Pentagon pushes for billions to refurbish nuclear bombs

By Kingston Reif | October 25, 2013

At an estimated cost of more than $11 billion, the life-extension program for the B61 bomb would be the most ambitious and expensive nuclear warhead refurbishment in history. Concerned by this massive (and still growing) cost and skeptical of the need for a program of such breadth, two of the Senate's appropriations subcommittees—Energy and Water, as well as Defense—slashed allotted spending on it in their respective fiscal 2014 funding bills.

Worried that their favorite refurbishment program is on the ropes, the Pentagon and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) have launched a counteroffensive with an assist from supporters in Congress. The lobbying effort will be on full display on October 29 at a hearing hosted by the House Strategic Forces Subcommittee. It will include testimony in support of the life-extension program from the head of US Strategic Command and high-ranking representatives of the NNSA and the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

The case against the proposed B61 life extension is simple: It is unaffordable, unworkable, and unnecessary. In addition, it is premised on assumptions about demand for nuclear bombs that may no longer be valid 10 years from now, when the program is scheduled to be completed. It would be foolish to spend $11 billion on an overly ambitious overhaul, when the future of at least half the weapons is uncertain and more cost-effective alternatives are available.

The B61 nuclear bomb is a weapon that was first developed in the 1950s and 1960s. It is a gravity bomb, or one that falls from an airplane without any guidance system. Five different variants of the B61 (called "mods" for "modifications") remain in the stockpile: the non-strategic mods 3, 4, and 10 (the last already slated to be retired) and the strategic mods 7 and 11. Approximately 180 of the mods 3 and 4 are still deployed in Europe in support of NATO commitments. Roughly 200 mod 7s, which are carried by the B-2A bomber, are also believed to be in service.

As currently proposed, the B61 life-extension program would consolidate four different variants of the B61 (the non-strategic mods 3, 4, and 10 and the strategic mod 7) into a single version known as the B61 mod 12. Approximately 400 to 500 mod 12s are scheduled for production and their service life is estimated at 20 years. The mod 12 will also be outfitted with an expensive new guided tail kit, significantly increasing the accuracy of the bomb.

Exploding costs. The NNSA’s cost estimate for the B61 life-extension program has doubled from $4 billion to more than $8 billion in just two years, and its schedule to begin production slipped from 2017 to 2020. As if that weren’t bad enough, a 2012 assessment by the Pentagon’s Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation said that the NNSA’s proposed schedule was still too aggressive, and that the cost could exceed $10 billion and production be delayed until 2021. In addition, the US Air Force would fund the guided tail kit for the weapon, at an estimated cost of more than $1 billion.

According to the NNSA, the implementation of sequestration in fiscal 2013 delayed the program by an additional six months, and by increasing labor expenses, thereby increased the total cost by more than $200 million. On October 16, Congress passed a short-term spending bill that gives the NNSA $900 million (or nearly 11 percent) less than its proposed budget request for fiscal 2014, which began on October 1. If the cut stays in effect for the entire year—highly probable given the current budget gridlock in Congress—such a drastic reduction would further delay and increase the cost of the B61 program, while reducing the resources available to pay for it.

The Pentagon and the NNSA have stated that if the B61 refurbishment does not begin by 2019, some components in the existing weapons could begin to fail. Yet due to sequestration there is little chance that the NNSA can complete its currently proposed scope of work by 2019. The implementation of the first phase of sequestration in fiscal 2013 has already delayed the beginning of production to 2020. A simpler and cheaper life-extension program would be much more likely to be delivered on time and on budget, thus ensuring that US NATO commitments are not put at risk. But the NNSA does not appear to have a Plan B in case the program is significantly delayed. 

Uncertain need for the B61. In cutting the NNSA’s fiscal 2014 budget request of $537 million for the B61 program, the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee stated that it was “concerned that NNSA's proposed scope of work for extending the life of the B61 bomb is not the lowest cost, lowest risk option that meets military requirements and replaces aging components before they affect weapon performance.” According to the subcommittee, the NNSA could pursue a refurbishment plan that upgrades the different variants of the B61 but does not consolidate them into a single version, a major and unnecessary cost driver of the current proposal. This approach would extend the life of the weapons for roughly as long as the mod 12 would, Congressional staff say, while saving the NNSA an estimated $2 to $3 billion. In addition it would obviate the need for the new $1 billion tail kit.  

Yet another data point in favor of a scaled-back B61 life-extension program is that the US stockpile of nuclear gravity bombs could look radically different a decade from now when the program is scheduled to be completed.

For example, one argument in favor of building the mod 12 is that the United States must continue to deploy a lower-yield B61 in Europe in support of NATO extended-deterrence commitments. However, US President Barack Obama has called for “bold reductions” in the number of US and Russian tactical nuclear warheads in Europe, which could lead to the retirement of the weapons. Moreover, some of the European nations that currently host American B61s on their soil may not build replacements for their existing nuclear-capable aircraft, which could force removal of the bombs. Retirement of mods 3, 4, and 10 would seem to eliminate the need to consolidate four weapons into one, allowing for a less-expensive life-extension program.

The Pentagon and the NNSA’s response to this argument is that the life-extension program is not primarily contingent on the B61's continued deployment in Europe, and that the mod 12 would still be required to ensure that the B-2A bomber could deliver the weapon. They also claim that failure to complete the mod 12 would force the NNSA to conduct a life-extension program for the B83 strategic nuclear gravity bomb, which has the highest yield of any remaining warhead in the US arsenal (up to 1,200 kilotons).

But all of the available evidence, including previous NNSA planning documents, suggests that the NNSA has been planning to retire the B83, and prior to this year never linked it to the B61 life-extension program. Moreover, the new high-level nuclear weapons policy guidance signed by President Obama in June could reduce the number of strategic gravity bombs that are required for deterrence, allowing for the eventual retirement of the B83.

The proposed B61 life-extension program is premised on the flawed assumption that existing nuclear deterrence requirements will remain in place for the foreseeable future—despite the fact that the President has made it a goal to continue reducing the role of nuclear weapons in US national security policy. This myopic planning is symptomatic of a larger blind spot in American nuclear policy: The Pentagon and the NNSA are planning to rebuild all three legs of the nuclear triad—long-range bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles—over the next 25 years, at a price tag that could exceed $300 billion. Is it affordable, desirable, or necessary to maintain roughly the same nuclear force structure the United States has had for the last 50 years for the next 50 years? It’s not at all clear that such questions are even being asked within the national security establishment, let alone debated.

The Pentagon and the NNSA’s proposed B61 life-extension program is egregiously over budget and continues to grow even more expensive with each passing day. Given the implementation of sequestration, the NNSA cannot complete the program at its proposed scope by 2019. The logical alternative should be to consider a less-ambitious refurbishment that can be completed on time and on budget and also takes into account the uncertain future of the weapon. The sooner the Pentagon and the NNSA reassess their plans, the better off they and the country will be.  

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