Congress Fully Funds B61 Bomb

Tom Z. Collina

Striking a compromise on a controversial issue, Congress in January passed legislation to provide $537 million, the full amount the Obama administration had requested, for the program to rebuild the B61 nuclear gravity bomb and require the administration to submit detailed reports on alternatives to this plan. Congress also mandated the eventual retirement of a different gravity bomb, the B83, once the B61 is ready for service.

These items were part of an omnibus appropriations bill signed by President Barack Obama on Jan. 17. The new law is a $1.1 trillion conglomeration of 12 appropriations bills that had to be passed to keep the government open for the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. The legislation includes $7.8 billion for nuclear weapons activities conducted by the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

One of the key nuclear policy questions left unresolved last year was how much money the NNSA would be allowed to spend to extend the service life of about 400 B61 gravity bombs. About half of the B61s are stored in European NATO countries for use on tactical, or short-range, aircraft; the rest are stored in the United States for use on strategic, or long-range, bombers.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NNSA nuclear weapons funding, cited her concerns about the bomb’s declining military utility and increasing cost as she led efforts in the Senate last year to scale back the B61 life extension program (LEP). In June the full Senate Appropriations Committee voted to provide $369 million, slicing off one-third of the Obama administration’s request for fiscal year 2014. The full House of Representatives, citing the need to support U.S. allies in NATO, voted to provide $560 million for the B61. (See ACT, September 2013.) House and Senate leaders agreed on $537 million.

According to congressional staffers, it became clear during the drafting of the omnibus bill that House Republicans would prioritize the B61 above all other defense issues and would not agree to anything less than full funding. In exchange, Senate Democrats secured commitments on at least two issues they had raised last year: a cost review of the B61 LEP and retirement of the B83.

Last April, Feinstein announced that the NNSA had studied other options for the B61 LEP, some of which would cost much less than the NNSA’s projection of $8 billion for its chosen plan. (See ACT, May 2013.) Seeking more-complete information on these options and others, the appropriations act requires the secretary of energy to provide Congress with detailed alternatives and cost comparisons for each major warhead LEP including the B61, by April 1. There are four other warheads in the life extension queue.

Last November, Feinstein received a letter from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz reminding her that she had expressed conditional support last year for the B61 project if it would lead to the “eventual retirement” of the B83, a one-megaton weapon deployed on B-2 bombers. In the letter, Hagel and Moniz wrote that the B61 LEP would “allow us to pursue retirement” of the B83. To reinforce this commitment, the appropriations act limits funding for maintenance of the B83 to $40 million, out of a possible $55 million, until a joint Pentagon-NNSA panel certifies that the B83 will be retired by 2025 or as soon as “confidence in the B61-12 stockpile is gained.” Four current versions of the B61 would be replaced by the new B61-12. (See ACT, December 2012.)

The appropriations act appears to have set back NNSA plans to develop warheads that would be “interoperable” on land- and sea-based ballistic missiles. Known as the “3+2” plan, the NNSA had wanted to produce three interoperable warheads costing $12-14 billion each over 25 years. But the spending legislation cuts the budget for the first such warhead almost in half, to $38 million, and specifies that the money should be used to study options to rebuild a warhead deployed on land-based ballistic missiles, but did not mention making it interoperable with other systems.

According to congressional staffers and media reports, the administration is expected to announce in March that the 3+2 plan has been delayed by five years. Donald Cook, head of the NNSA weapons program, appeared to lend credence to those reports when he told the Nuclear Security and Deterrence Monitor last month that work on the first interoperable warhead had been delayed because the warheads it would replace are not aging as quickly as the NNSA had thought they would. “We’ll adjust our resources as they’re available, but there is not an impending crisis,” Cook said.

Potentially setting back Air Force plans to deploy the B61-12 in Europe, the appropriations act cuts the Pentagon’s request for a new tail kit for the B61 by half, to $33 million. The legislation also eliminated the Pentagon’s $10 million request to assess the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s capability to deliver the B61. The tail kit is expected to cost $1 billion or more.

The NNSA plans to field the rebuilt B61-12 starting in 2020, although President Barack Obama said in Berlin last June that he will work with NATO allies “to seek bold reductions in U.S. and Russian tactical weapons in Europe.” The B61 is only U.S. nuclear weapon in Europe.