Yesterday the Senate and House Committees on Appropriations released their conference report on the FY2010 Energy and Water Appropriations Bill.
Of particular interest is the Conference Committee’s action on the proposed refurbishment of the B61 gravity bomb. NNSA initially requested $65 million to complete the Phase 6.2/6.2A Refurbishment Study authorized by the Nuclear Weapons Council (NWC) to address “end of life components, aging and reliability.” Though the request did not explicitly say so, the $65 million was only enough to study a non-nuclear refurbishment of the B61.
In July the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee zeroed out the request for the 6.2A study. The bill summary stated that “Until the Administration finalizes its plans for the nation’s nuclear strategy, stockpile, and complex plans, the Committee does not support the effort to develop what is essentially a new nuclear weapon.” In contrast, the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee fully funded the B61 request.
Apparently Gen. Chilton’s shiny briefing slides weren’t enough to convince the members of the Conference Committee to fully fund the proposed refurbishment (at least for now)…
The Committee appropriated $32.5 million, half the initial request, for the Phase 6.2A study, adding that NNSA is authorized to reallocate an additional $15 million for the study “upon completion of the Nuclear Posture Review and confirmation of the requirement for the B61-12.” The Joint Explanatory Statement of the Committee of Conference placed additional conditions on the study:
No request was made for funds for Phase 2/2A study of the nuclear components of the B61-12, and the conference agreement provides that no funds may be obligated or expended for this purpose without prior approval by the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations. The conference agreement directs the Nuclear Weapons Council in cooperation with the Secretary of Energy to, within 60 days of release of the Nuclear Posture Review, enter into an agreement with the National Academy of Sciences to execute a study addressing the national security and extended deterrence value of the B61 for both strategic and tactical purposes in light of nuclear terrorism risks and military threats. The conference agreement directs the Nuclear Weapons Council in cooperation with the Secretary of Energy to, within 90 days of release of the Nuclear Posture Review, commission a further study by the JASON Defense Advisory Group examining whether the planned B61-12 can be expected, without nuclear testing, to offer sufficient margin and other advantages as to constitute a long-term 21st Century weapon, or whether it is more likely to be an interim weapon leading to near-term replacement or retirement, and to recommend any additional research that may be needed to make an informed decision on this matter. The conference agreement directs the Secretary of Energy to submit each study to the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations not later than 180 days after commissioning the study.[emphasis mine].
The requested NAS and JASON studies are especially interesting, given that the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) is undoubtedly evaluating these very same issues. In fact, if recent remarks by Secretary of Defense Gates are any indication, the NPR may already have issued a verdict on the necessity of maintaining the B61:
Well, the Nuclear Posture Review is well under way, and I would say we’re beginning to see what some of the likely conclusions are. I would say that it is clear, at least to me, that it is important for us to continue to make investments, and I think larger investments, in modernizing our nuclear infrastructure, the labs and so on, the expertise in those places, to have the resources for life-extension programs, and in one or two cases probably new designs that will be safer and more reliable.[emphasis mine]
During the heady days of the RRW, the two prime candidates for replacement were generally understood to be the W76 and the B61. Depending on the outcome of the NPR, the $32.5 million appropriation may just end up being a placeholder that ultimately gives way to a massive appropriation for a wholesale nuclear and non-nuclear refurbishment or perhaps even replacement. It of course will be verrry intriguing to see how this all plays out.
On final note: While Congress is already referring to the proposed refurbishment as the “B61-12”, my understanding is that a new modification number implies a degree of change to the weapon that ultimately depends on the level of nuclear and non-nuclear refurbishment approved. Its not clear that the funding approved by the Conference Committee will be enough to support even a full non-nuclear refurbishment of the B61. While NNSA and STRATCOM appear to want to push the envelope on the B61 as far as they can (and the NPR might ultimately agree), those decisions have yet to be made, rendering the “mod 12” designation a bit premature.
And one more final note: Notice how I managed to get through an entire post on the B61 without mentioning vacuum tubes!