Key Senator Questions Plans for B61 Bomb

Marcus Taylor and Tom Z. Collina

A key senator is challenging the scope and cost of the Obama administration’s plan to extend the life of B61 nuclear bombs as the administration is seeking a significant increase for the program for fiscal year 2014.

At an April 24 hearing, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she had been briefed on a plan to upgrade the B61 that would cost $1.5 billion. By contrast, the Obama administration’s current approach to the B61 life extension program (LEP) may cost up to $10 billion, she said. The program has been delayed until March 2020, and costs have increased by $200 million due to the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration, she said.

Feinstein said that the $1.5 billion plan, one of a number of alternatives considered and rejected by the administration, would be cheaper because it would replace just three parts of each bomb. “The current scope is now much more ambitious, replacing hundreds of components,” she said.

Feinstein made the comments during a hearing of the Senate Appropriations energy and water subcommittee, which she chairs. That subcommittee funds the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which is responsible for nuclear weapons maintenance.

Under the administration’s fiscal year 2014 budget request, funding for the B61 LEP would rise from $369 million in fiscal year 2013 to $537 million in 2014, an increase of 45 percent. Currently, the United States deploys about 180 nonstrategic B61s in Europe as part of NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangement. Strategic versions of the bomb are stored in the United States for use on long-range bombers.

At the hearing, Donald Cook, NNSA deputy administrator for defense programs, responded to Feinstein by saying that the cheaper plan she mentioned was rejected because it would cost more in the long run. Although it would delay the need for an LEP by 10 years, “we would then need a life extension program that would be more expensive,” he said. The current plan is “the lowest-cost life extension program that meets the military needs,” Cook said.

The B61 LEP has attracted attention because its costs are increasing and a number of NATO members, such as Germany, are calling for the bombs to be removed from Europe. In addition, President Barack Obama is seeking a new agreement with Russia to limit the number of tactical, or short-range, weapons such as the B61s on the territory of NATO member countries. Some in Congress have raised the concern that, by the time the B61 LEP is complete a decade from now, the bombs may no longer be deployed in Europe. (See ACT, December 2012.)

Congress is looking for ways to trim costs because the funding levels that the administration requested are significantly above the targets set by the 2011 Budget Control Act, under which sequestration came into effect March 1. If Congress does not modify the sequestration law, cuts will have to be made to the administration’s budget request before the new fiscal year starts on Oct. 1.

Higher Weapons Funding Sought

The total funding for LEPs, which extend the operable life of nuclear bombs and warheads, would increase by 79 percent over the fiscal year 2013 appropriation under the administration’s fiscal year 2014 request, submitted to Congress on April 10.

Program funding for the B61, the W76 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) warhead, and a common replacement for the W78 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and W88 SLBM warheads would rise from $567 million in the 2013 appropriation to $1.0 billion in fiscal year 2014. The requested funding jump is a result of increased requests for the B61 and W76 LEPs, combined with the start of the W78/88 LEP.

Overall, the semiautonomous NNSA is slated to receive $7.9 billion to maintain the U.S. nuclear warhead stockpile, an increase of 4 percent over the $7.6 billion that Congress appropriated for that portion of the NNSA’s work in fiscal year 2013. This amount would have to be cut by about $780 million under sequestration. Funding for NNSA weapons activities is projected to rise to $9.3 billion by fiscal year 2018, according to future-year projections in the fiscal year 2014 budget documents. The NNSA also manages nuclear nonproliferation efforts (see).

The budget request includes funding for the Uranium Processing Facility, which would receive $326 million in fiscal year 2014, 4 percent less than in 2013. The facility, to be built at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee, is to produce uranium components known as “secondaries,” a key part of modern thermonuclear warheads. The Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Facility, which had been planned for the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico to conduct plutonium research, was delayed last year by at least five years.

Andrew Weber, assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense, testified before the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee on April 17 that the administration’s current approach to meeting the need for plutonium “pits”—the key nuclear component of the first, or primary, stage of nuclear warheads—“includes a resourced plan to utilize pit reuse in ongoing LEPs” while increasing U.S. manufacturing capacity to 10 pits per year by 2019, 20 pits per year by 2020, and 30 pits per year by 2021. “Pit reuse” means using the same pit again rather than manufacturing a new one during the LEP process.

Weber is the staff director for the Nuclear Weapons Council, through which the Defense and Energy departments coordinate management of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile.

Delivery Systems

The Pentagon’s budget request for nuclear weapons delivery systems also received a boost in funding. Overall, the Defense Department’s request for fiscal year 2014 is $527 billion, $900 million less than the 2013 appropriation, and exceeds the sequestration spending caps by about $52 billion.

The Pentagon is planning to replace the sea-based and air-based legs of the nuclear triad of delivery systems and is exploring whether to replace land-based missiles as well. In the budget request, research and development for the Long-Range Strike Bomber would receive a boost of 30 percent from the fiscal year 2013 appropriation to $379 million. The Pentagon plans to spend $8.8 billion on this program from fiscal years 2014 to 2018, according to the future-year projections. The bomber, which the Air Force began developing last year, is expected to enter into service in the mid-2020s.

The budget also requests $1.1 billion to develop a new ballistic missile submarine, the SSBN(X), to replace the current Ohio-class submarine. This is an increase of $515 million, or 91 percent, over the 2013 appropriation, which had been reduced when the Navy announced a two-year delay in the program. The current Ohio-class submarines are expected to remain in service until the late 2030s, with the SSBN(X) entering into service around 2030.

The Pentagon’s budget request also calls for $9.4 million to fund research on the next-generation ICBM, known as Ground Based Strategic Deterrence. At the April 17 hearing, Air Force Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, said that an analysis of alternatives would be completed and submitted to Congress in fiscal year 2014.

Missile Defense Reduction

In contrast to nuclear delivery systems and nuclear warheads, funding for missile defense programs would decrease from the fiscal year 2013 appropriation. Under the fiscal year 2014 request, overall funding for those programs would drop by 5 percent, from $9.7 billion to $9.2 billion. The cut is in part a result of a reordering of the Missile Defense Agency’s (MDA) priorities, which make up $7.7 billion of the funds requested for missile defense.

On March 15, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced the cancellation of the fourth phase of the European Phased Adaptive Approach, including development of the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIB interceptor. (See ACT, April 2013.) The budget request includes no funding for the SM-3 IIB program.

Hagel also announced plans to deploy 14 additional ground-based interceptors at Fort Greely in Alaska. The fiscal year 2014 budget includes a $130 million increase for the system, which is located at Fort Greely and at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

In addition to the cancellation of the SM-3 IIB program, the administration’s fiscal year 2014 budget would ax the Precision Tracking Space System, a network of space-based sensors intended to detect ballistic missiles; the Medium Extended Air Defense System, a joint project with Italy and Germany; and research on directed-energy weapons. The budget also would cut funding for the Sea-Based X-Band Radar, a mobile, floating radar station designed to detect ballistic missiles, by 74 percent from the fiscal year 2013 appropriation to $45 million.