I’ve written my October Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists column on the misbegotten B61 life extension program (LEP). Here’s how I begin:
At an estimated cost of more than $11 billion, the life-extension program for the B61 bomb would be the most ambitious and expensive nuclear warhead refurbishment in history. Concerned by this massive (and still growing) cost and skeptical of the need for a program of such breadth, two of the Senate’s appropriations subcommittees—Energy and Water, as well as Defense—slashed allotted spending on it in their respective fiscal 2014 funding bills.
Worried that their favorite refurbishment program is on the ropes, the Pentagon and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) have launched a counteroffensive with an assist from supporters in Congress. The lobbying effort will be on full display on October 29 at a hearing hosted by the House Strategic Forces Subcommittee. It will include testimony in support of the life-extension program from the head of US Strategic Command and high-ranking representatives of the NNSA and the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
The case against the proposed B61 life extension is simple: It is unaffordable, unworkable, and unnecessary. In addition, it is premised on assumptions about demand for nuclear bombs that may no longer be valid 10 years from now, when the program is scheduled to be completed. It would be foolish to spend $11 billion on an overly ambitious overhaul, when the future of at least half the weapons is uncertain and more cost-effective alternatives are available.
Read the whole thing here.
As I note in the column, the B61 is set to take center stage at a House Strategic Forces Subcommittee hearing tomorrow afternoon. Expect the Pentagon/NNSA witnesses to expound all manner of arguments about how the current LEP of record is the cheapest LEP that meets military requirements to extend deterrence in Europe and Asia and ensure continued delivery by the B-2 bomber, would allow for a reduction in the size of the stockpile of nuclear gravity bombs (including the potential retirement of the earth penetrating B61 mod 11 and the aging B83 strategic gravity bomb), reduce long-term B61 life cycle costs, increase the safety of the refurbished weapons, obviate the need for an unplanned B61 life extension program in the 2020s, and is impossible to ditch at this point because NNSA has already dumped so much time and money into it.
Let’s set aside for the moment the fact that all of these arguments have major flaws (for example the B61 is already arguably the safest nuclear weapon in the stockpile; the Pentagon/NNSA have not provided a guarantee that the mod 12 would lead to the elimination of the B83; because the expected life of the mod 12 is only 20 years NNSA already has a second (!!) life extension program for the B61 on the books that is scheduled to begin in 2033 and could always move that date up a few years as a follow-on to a less ambitious LEP than the mod 12 if necessary; as of June 2013 NNSA had only spent $300 million on engineering work for the mod 12; NNSA has an ignominious history of launching into major protects only to determine later that it had overstated requirements and ignored more cost-effective alternatives; etc.).
The most important question that needs an answer is how NNSA plans to complete its proposed scope of work by 2019 given the current budget environment. Because as of now it’s not clear how the agency can do so.