While the results of the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) have yet to be released, we can be sure that at least one decision has already been made: Full steam ahead on a major refurbishment study for the B61 gravity bomb.
The National Nuclear Security Administration’s FY 2011 budget, released yesterday, includes $251.6 million for the B61 Phase 6.2/6.2A design definition and cost study, an increase of nearly $220 million over what Congress appropriated for FY 2010. As I had suspected, last year’s request of $60 million and Congressional appropriation of $32.5 million for a non-nuclear refurbishment study turned out to be a mere placeholder that paved the way for a much larger request (and likely appropriation) for a full nuclear and non-nuclear study this year. NNSA describes the purpose of the study as follows:
In FY 2011, funding supports a life extension study of the nuclear and non-nuclear components scope, including implementation of enhanced surety, extended service life and modification consolidation. This life extension study in coordination with the B61 Project Officers Group will publish a Phase 6.2A Report and Weapons Design and Cost Report. This report will document the conceptual designs, program costs and schedules associated with the nuclear and non-nuclear refurbishment scope, including development of concepts and costs to replace arming and fuzing components (e.g., neutron generator, power supplies, radars and programmer) to address near term end-of-life and sustainment concerns on the B61 bomb family. The study will evaluate options for improving safety and use control features and ensures compatibility and integration with modern aircraft such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Completion of the study will also provide options and a path forward to enable LANL and SNL participation in development of detailed designs to extend the life of the nuclear explosive package which may include an extension of the B61 nuclear primary’s life (reusing the existing B61 nuclear pit), potential implementation of multipoint safety, and reuse or remanufacture of the canned subassembly (CSA) and for a complete life extension of the B61 -3, -4, -7, and -10, if directed by the Nuclear Weapons Council.
A few things stand out here…
This year’s budget request for the B61 is absolutely massive. I went back and had a look at the requests for the RRW and the largest request was for about $88.7 million in FY 2008. It kind of makes me wonder if a “study” is all the NNSA is asking for.
A central purpose of the LEP is to consolidate the different mods of the B61 into a single mod (often referred to as the B61-12). By way of background, the B61 is a family of dual-purpose tactical/strategic weapons, the first of which entered the stockpile in 1968. There are currently two strategic (the mod 7 and 11) and three non-strategic versions (the mod 3, 4, and 10) of the B61 in the U.S. arsenal. This would give STRATCOM and the Air Force the flexibility to use the new mod in different capacities, largely wiping out the strategic/non-strategic distinction that currently defines the existing mods.
In explaining the massive increase in requested funding for the B61 LEP, NNSA states that it is necessary to “ensure continued support for our extended nuclear deterrence commitment.” I take this to mean that NNSA thinks the U.S. will need to keep B61s on European soil for the foreseeable future (Robert Norris and Hans Kristensen estimate that approximately 200 B61-3s and 4s are deployed at six bases in the five European NATO countries). If this is also the recommendation of the NPR, I hope it at least acknowledges the views of U.S. European Command (USEUCOM) and our NATO allies on the continued European deployment (though I’m not holding my breath). It also wouldn’t hurt if the NPR also recommended consolidating our remaining weapons in Europe at a smaller number of (say one or two) U.S. bases.
As one senior leader of USEUCOM put it to the Secretary of Defense Task Force on DoD Nuclear Weapons Management, “We pay a king’s ransom for these things [i.e. nuclear weapons in Europe] and…they have no military value.” Likewise this year NATO is conducting a review of its Strategic Concept. As part of this review, our NATO partners will surely address this continued European deployment. The Belgian Senate has unanimously called for the withdrawal of the B61s from Europe, while the German Foreign Minister also recently called for their removal. And yesterday the foreign minister of Poland co-authored an op-ed in the New York Times proclaiming that “The time has come to cover sub-strategic nuclear weapons with an arms control regime, which would look like the one that was established long ago for strategic arms.”
Will NNSA be able to ensure that tinkering with the nuclear explosive package to enhance surety will not violate the new Stockpile Management Programs’ requirement that any changes to the nuclear weapons stockpile can only be made if they further reduce the need for nuclear weapons testing? Questions remain as to whether this is possible. Last year’s Energy and Water Appropriations Bill called for a study (upon completion of the Nuclear Posture Review) “by the JASON Defense Advisory Group examining whether the planned B61-12 can be expected, without nuclear testing, to offer sufficient margin and other advantages as to constitute a long-term 21st Century weapon, or whether it is more likely to be an interim weapon leading to near-term replacement or retirement, and to recommend any additional research that may be needed to make an informed decision on this matter.”
Will Congress be able to roll back funding for the proposed LEP and/or limit funding to a non-nuclear LEP only as it did last year? Two key factors will make such an effort more difficult this year. First, the Obama administration is deeply committed to demonstrating its commitment to maintaining a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent. The B61 LEP is a key part of that effort. Second, the House Energy and Water Appropriations Committee, which took the lead in seeking to reduce funding for the B61 LEP last year as well as the RRW in 2007 and 2008, staked its opposition on the fact that the U.S. did not have an overarching nuclear strategy outlining why such programs were necessary. Once the Nuclear Posture Review is released on March 1, we will have such a strategy.