Last year at this time, I was reading a National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) estimate stating that the Life Extension Program (LEP) for the B61 nuclear bomb would cost $3.9 billion, already making it the most expensive nuclear warhead upgrade in U.S. history. By May, 2012 that estimate had ballooned to $6 billion. At today’s Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, Senator Feinstein revealed that, according to the Pentagon’s Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, the Life Extension Program for the B61 warhead will cost $10 billion dollars. Amazingly enough, this plan for the B61 LEP was actually supposed to be a moderate compromise. NNSA had originally wanted to do a much more extensive and more expensive refurbishment of the B61.
To put this in context, according to the Fiscal Year 2012 budget’s Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan (SSMP), the new $10 billion estimate is equivalent to two-thirds of what NNSA planned to spend on life extending all the other warhead types in the US arsenal over the next twenty years! Excluding the B61 LEP, the SSMP indicates that, between 2011 and 2031, NNSA would spend approximately $14.8 billion on Life Extension Programs for the W76 warhead, the W78 warhead, the W80-1 warhead, the W87 warhead, and the W88 warhead. However, given the cost explosion for the B61, who knows how much these other warheads will actually cost? Likely much more than $14.8 billion.
Currently, 920 B61 bombs would undergo refurbishment, consolidating B61 “mods” 3,4,7, and 10 into one version, the B61-12. The B61-12 will integrate pieces from mods 3,7, and 10 into a B61 mod 4 warhead. If the NNSA decides to move forward with its plan for the B61 LEP, the cost would be more than $11 million per bomb.
One important question is how this report takes into consideration NNSA’s history of schedule overruns. In 2011, GAO expressed concern regarding NNSA’s ability to meet production schedules and to manufacture critical material and components for the B61 LEP. Depending on how the Pentagon accounted for these factors, the final price tag could be greater than $10 billion.
It is worth noting that, according to Senator Feinstein, NNSA’s latest estimates for the B61 are closer to $8 billion, not $10 billion. However, given that its original estimate was $4 billion, do NNSA cost estimates have any credibility?
Could Congress avoid this massive price tag by retiring the non-strategic versions of the B61? Approximately 500 (mods 3,4, and 10) of the 920 bombs slated to be upgraded are non-strategic nuclear weapons. Of that 500, approximately 200 are deployed in Europe, Cold War holdovers serving no military purpose. The remaining 300 non-strategic B61 bombs are in storage in the United States. The other 420 strategic B61 mod 7s scheduled to be refurbished actually underwent a Life Extension Program in 2005, extending the life of the weapon for years. If the NNSA retired mods 3,4, and 10 of the B61 bomb, might there be no need to continue the B61-12 LEP because the B61-7 was refurbished so recently?
UPDATE 7/28: The stockpile numbers in this piece were provided by Hans Kristensen at the Federation of American Scientists.
Also, since posting this piece, it has been pointed out to me that there are only 200 B61-4s in the stockpile. This means that, although mods 3,4,7, and 10 would be used in this LEP, NNSA would have to reuse retired warheads or pits in order to produce more than 200 B61-12s. If NNSA only refurbished the B61-4s that are in the stockpile, the price tag would be a whopping $50,000,000 per B61-12. However, given that the B61-12 would fulfill both a strategic and non-strategic mission, it is unclear how many bombs would actually be produced.