The proposed life extension program for the B61 nuclear gravity bomb – the most expensive warhead refurbishment in history – is in trouble. Big trouble.
The latest setback for the program comes at the hands of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, which provided $6.2 million for the Pentagon’s contribution to the modernization plan in the FY 2014 Defense Appropriations bill, a decrease of $61.7 million (or over 90%) below the requested level of $67.87 million. The Subcommittee is chaired by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL), who assumed the position after Sen. Inouye (D-HI) passed away last year. The full Senate Appropriations Committee approved the Subcommittee mark today by a vote of 22-8.
The Defense Appropriations Subcommittee also zeroed out the Pentagon’s $10 million request to assess providing the F-35A joint strike fighter with the capability to deliver the B61.
Combined with the Senate Appropriations Committee’s decision last month to slash the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) request for the life extension program by nearly one third, the Defense Appropriators’ action, if passed into law, would necessitate a reassessment of the program and a more careful consideration of cheaper alternatives.
The B61 bomb was first developed in the 1950s and 1960s. It is best known as the nuclear weapon that is deployed in five nations in Europe. The United States currently keeps about 180 tactical versions of the B61 in Europe. Another 120 strategic B61-7s are also believed to be in service. The current plan is to extend the life of approximately 400 B61s by consolidating four different variants of the weapon into a single version known as the B61 mod 12.
The bulk of the B61 life extension program is funded in the NNSA, the semi-autonomous agency within the Department of Energy responsible for the management and security of the nation’s nuclear weapons, nuclear nonproliferation, and naval reactor programs.
NNSA’s current estimate is that the B61 refurbishment will cost over $8 billion. However, an independent Defense Department assessment found that the actual cost could be higher than $10 billion. The cost of the life extension program has risen dramatically over the past few years. Two years ago, NNSA estimated that upgrading the B61 would cost $4 billion and start in 2017. Now, NNSA’s cost estimates have doubled, while its estimated timeline for producing the first bomb has been pushed back to 2020. NNSA requested $537 million for the life extension program in FY 2014.
In addition to the NNSA portion of the B61 refurbishment, the program is also partially funded through the Department of Defense. Specifically, the Air Force will fund a guided tailkit for the weapon and ensure the mod 12’s compatibility with all five current B61-capable aircraft (B-2A, B-52H, F-16, F-15E and PA 200), at a total cost of about $1.1 billion. According to some analysts, the tail kit would increase the accuracy of the new B61 mod 12 and give it a new military capability.
Last month, the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee significantly scaled back the B61 refurbishment program. Led by Chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the Energy and Water Subcommittee reduced the FY 2014 request for the program by $168 million (or 31%), stating “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.”
While the funding level approved by the Energy and Water panel would allow NNSA to replace a number of aging non-nuclear components in the B61, extending the life of the weapons by at least a decade, the appropriation would force NNSA to scale down its current plan and pursue a less ambitious program. Specifically, NNSA would likely be unable to consolidate the four different variants of the weapon into a single bomb, which would entail significant work on the nuclear explosive package and is a major cost driver of the proposed refurbishment.
In its report on the bill, the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee described the cut to the tailkit program as “maintaining program affordability.” Foregoing consolidation would obviate the need for the pricey tailkit. Likewise, cancelling the tailkit would undermine the rationale for consolidation. Thus, the decisions by the Energy and Water and Defense appropriators are mutually reinforcing.
Supporters of the $11 billion life extension plan argue that the program is necessary to update the weapon, reduce the number of B61s in the US arsenal, and obviate the need for another, more costly, life extension program in the future. But these justifications don’t hold up under close scrutiny.
Neither NNSA nor the Pentagon has provided a detailed assessment of the cost-savings associated with different life extension alternatives. Moreover, the current refurbishment plan makes assumptions about the future need for the B61 that may no longer be valid a decade from now. For example, there is no guarantee that the approximately 180 tactical versions of the weapon currently deployed in Europe will still be there in ten years when the refurbishment program is scheduled to be completed. President Obama has called for significant reductions in the number of US and Russian tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, which could lead to the retirement of the weapons.
Significant changes in the number and type of B61s in the US stockpile could alter the need for the planned scope of the life extension program, reduce the number of bombs that need to be upgraded, and save money that could be used to arrest funding cuts to higher priority defense programs. It doesn’t make sense to pursue an expensive upgrade when the future of the weapon is unclear. A simpler and cheaper life extension program would also ensure that NNSA meets it stated goal of producing the first refurbished bomb by 2019, especially in light of the continued implementation of sequestration.
Due to the budget gridlock in Congress, the Energy and Water and Defense Appropriations bill will not come to the Senate floor. As a result, there will not be a traditional House-Senate conference committee on the bills. The House increased the NNSA portion of the B61 life extension program by $23.7 million above the budget request, but decreased the Pentagon portion by $12 million. A House floor amendment offered by Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL) to reduce the NNSA add-on failed by only 31 votes and was supported by 30 Republicans, a further demonstration that the refurbishment program is wearing out its welcome on the Hill.
However the spending levels for FY 2014 are worked out, it’s increasingly looking like the beginning of the end for the proposed B61 life extension program.