U.S. Studies Use of ‘Clip-in’ Nuclear Warheads

From the Washington Post

The Reagan Administration is considering development of weapons that could be transformed from conventional to nuclear with the insertion of a “clip-in” warhead, a technology rejected by the Jimmy Carter Administration as likely to undermine arms control.

“There’s nothing on the drawing boards at this point, but down the road it’s something we should think about,” said Richard N. Perle, assistant secretary of defense.

Almost any type of weapon can be developed to accommodate what the military calls “insertable nuclear components,” according to designers at California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The likeliest application would be to tactical weapons, such as Navy torpedoes or short-range Army missiles, according to the laboratory’s arms control chief, Paul S. Brown.

‘Arms Control Nightmare’


Brown said development of such weapons would “create an arms control nightmare” because conventional and nuclear weapons would look alike. But he said “insertables,” once again the subject of research at the weapons lab, might make nuclear arms easier to protect from theft or attack.

“I think it’s going to drive arms controllers up the wall, but it does have obvious advantages in terms of security and safety,” he said.

Perle disagreed that insertables would undermine arms control, saying they would be most useful in small weapons that would not be covered by arms control agreements in any case. He said clip-in warheads may make sense because the military could build a large number of missiles but only a small number of easily transportable nuclear warheads. As a result, fewer nuclear weapons might be needed.

‘Way to Economize’


“If you could screw in the nuclear component to a Lance missile, it might be a really very promising way to economize in the number of nuclear weapons,” Perle said.

Some Made in Two Versions

Currently, some weapons such as cruise missiles are made in a nuclear and non-nuclear variant. But one cannot be converted into the other, and the two are not identical in appearance.

During the late 1970s, the Navy considered developing an insertable nuclear warhead for the Harpoon missile, a non-nuclear anti-ship weapon, according to Paul C. Warnke, then director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. The White House shelved the idea, partly in response to the agency’s objections.


Navy Investigated Uses

Now, designers at Livermore are re-examining the technology. The Army has experimented with a clip-in warhead for the Lance missile, and the Navy investigated a variety of uses.

A Navy official said that a submarine, where space is at a premium, might carry 100 torpedoes and a locker with 100 clip-in warheads so it would not have to be decided ahead of time how many conventional and how many nuclear weapons might be needed.

Richard Wagner, until recently the Defense Department’s top adviser on nuclear weapons, said in response to a congressional query last year that clip-in warheads are a “militarily attractive option,” particularly for the Navy.


Assuming the Worst

But William M. Arkin, a nuclear weapons expert and Administration critic at the Institute for Policy Studies, said convertible weapons would make nuclear war more likely. Once conventional and nuclear weapons look alike, he said, an adversary may have to assume the worst.

“The other side sees Pershing (missiles) coming at him on his radar screen--how does he know they only have conventional warheads?” Arkin asked.