FOGBANK just won’t go away. Writing in today’s Washington Post, Walter Pincus revisits the now well-known difficulties NNSA has had in reproducing the classified substance as part of the refurbishment of the W76 warhead.
According to Pincus, “The Fogbank experience showed all the weaknesses in the U.S. nuclear program that critics have harped on for years — potential failures within refurbishing systems, lack of a trained nuclear workforce and lack of modernized facilities.”
Pincus goes on to link the problems with FOGBANK to the July 23 letter sent by Senators Kerry, Lugar, Levin, McCain, Kyl, and Byrd to President Obama on the START follow-on treaty:
[the letter] said that when the new START treaty is submitted for ratification, it should be accompanied by a 10-year funding estimate to support enhancement of the U.S. nuclear stockpile. They also want it to include cost figures, beginning with the fiscal 2011 budget, that show how much will be available to modernize the aging nuclear weapons manufacturing complex and to maintain a competent workforce able to create new weapons, if necessary.
Finally, they want numbers to prove that the administration is prepared to maintain the nuclear weapon delivery systems — strategic submarines, sub- and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, and long-range bombers, all of which need replacements.
It’s good to see Pincus note that like the watered down version of Senator Kyl’s amendment to the FY 2010 Defense Authorization Bill, the letter not only requires President Obama to submit a plan to enhance safety, security, and reliability, modernize the nuclear weapons complex, and maintain delivery vehicles, but also a 10-year estimate of how much this plan could cost (hint: the cost is likely to be astronomical, which could cause Congress to balk at some of NNSA’s more technically and financially dubious ambitions). However, the rest of the article is wanting in several respects.
First, Pincus suggests that the July 23 letter (and the Kyl and Turner amendments) was motivated by concerns about FOGBANK. I don’t doubt that Senator Kyl has thought about how to spin the FOGBANK issue to push his “new weapons, new facilities” agenda, but the letter and his amendment had their origins in a much larger basket of issues than just FOGBANK.
Second, Pincus uses the problems with FOGBANK to raise doubts about the Stockpile Stewardship and Life Extension Programs. The LA Times Ralph Vartabedian did the same thing a few months ago in his report on the delayed delivery of newly refurbished W76 warheads. However, the March 2009 GAO report on the B61 and W76 life extension programs referred to by both Pincus and Vartabedian suggests that poor planning and managerial incompetence on the part of NNSA had as much, if not more, to do with the problems with FOGBANK than the lack of a trained nuclear workforce or modernized facilities. Due to the great success of the Stockpile Stewardship and Life Extension Programs, today, we know more about and have greater confidence in our nuclear warheads than when testing. Also, at no point does Pincus explicitly state that the NNSA has been successfully producing FOGBANK since Spring 2008.
Third, Pincus draws his own conclusions from the July 23 letter that may not reflect the intent of all six of its authors. For example, it is Pincus, not the actual text of the letter, that talks about modernizing the complex as a means “to create new weapons, if necessary.” Furthermore, Pincus claims that U.S. delivery vehicles need to be replaced. However, he fails to mention that the Pentagon already has plans to build a new class of SSBNs and a next generation, long-range bomber (though the bomber is being delayed until the QDR and NPR are completed). Nor does he mention that the Air Force is completing a $7 billion sustainment effort to extend the life of the Minuteman III until 2030. The missile does not need to be replaced, since everything on the existing missile is brand new.
Pincus is an excellent reporter, but I think he needed to do a little more homework before going to press with this piece.