"We will need to refurbish several aging weapons systems," council chairman E.C. Aldridge Jr., the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, wrote. "We must also be prepared to respond to new nuclear-weapons requirements in the future" - a reference to a push to develop "earth-penetrating" weapons that might destroy buried stocks of biological, chemical or nuclear weapons in countries such as Iraq.
"It's recognizing that the stockpile that we designed 25 or 30 years ago for the Cold War really might not be the stockpile for the war on terrorism," a senior Pentagon official said Friday. "The rest of the world realized after Desert Storm that if you could be seen, you could be killed."
The memo is backed by little-noticed language in the defense authorization bill that Congress approved last week. The bill suggests that the U.S. nuclear-weapons laboratories - Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos and Sandia - should be ready to resume testing with as little as six months' notice.
Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, said the memorandum demonstrated the Bush administration's intention to end the testing moratorium.
"The administration is chipping away at the barriers to a resumption of testing," Kimball said. "They are doing their best to establish a rationale to resume testing, either for reliability problems or for new weapons. The reality is that there is no scientific nor military basis for a resumption of testing, and to do so would be an enormous strategic blunder that would invite a wave of proliferation that could swamp the entire nonproliferation regime."
New testing could prompt the Russians, the Chinese, the Indians, and the Pakistanis to do likewise, or harden North Korea's refusal to abandon its nuclear program, he warned.
But a Pentagon official said there was no movement afoot to resume testing.
"It was just time to go back and collect our thoughts" after 10 years of maintaining the nuclear stockpile without tests conducted beneath the Nevada desert, said Frederick Celec, the deputy assistant to the secretary of defense for nuclear matters. "Let's take stock and see where we are. What are the risks involved in not testing?"
Democrats in Congress say that the interest in resumed testing comes not from the uniformed generals or the physicists in the weapons labs, but primarily from conservative civilian leaders, such as Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and advisers such as former defense official Richard Perle, and John Foster, a nuclear-weapons designer.
Since 1992, weapons scientists in California and New Mexico have used a multibillion-dollar system of supercomputers and large-scale technology to understand the underlying physics of bombs and missile warheads. The Aldridge memo suggests that this Science Based Stockpile Stewardship program may not be enough. It requests studies "to assess the potential benefits that could be obtained from a return to nuclear testing with regard to weapons safety, security and reliability."
The memo suggests another look at the potential benefits of a "low-yield" testing program, which might produce a nuclear explosion equivalent to only a few hundred pounds of conventional explosives. Such tests might involve small amounts of plutonium - not in bomb form - at the Nevada Test Site, according to a Defense Department official. So-called subcritical tests are now designed to produce no nuclear yield.
Portions of the defense authorization bill passed Wednesday require weapons scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and elsewhere to report whether nuclear explosions beneath the Nevada desert might be "helpful" in resolving reliability questions about existing nuclear weapons, even if the tests are technically "unnecessary."
"I don't know of any reason why we can't" maintain the stockpile without testing, said Bruce Goodwin, the head of the Livermore nuclear-weapons program.
Testing might be required "if somebody came along and said we needed a completely new, ultra-lightweight weapon," he said. "But I don't see anything like that on the horizon."
Congress last week authorized the three nuclear-weapons labs to create preliminary designs for a weapon known as the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, designed for underground targets. The project involves strengthening existing hydrogen bombs, rather than creating new designs. Livermore weapons designers say they don't expect the project to require nuclear tests.
Contact Jonathan Landay at 202-383-6012 or firstname.lastname@example.org.