Congress is skeptical. After providing money previously for warhead research, it refused this year to pay for further development. Lawmakers cited recent studies that found no immediate threat that the aging of warheads and other critical weapons components has significantly eroded their capabilities.
Members of both parties said it would be wrong to embark on a major, multibillion-dollar program to produce a new warhead without determining what sort of nuclear weapons the nation will need in future years, how many will be required and how they will be used. So Congress required the independent review that's due next year.
"We have to make certain that our nuclear deterrent is reliable … but the decision (on new production) has to be made in the context of all the national security issues we face, including non-proliferation," says Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., head of a Senate appropriations subcommittee that controls nuclear weapons spending.
Building the warhead could affect Obama's goal of getting other nations to curb nuclear programs, he says. "It's our responsibility to be a leader in trying to, first, stop the spread of nuclear weapons, and second, in reducing the number of nuclear weapons on the planet."
Indeed, any move on warhead production will come in the context of several other big, international decisions Obama will face on nuclear weapons policy during his first term. Among them: whether to extend or renegotiate the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, which expires at the end of 2009, and whether to push for ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which the United States complies with voluntarily.
Obama has signaled he will give great weight to the implications that resuming warhead production might have on his non-proliferation agenda.
In an article in the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs, then-candidate Obama wrote of "de-emphasizing" the role of nuclear weapons worldwide and said "America must not rush to produce a new generation of nuclear warheads." More recently, he chose former Georgia senator Sam Nunn, an ardent advocate of reducing global nuclear weapons inventories, to advise his transition team.
The question of whether to adopt the Bush administration's plans "will be one of the most momentous (nuclear policy) decisions since the end of the Cold War … and Obama has spoken in support of moving toward a nuclear weapons-free world," says Susan Gordon, president of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, a coalition of nuclear watchdog groups.
The new warhead has more capabilities than current warheads, she adds, and would "move us further down this road of a world of nuclear haves and have-nots."
Advocates of the new warhead say it can help Obama's agenda to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.
"This isn't about building new weapons — exotic bunker busters or suitcase bombs — but reliable, more secure and less costly weapons," says Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M. The warhead "would allow deeper cuts in our nuclear stockpile" because remaining weapons would be more dependable.
"If you believe nuclear weapons are still relevant, RRW is a good thing. If you believe they should go away, it's a great thing," says Robert Smolen, deputy administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, which runs the weapons complex.
Some lawmakers who will review any decision Obama makes aren't ready to back that argument.