A few weeks ago I wrote about the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) Fiscal Year 2014 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan (SSMP), the agency’s 25-year blueprint to sustain and modernize US nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure. In that initial post I focused on the astronomical cost of NNSA’s new proposal to consolidate the number of warhead variants from the current level of 12 down to 5 interoperable warheads and raised questions about the necessity and feasibility of this so-called “3+2” strategy.
Upon closer inspection, the SSMP is even more outlandish than I first described.
All you really need to know about the “3+2” strategy is contained in the short, two-page conclusion to the 298-page document. It starts by noting that the strategy “is absolutely essential and must be accomplished…”
Then we get this paragraph:
Future planning will include a number of as yet unresolved issues. In the summer of 2013, NNSA and the Office of Cost Analysis and Program Evaluation (CAPE) in the Office of the Secretary of Defense anticipate completing a number of studies to inform NNSA planning. Two of these studies are intended to achieve savings by identifying management efficiencies and setting workforce priorities, which will require detailed plans and tradeoff analyses. In addition, many of the life extension programs and elements of the plutonium strategy are still in the early study phase and the cost estimates are not complete. Furthermore, the work planned for FY 2013 may not be completed because of mandatory funding reductions and may require adjustments to out-year plans and dates. Finally, unforeseen technical challenges in the stockpile or geopolitical events could change the priorities on which this SSMP has been built. Therefore, while some elements may require adjustment, this SSMP is an executable plan aligned with DoD requirements to provide a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent. [emphasis mine.]
Let’s unpack each of these astounding statements in turn.
First, NNSA is anticipating finding billions in efficiencies to help finance the “3+2” strategy, but it hasn’t finished the analysis to determine if these savings are actually achievable. NNSA’s FY 2014 budget request, for example, assumes efficiency savings of $320 million, but according to the Senate Appropriations Committee, the agency “has not completed any assessments to determine the reasonableness, feasibility, or source of those savings.” Meanwhile, NNSA’s management of the nuclear weapons complex has to date been the antithesis of efficient: all of NNSA’s major life extension and construction projects are behind schedule and over budget.
Second, even though the “3+2” strategy hasn’t advanced much beyond the PowerPoint slide stage (i.e. “early study phase”), NNSA has already determined that the strategy is “absolutely essential and must be accomplished.” But if NNSA has yet to fully flesh out the strategy, how can it conclude that the strategy is necessary? This concern is made even more acute by that fact that NNSA has a history of inflating requirements and ignoring cost-effective alternatives.
Third, given NNSA’s atrocious cost-estimating practices, the fact that the cost estimates for the “3+2” strategy are not complete should be a huge red flag. The approximately $300 billion estimated cost of the plan (which, by the way, doesn’t include an estimated cost to sustain US plutonium capabilities, which will be enormous!) is likely to be much, much higher.
Fourth, due to Congressionally mandated budget cuts (i.e. sequestration) NNSA can’t even complete the work it hoped to do in FY 2013 because there’s not enough funding. But the SSMP assumes that unprecedented levels of funding will be available over the long-term.
Fifth, unanticipated technical obstacles could arise that could mess up NNSA’s plans. One can imagine, for example, that NNSA might encounter difficulties in implementing concepts that are orders of magnitude more complicated than anything it has ever attempted previously.
Despite admitting these weighty disclaimers (i.e. “unresolved issues”), NNSA confidently proclaims that “this SSMP is an executable plan.” All of which raises the question of whether there is anyone home at the White House, Office of Management and Budget, Pentagon, or Nuclear Weapons Council tasked with telling NNSA that it is generally bad practice to list the reasons why a plan is basically unexecutable but then say “Don’t worry, the plan is in fact executable”!? The answer appears to be a resounding no.
Oh, but there’s more.
As I noted in my first post on the SSMP, the conclusion also notes that “the “3+2” strategic vision will reduce stockpile maintenance costs while maintaining strategic flexibility and offering the potential to consider decreasing the size of the stockpile hedge without increasing the risk.” [emphasis mine.] In other words, even after spending approximately four decades and untold hundreds of billions to implement the “3+2” strategy, there’s no guarantee that the US reserve stockpile of approximately 2,500 warheads can be reduced. Again, has anyone in the White House considered what this might mean for the President’s objective to negotiate a treaty with Russia that covers not only deployed warheads, but non-deployed warheads as well? NNSA seems to be saying that there cannot be any significant reductions unless the SSMP is executed.
Furthermore, NNSA does not provide an explanation for how the “3+2” strategy would reduce stockpile maintenance costs, especially if no reductions are made to the hedge.
Fortunately, Congress is already balking at the stockpile management vision described in the SSMP.
Last month the Senate Appropriations Committee reduced the budget request for the B61 life extension program, the first in line of the five warheads slated to make up NNSA’s stockpile of the future, by approximately 30 percent. The Committee expressed concern “that NNSA’s proposed scope of work for extending the life of the B61 bomb is not the lowest cost, lowest risk option that meets military requirements and replaces aging components before they affect weapon performance.”
The Senate Appropriations Committee also expressed doubts about the combined life extension program for the W78 intercontinental ballistic missile warhead and the W88 submarine launched ballistic missile warhead, the first of three interoperable warheads slated for refurbishment as part of the “3+2” strategy. While the Committee did not cut funding for the program, it stated “that an integrated warhead may be unnecessarily complex and expensive, increase uncertainty about certification and meeting the full range of military characteristics and stockpile-to-target sequences needed for submarine and intercontinental ballistic missile systems, and fail to address aging issues in a timely manner.” According to the SSMP, the combined W78/W88 life extension program will cost at least $14 billion.
The House Appropriations Committee has raised similar alarms. The Committee declared that it “will not support dedicating significant funding for new stockpile transformation concepts unless the Administration can more clearly lay out its rationale and the NNSA can demonstrate that it is taking a conservative approach that accounts for all costs, is executable in the timeframe needed, is technically feasible, and has demonstrable benefits that justify such a large investment.” Though the House did not reduce appropriations for the B61 life extension program, it did cut the budget for the joint W78/W88 warhead by $23 million. The House funding level would permit consideration of an interoperable warhead, but only as part of a continued study of alternatives, including a separate life extension program for the W78.
The Pentagon, NNSA, and the contractors they employ have often overreached in their pursuit of nuclear stockpile modernization. But this time, they have taken that overreach to a whole new level.