I’m a little late to this, but it looks as though Maj. Gen. William Chambers, the Air Force’s Assistant Chief of Staff for Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration, recently had some interesting things to say about the B61 life extension program. Here’s a summary, courtesy of Air Force Magazine:
No Wavering: The Air Force—and the United States—”remain committed” to providing aircraft capable of delivering nuclear weapons to support NATO’s nuclear mission, said Maj. Gen. William Chambers, who oversees nuclear issues on the Air Staff. “There is nothing currently being considered to undo or change that commitment,” said Chambers during a Capitol Hill speech on Oct. 28. “We are a nuclear alliance. We believe in the deterrent force. We are going to help provide that.” However, some issues still are uncertain regarding that US force’s future shape, he said. Decisions regarding the integration of a modernized version of the B61 nuclear bomb on the F-35 strike fighter have slipped to the right due to the F-35’s overall schedule delays, said Chambers. “It is probably not” going to be resolved as part of the Pentagon’s Fiscal 2013 to Fiscal 2017 budget program, he said. Further, there has been “no decision made yet” on the specific course of action for extending the B61’s life, he said. Chambers later told reporters that the Air Force’s current nuclear-capable aircraft for NATO—Europe-based F-15Es and F-16s—”remain very viable into the next decade and beyond. In fact, the F-15E will be viable with a nuclear-weapon-carrying capability into the mid 2030s.” [emphasis mine].
Meanwhile, Inside Defense quoted Chambers as stating: “there are a lot of different ways to meet the requirements [for the B61 life extension program]. If there’s money available to do a little more than the basic requirements, then that’s been put on the table as well.”
Contra Air Force Magazine’s headline, there does appear to be some wavering going on…
Perhaps I’m reading too much into this, but I was taken aback by Chambers’ statement that no decision has been made on the specific course of action for the B61 life extension program, as well as his suggestion that there are a lot of different ways to meet the requirements for the program. Heretofore the Pentagon and National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) have been clear, definitive, and bullish about their goals and preferred outcome for the B61.
My understanding is that the Phase 6.2/2A study to develop feasible design options for the life extension program was supposed to be completed in September 2011 (i.e. about two months ago), a year later than initially planned. It’s also my understanding that the Air Force and NNSA, at the direction of the Nuclear Weapons Council, pursued a study that was ambitiously and broadly scoped. The study was to include an analysis of options to replace non-nuclear components on the verge of obsolescence, consolidate four versions of the weapons into a single version, and incorporate previously untried technologies and design concepts to enhance the safety and security of the weapon. The total cost of the life extension was estimated at $4 billion.
In sum, the goal was to do much more than “the basic requirements”.
However, over the past year numerous doubts have arisen about the scope and schedule of the program. In May, the Government Accountability Office released a report expressing concern that “the Nuclear Weapons Council’s June 2008 request was considerably broader than prior life extension programs and has complicated the agencies’ effort, given the tight time frames for completing the study.” The Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittees echoed similar concerns in September, reducing the FY 2012 budget request of $180 million for the program by $43.6 million. And then of course there is the small matter of the current budget environment, which will require spending reductions at both DoD and NNSA.
At this point the feasibility study should be complete or nearly complete. Given how late in the game it is, it seems suspicious that no option has yet been chosen to extend the life of the B61. It’s also curious that Chambers appears to be tempering expectations for the program.
Could it be that in the course of the study it became apparent that a full scope life extension program incorporating the most ambitious new approaches and technologies proved to be neither cost-effective nor technically feasible?