Tom Z. Collina
President Barack Obama last month sent Congress a budget request for fiscal year 2012 that would significantly increase funding for maintenance of the nuclear stockpile, modernization of the weapons production complex, upgrades to strategic delivery systems, and deployment of ballistic missile interceptors.
All told, these commitments, which were key to winning Department of Defense and Senate support for the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), would add up to almost $300 billion over the next decade. The budget documents add specifics to the earlier commitments.
The administration is requesting $7.6 billion for Weapons Activities at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semiautonomous agency within the Department of Energy. This request for fiscal year 2012 represents an increase of $620 million, or almost 9 percent, over the 2011 request and 19 percent more than approved by Congress for fiscal year 2010.
The increased NNSA Weapons Activities budget for fiscal year 2011 was approved as part of the continuing resolution (CR) that Congress passed in December and was one of the few programs to receive an increase above fiscal year 2010 levels. The CR lasts only through March; Congress is working on another CR to fund the government for the remaining months in the current fiscal year.
Speaking Feb. 16 at a nuclear policy conference in Arlington, Va., NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino said that the fiscal year 2012 budget was “the first payment on the $85 billion commitment” that the administration made last November as part of the updated “National Defense Authorization Act of FY 2010 Section 1251 Report.” (See ACT, December 2010.) The November version was an update of a congressionally required report, issued last May, in which the administration outlined its plans to ramp up the weapons activities budget over the next decade.
As a Senate condition for New START’s entry into force, which occurred Feb. 5 (see p. 36), Obama certified Feb. 2 that he would request full funding for two major NNSA weapons-related construction projects: the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) project in New Mexico and the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) in Tennessee. Construction projects account for the largest growth area in the Weapons Activities budget, increasing by $477 million, or 26 percent, for a total 2012 request of $2.3 billion.
The CMRR is to be built at Los Alamos National Laboratory to support the production of 50 to 80 plutonium components, or “pits,” per year. The administration’s fiscal year 2012 request calls for $300 million for the CMRR, a 33 percent increase from the fiscal year 2011 appropriation. Facility construction, which is projected to be completed by 2023, is estimated to cost between $3.7 billion and $5.9 billion. The UPF at the Y-12 National Security Complex would replace aging facilities for uranium-component handling. The administration is requesting $160 million for the UPF for fiscal year 2012, a 39 percent increase from fiscal year 2011. The facility is projected to cost between $4.2 billion and $6.5 billion and be completed by 2024. Both facilities could be operational by 2020, although completion could take longer. Cost and schedule for the CMRR and UPF will not be finalized until the projects achieve 90 percent design maturity, which the NNSA says they will achieve in late 2012.
The multibillion-dollar price tags for these facilities have raised the eyebrows of at least one veteran of the nuclear weapons complex, who said in a Feb. 25 interview that budget pressures may force the NNSA to redesign the facilities to make them smaller and more affordable. Otherwise, the large budgets for the CMRR and UPF could “starve the science program,” he said. He said both facilities could be reduced in size and cost if their basic designs were rethought. “You could cut the size of UPF by 50 percent if you rethink what you need to build,” he said.
According to the NNSA, its budget request “reflects the partnership” with the Defense Department “to modernize the nuclear deterrent.” Under the Obama administration’s spending plan, the Defense Department is to contribute a total of $2.2 billion to the NNSA weapons activities budget from fiscal year 2013 to 2016.
Within the weapons budget request, almost $2 billion is for Directed Stockpile Work, which ensures the operational readiness of the U.S. nuclear stockpile. The NNSA is extending the lifetimes of current warheads by 20 to 30 years, without nuclear explosive testing, by refurbishing warheads through the Lifetime Extension Program (LEP). Explosive testing is banned by the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which the United States has signed but not ratified.
New Life for B61 Bomb
In the administration’s budget request, funding for the LEP jumps by 93 percent, from $249 million in fiscal year 2011 to $497 million in fiscal year 2012. The bulk of the increase, $224 million, goes to extending the life of the B61 Mod 3, 4, and 7 nuclear bombs, which would be consolidated as the B61-12. Fewer than 100 B61-7 strategic bombs are deployed near B-2 heavy bombers based in the United States, and about 180 B61-3 and -4 tactical bombs are deployed at European bases in NATO, according to public estimates. Obama has announced his intention to seek agreement with Russia to reduce U.S. and Russian stockpiles of tactical weapons.
The B61 “primary” stage would be rebuilt with the existing nuclear pit, according to NNSA budget documents, and the “secondary” stage would utilize reused or remanufactured parts from the B61-4. In modern U.S. warheads, the fission energy from the primary ignites the fusion energy in the secondary, which can produce nuclear explosive yields of hundreds of kilotons. According to the NNSA, the B61 LEP includes consideration of “increasing safety, and improving the security and use control,” and “modifications could be employed to provide greater reliability; and components and materials with known compatibility and aging issues could be replaced, providing better alternatives.”
