A new Energy Department assessment of the program to rebuild the B61 nuclear gravity bomb projects the cost at about $8.3 billion, but an independent department estimate identified risk factors that could lead to cost increases and schedule delays.
The official estimate by the semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which is contained in a document known as a baseline cost report, includes $7.6 billion in direct funding for the B61 life extension program and $648 million in funding supported through other agency programs, according to NNSA Press Secretary Francie Israeli.
In an Oct. 18 statement to Arms Control Today, Israeli said the estimate “is within the range” of the last formal estimate prepared by the NNSA in 2013, which put the total cost of the program at $8.1 billion.
The minimal cost growth over the past three years is consistent with repeated public assurances from the NNSA that good progress is being made on the program, which in June entered the production-engineering phase of the life extension process and is on track to produce the first refurbished B61 bomb in fiscal year 2020. The production-engineering phase authorizes NNSA design laboratories and production plants to finalize the design and prepare for production.
But the NNSA’s newly created Office of Cost Estimating and Program Evaluation has raised concerns about meeting that cost and timetable. The independent office’s assessment “highlighted potential cost and schedule risks,” which the B61 program office is “monitoring and mitigating,” according to Israeli.
Israeli did not respond to a request for a comment on whether the office published its own estimate and, if so, how much higher it is than the official baseline.
In 2012, before the creation of the NNSA’s independent cost estimating office, the Defense Department’s independent Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation analyzed the B61 life extension program and estimated the cost at more than $10 billion. The estimate warned that the program could take three years longer to complete and that labor costs could be higher than expected by the NNSA.
A number of major NNSA projects have suffered from significant cost increases and schedule delays. For example, a 2011 preliminary estimate of the B61 life extension program estimated the cost at $4 billion and said the first bomb would be produced in 2017.
Under the B61 life extension program, the agency plans to consolidate four of the five existing versions of the bomb into a single weapon known as the B61-12. The upgraded weapon will be equipped with a new tail-kit guidance assembly that will make the bomb more accurate and allow it to have a lower yield than some of the existing variants. The new tail kit is being developed by the Air Force and is estimated to cost $1.3 billion.
The NNSA is expected to produce 400 to 500 B61-12s, which officials have said will lead to the retirement of the stock of B83 gravity bombs, the most powerful nuclear weapon remaining in the U.S. arsenal.
The existing variants of the B61 can be delivered by the B-2 strategic bomber and a variety of shorter-range fighter aircraft in support of the U.S. security commitment to NATO. Approximately 200 tactical B61 gravity bombs are believed to be housed on the territory of five NATO members: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey.
The B61 life extension program has been a controversial issue in Congress. In 2013, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), then the chair of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NNSA nuclear weapons funding, led efforts in the Senate to scale back the program. But the program was fully funded in the final appropriations bill for fiscal year 2014 and has been fully funded every year since. (See ACT, March 2014.)