As President Obama prepares to give a major foreign policy speech in Berlin tomorrow calling for further reductions in the US and Russian nuclear arsenals, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has released a new, mind-blowingly expensive plan to sustain and modernize the US nuclear stockpile over the next 25 years.
According to the Fiscal Year (FY) 2014 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan (SSMP), which was released to the public on June 17, NNSA, at the direction of the Nuclear Weapons Council, has adopted a long-term “3+2” strategy to consolidate the current stockpile of seven different warhead types into five unique systems. If implemented successfully, the US nuclear arsenal of the future will consist of:
- Three ballistic missile-type warheads, each deployable on both Air Force and Navy delivery systems, employing three interoperable nuclear explosive packages with adaptable non?nuclear components.
- Two types of air-delivered nuclear weapons, both deployable in a cruise missile and a bomb weapon system, employing interoperable nuclear explosive packages with adaptable nonnuclear components.
Pursuant to this strategy, NNSA is proposing to spend at least $60 billion (!!) over the next 25 years on 5 major warhead life extension programs. That’s right: over $60 billion. This includes:
- approximately $8 billion for the B61 life extension programs, which is currently ongoing
- approximately $14 billion for the W78/W88-1 life extension program (dubbed by NNSA as interoperable warhead 1)
- approximately $14 billion for the W87/W88 life extension program (or interoperable warhead 2)
- approximately $12 billion for a new W76-1 life extension program (or interoperable warhead 3); and
- approximately $12 billion for the W80-0 cruise missile warhead life extension program
In order to afford these astronomically expensive life extension programs, the SSMP says NNSA’s weapons activities program will need at least $280 billion over the next 25 years, or an average of $11.2 billion per year. Note that NNSA’s FY 2014 request for NNSA weapons activities is $7.87 billion, far below the average level that will be required but still a whopping 28% increase above the FY 2010 enacted level. The plan worked out by the administration in 2010 when the Senate was considering New START called for $88 billion in spending on NNSA weapons programs between FY 2012 and FY 2021.
The FY 2014 SSMP is an ambitious departure form the last SSMP released in 2012. According to the 2012 blueprint, NNSA planned to spend approximately $19 billion on life extension programs through 2031. In contrast, the 2014 plan estimates $65 billion in spending between 2014 and 2038!
If you’re wondering whether this plan is necessary, affordable, feasible, and safe, you’re not alone.
For example, are there cheaper, less ambitious alternatives that will maintain the safety, security, and reliability of the weapons? That was the case with NNSA’s plan to build the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Facility (CMRR-NF); recall that the Nuclear Weapons Council agreed to delay the facility by at least five years last year. It also seems to be the case for the B61, but NNSA continues to reject less expensive approaches to the current $10 billion refurbishment plan. Affordability is also a huge question mark. Given NNSA’s notoriously horrible ability to estimate costs (and manage large-scale projects), it’s probably best to double or even triple the guesstimates in the SSMP. Moreover, executing the plan will almost certainly require NNSA to continue to raid the budgets of its vital nuclear and radiological security programs in order to pay for weapons, an outcome that would weaken US national security. And then of course there’s the not so small matter of the current budget environment and sequestration, which has already forced NNSA to scale back the $88 billion plan crafted in 2010.
The concept of interoperability also requires a great deal of further study and scrutiny. For starters, is it feasible? Will this mix and match approach bring the weapons so far away from their originally tested configuration that reliability will be called into question? We already know that the Navy has big concerns about the interoperable concept.
Furthermore, will all this mixing and matching and spending actually allow for reductions in the bloated stockpile of approximately 2,500 reserve warheads? The SSMP only states that the “3+2” strategy offers “the potential to consider decreasing the size of the stockpile hedge without increasing the risk.”
Finally, how does this new strategy mesh with the new nuclear employment guidance and desire for further nuclear weapons reductions to be announced by President Obama in Berlin tomorrow? Does NNSA’s new plan move us further away from a Cold War arsenal or lock in the status quo?
Here’s to hoping that Congress will be asking these and many other questions.