An LEP for the W76 warhead used on the Trident D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), costing $257 million in 2012, began in 2008 and is scheduled to be completed by 2017, according to the administration’s budget documents. A lifetime extension study on the W78 warhead for the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) is also underway, with a budget of $26 million in 2011 and a requested increase to $51 million in 2012. The NNSA is considering reducing the number of warhead types by developing a common warhead to replace both the W78 and the newer warhead on Trident D-5s, the W88.
According to the NNSA budget proposal, “LEPs not only extend the life of weapons, but provide opportunities to enhance surety by installing enhanced safety and security features.” The goal of surety enhancements is to improve the safety (to prevent accidental detonation), security (to increase physical protection), and use control (to permit only authorized use) of the nuclear stockpile, the NNSA says. According to the budget request, “This approach is applicable to other future envisioned refurbishments and stockpile improvement projects needed, meeting both NNSA and Department of Defense…requirements.”
According to the former weapons complex official, the “major driver” of warhead lifetime extensions is the NNSA’s desire to retrofit all warheads to use insensitive high explosives (IHE), which are less prone to accidental detonation than conventional explosives. The B61 already has IHE, but the W78 and W88 do not. When these warheads are rebuilt, they would need to use a different primary design that uses IHE, such as the W87 warhead on the Minuteman III, the former official said. It is likely that Los Alamos would have to produce new pits for these new primaries, he said.
The NNSA’s stated intention to “enhance” existing warhead designs has led some experts to be concerned that, in the name of safety and security, changes could be made that cannot be certified through nuclear testing and thus may lead to reduced warhead reliability. They argue that deviating from already well-tested designs is unwarranted and should be minimized. Seeking to restrain changes to existing warheads, the April 2010 “Nuclear Posture Review [NPR] Report” laid out several principles to guide the life extension effort. (See ACT, May 2010.)
The NPR report states that life extensions “will use only nuclear components based on previously tested designs and will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities.” According to the report, “In any decision to proceed to engineering development for warhead LEPs, the Administration will give strong preference to options for refurbishment or reuse. Replacement of nuclear components would be undertaken only if critical Stockpile Management Program goals could not otherwise be met, and if specifically authorized by the President and approved by Congress.”
The NPR report thus puts a high fence around “replacement.” Replacement is the riskiest approach as it would use new warhead designs that are not currently in the stockpile although they would be based on tested designs. “Reuse” would take parts already in the stockpile and use them in different warheads. “Refurbishment” would use the same parts or rebuilt parts of the same design in the same warhead and thus represents the lowest-risk approach. A warhead design not in the stockpile and not based on a tested design would be considered a “new” weapon and is ruled out by the NPR report.
In April 2010, Senior White House Coordinator for WMD Counterterrorism and Arms Control Gary Samore said, “Replacement would be to make a weapon with a physics package that had been previously tested but is not currently deployed.… I think refurbishment and reuse will be perfectly fine for the foreseeable future.”
The NNSA is considering a currently unused diagnostic tool, called “scaled experiments,” to support life extensions “by providing data on plutonium behavior under compression by insensitive high explosives,” according to the agency’s budget documents. These experiments would explosively test a scaled-down hollow sphere or shell of plutonium, which would not reach criticality and thus would not violate the CTBT, which prohibits all nuclear test explosions. The United States has not conducted scaled experiments “in a long time,” D’Agostino said in a Feb. 18 interview. (The transcript of the interview, which covered a range of NNSA issues, will be published later this month.)
By contrast, since last September the NNSA has conducted three subcritical experiments, which do not use plutonium spheres. Before that, the NNSA had not conducted subcritical experiments for almost four years. In a March 1 e-mail to Arms Control Today, NNSA spokesman Damien LaVera said, “There was a pause in conducting subcritical experiments because NNSA decided to upgrade nuclear safety protocols at the facility in Nevada where they are performed. That process took longer than anticipated.”
The NNSA has asked the JASON group of senior science and defense consultants to provide advice on the integration of scaled experiments with the ongoing stockpile stewardship program before the agency proceeds with such experiments, LaVera said.
The fiscal year 2012 budget request refers to the study in its description of the NNSA’s planned work in “advanced certification.” The budget document does not specify the amount requested for that study, but LaVera said it was $1.2 million.
Some sources who follow the issue closely say such experiments may be of marginal utility and could necessitate the construction of a large new testing facility in Nevada, possibly raising the suspicions of other countries.
