept in reserve as history-altering weapons of last resort; the new nuclear ideologues were envisioning a strategy in which low-kiloton nuclear bombs could be used as actual war-fighting tools, a means—they claimed—of deterring the likes of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.

A year and a half later, the Republican-controlled Congress repealed the part of the 1993 Spratt-Furse amendment that had prohibited research on weapons with a yield of less than five kilotons (roughly a third as powerful as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima). It appropriated hundreds of millions of dollars for refurbishing warheads and researching so-called bunker busters as well as new types of smaller warheads labeled "advanced concepts." There were even suggestions that the administration might lift the ban on underground testing put in place by the first President Bush in 1992, widely regarded as one of the most important nonproliferation measures of the past two decades.

The more Rep. Hobson learned about this ambitious nuclear vision, the more he saw the administration's efforts as an ill-advised prelude to a new arms race. Eventually, he approved the funding, but he inserted requirements that limited advanced concepts to the drawing board and insisted that the entire enterprise be subject to close congressional oversight. "We thought it was going to be just a research type of thing," he says.

The nnsa and the labs heard a different message. In December 2003 Brooks wrote to the heads of the Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, and Sandia nuclear labs, telling them they were now "free to explore a range of technical options...without any concern that some ideas could inadvertently violate a vague and arbitrary limitation." Hobson got a copy of the letter, and his heart sank. "I'd been had," he says.

Hobson was growing skeptical, but he had not lost his faith in the administration. It would take the bunker-buster debacle to change that.

The idea behind the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (rnep) was to use nuclear weapons to destroy subterranean bunkers where Kim Jong Il or Saddam Hussein might conceal command centers or caches of wmd. In theory, by detonating a low-kiloton bomb underground, it would be able to crush a reinforced target buried hundreds of feet beneath the surface, and its blast would be contained—making it more like a precision munition than a doomsday weapon.

The Bush administration decided that it needed bunker busters that were more accurate and could go deeper than existing "earth penetrators," specially modified warheads that can burrow no more than 20 feet into hard rock.

There was just one problem: Every independent assessment found that a new generation of bunker busters could not possibly perform as hoped. A March 2003 article in Arms Control Today by a group of respected nuclear weapons advisers concluded that no bomb could penetrate more than 50 feet without destroying the warhead itself, and that crushing a hardened bunker 1,000 feet underground would require an explosion of more than 100 kilotons—seven times the size of the Hiroshima bomb. Even a one-kiloton bomb, detonated at 20 to 50 feet down, "would eject more than 1 million cubic feet of radioactive debris from a crater about the size of ground zero at the World Trade Center." A report issued by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that instead of vaporizing any biological or chemical agents inside the bunker, the blast actually might disperse them.

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