By the end of 2011, it became increasingly apparent that the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) was rethinking its plans to refurbish the B61 nuclear gravity bomb, the most elaborate, ambitious and expensive Life Extension Program (LEP) for a nuclear weapon to date. In December Congress provided its final ruling for fiscal year (FY) 2012, which sent a powerful message to NNSA that such a rethinking is necessary.
First produced during the 1960s, the U.S. deploys approximately 500 B61 bombs, with 200 deployed in NATO countries. Of those 500, there are five versions of the B61, respectively referred to as “mods” 3, 4, 7, 10, and 11. The B61 LEP would create a new mod, the B61-12, by consolidating the B61 3, 4, 7, and 10. The LEP will refurbish aging components, enhance safety and security features, and include other design changes, altering the weapon’s military characteristics.
Congress provided the full $233 million NNSA requested for the B61 life extension program in FY 2012. However, when you read the fine print, it is less clear how Congress will respond to future funding requests. According to the Conference Report for H.R. 2055, the legislation which funds the government for FY 2012, including NNSA, Congress withheld $134 million until “NNSA submits to the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations the outcome of the Phase 6.2/2A design definition and cost study.”
The results of this study, as well as other stringent reporting requirements mandated by Congress, are likely to present insurmountable hurdles to NNSA’s plan to move forward with the most ambitious option for the B61 LEP. The current budget environment is no doubt also a key driver of the need to reevalutate the objectives of the program, but a rethinking of the goals of the planned refurbishment would be necessary even in better economic times.
The Phase 6.X Process
When nuclear weapons were built during the Cold War, the United States used a seven-step process to describe the “life cycle” for designing, building, and dismantling new nuclear and non-nuclear components for nuclear weapons. For LEPs, which wed new non-nuclear components to older nuclear components for nuclear weapons while sticking as closely as possible to the original design, the United States uses a variation of that seven-step process called the “Phase 6.X process.” The Phase 6.X process includes: a concept assessment, a feasibility study, a design definition and cost study, development engineering, production engineering, first production, and full-scale production.
In addition to reporting requirements that already exist as part of this process, Congress will require additional information during the concept study, design definition and cost study, and development engineering phases.
During the Concept Study, “NNSA will have to report an estimate of the total cost of the concept study and costs of any related technology maturation activities to be performed in conjunction with the study.”
During the Design Definition and cost study, NNSA will have to “provide a report on the military requirements established for the life extension effort and a preliminary estimate of the costs and schedule requirements for the life extension program. The report should include a description of any alternatives for warhead enhancements under consideration, such as those for safety, security or maintainability, along with a comparative assessment of the resource implications and technical risks of each alternative.” NNSA will also have to report on “the extent to which the proposed safety and security features address specific safety and security concerns and why current safety and security features would not be sufficient.” All nuclear weapons possess some level of safety and security features, also known as surety features. The purpose of these features are to prevent unauthorized or accidental detonations.
Finally, during the Development Engineering phase, if NNSA selects unproven technologies for its LEP, it must also demonstrate how it will maintain its cost and schedule targets.
These new reporting requirements seem to be the first steps toward revamping the 6.X process. They will increase transparency, incorporate independent assessments, and provide more accurate cost estimates for LEPs. For future warhead refurbishments, this should be the beginning of a new standard.
Other Reporting Requirements
Congress is also requiring that the independent technical experts known as the JASON Group conduct an assessment of the B61 LEP that, “determines whether proposed intrinsic nuclear warhead safety and security features for the B61 bomb will affect the long-term safety, security, reliability, and operation of the weapon, whether these surety features are justified when measured against the plausible range of deployment scenarios and threats likely to confront the future B61 stockpile, and the benefits outweigh the costs of installing such features.”
Additionally, the NNSA Administrator will have to certify that the benefits of the B61 LEP “outweigh the costs and there are no less costly and effective alternatives.” Since they first began, Life Extension Programs have focused on enhancing the safety and security features of nuclear weapons. However, one must ask, as Congress does here, whether these changes are justified.
Implications of New Reporting Requirements
These new reporting requirements are likely to reveal significant flaws in NNSA’s justification and schedule for the B61 LEP. Some of these flaws have already been highlighted in the Government Accountability Office’s May 2011 report,DOD and NNSA Need to Better Manage Scope of Future Refurbishments and Risks to Maintaining U.S. Commitments to NATO, which, among other things, expressed concern that NNSA had an unrealistic timetable for completing the B61 LEP and no plans to mitigate that risk. The new reporting requirements are also likely to reveal that the current estimated price tag for the B61 LEP, $3.9 billion, is low and does not incorporate the total cost of the program.
Finally, the requirement that NNSA defend how its modifications to the warhead address specific security concerns and certify that there are not less expensive alternatives will reveal another important weakness with the justification for the LEP.
The modifications to the B61 likely do not address specific security concerns and the weapon already incorporates adequate security features. The security environment where the warheads are currently deployed has not changed significantly in recent years. Additionally, as Hans Kristensen has pointed out, NNSA’s marching orders are to pursue increased safety and security features for its warheads “independent of any threat scenario.” There are likely to be less expensive alternatives to a multi-billion dollar refurbishment to the B61 warhead, namely the far less expensive option of increasing security (e.g. guns, guards, and gates) around the warhead.
The good news is that we will know the answer to these questions soon. Given the current budget environment, it is likely that the administration could scale down its request for the B61 LEP in its fiscal year 2013 budget request. If that does not happen, it is also possible that, after studying the results of these new reporting requirements, Congress could scale back the scope and funding for the refurbishment program.