Delivery Systems Get Boost
As required by the Senate’s New START resolution of ratification, Obama certified Feb. 2 that he intends to “modernize or replace the triad of strategic nuclear delivery systems,” including a heavy bomber and air-launched cruise missile (ALCM), an ICBM, and an SLBM and a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine to launch it. These items are included in the $553 billion Defense Department budget request for fiscal year 2012. The administration’s May 2010 report on upgrading the nuclear deterrent states that, over the next decade, the United States will invest “well over $100 billion in nuclear delivery systems to sustain existing capabilities and modernize some strategic systems.”
The Pentagon’s fiscal year 2012 budget request includes $197 million for research and development on a new Air Force long-range bomber, either manned or unmanned, to be fielded in the mid-2020s. The Pentagon plans to spend $3.7 billion to develop the nuclear-capable aircraft over the next five years, with 80 to 100 aircraft ultimately planned.
The Air Force plans to retain the B-52 heavy bomber through at least 2035 for nuclear and conventional missions, with upgrades and life extensions to the fleet. The B-2 fleet is being upgraded as well.
The Defense Department intends to replace the current ALCM with the advanced long-range standoff cruise missile. The Air Force expects low-rate initial production of the new missile to begin approximately in 2025, while the current ALCM will be sustained through 2030.
The budget plan would spend $1.07 billion to develop a new ballistic missile submarine, the so-called SSBN(X), to replace the current Trident Ohio-class subs. The November version of the report on the U.S. nuclear deterrent states that the current subs have had their service life extended by a decade and will commence retirement in 2027. Construction for new submarines would begin in 2019 for first deployment in 2029. The estimated 2011-2020 cost for the new submarine is approximately $29.4 billion.
The November report said the Navy plans to sustain the Trident II D-5 missile, to be carried on the current Trident fleet and the next-generation submarine, through a least 2042.
Regarding ICBMs, the Air Force plans to sustain the Minuteman III through 2030. As stated in the NPR report, preparatory analysis on a new ICBM is underway, although a decision is not expected for several years. The fiscal year 2012 budget, however, does not contain $26 million that the administration pledged in November to spend on studying a next-generation ICBM. The omission is “a sign of things to come,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said Feb. 17 at the Arlington conference. He said he saw it as showing “a gradual retreat.”
Ballistic Missile Defense: $100 Billion
Obama certified to the Senate that he would “continue development and deployment of United States missile defense systems” to defend against threats from North Korea and Iran. The certification covers all phases of the European Phased Adaptive Approach, the U.S. Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, and development of two-stage Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) missiles, originally planned for deployment in Europe, as a technological hedge.
The administration is requesting $10.7 billion for missile defense in fiscal year 2012, up from the current $10.2 billion. This total does not include $995.2 million for the Space Based Infrared System-High satellite program. Annual funding for missile defense is expected to remain roughly at $10 billion for the next decade.
The GMD system, which is meant to protect the United States from limited long-range missile attack from Iran and North Korea, is funded at $1.16 billion in fiscal year 2012, down from the $1.34 billion request for fiscal year 2011. In 2012 the GMD program plans to acquire six GBI missiles and order five more. Thirty GBI missiles currently are deployed in Alaska and California. The missiles have failed in their last two intercept tests, in January and December 2010. The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has established a Failure Review Board to investigate the causes and recommend fixes. The next test, called FTG-06b, is planned for fiscal year 2012. The MDA plans to have 47 GBI missiles by 2016.
The fiscal year 2012 budget request asks for more than $2 billion for the phased approach, which calls for deployment of interceptors in Europe, starting this year, to establish a limited capability to intercept missiles from Iran. (See ACT, March 2010.) The MDA plans to deploy SM-3 missiles on Aegis ships and on land in Romania in 2015 and Poland in 2018. In fiscal year 2012, the MDA plans to procure 46 SM-3 Block IB interceptors and deliver the final six SM-3 Block IAs and 12 additional SM-3 Block IBs. The MDA is requesting funds to continue development for the SM-3 Block IIA and SM-3 IIB. By 2016 the MDA plans to have 113 Block IAs, 223 Block IBs, and five Block IIAs, for a total of 341 SM-3 missiles and 41 Aegis missile defense-capable ships. The SM-3 Block IIB, which would cost $1.7 billion through fiscal year 2016, is not scheduled for deployment until the fourth phase of the planned approach, called Early Intercept and Regional ICBM Defense, in 2020.
The requested budget for directed energy research, including the Airborne Laser (ABL), is $469 million through 2016. According to the 2010 “Ballistic Missile Defense Review Report,” this program has experienced repeated schedule delays and technical problems since its start in 1996; the aircraft-based laser has been shifted to a technology demonstration program. (See ACT, July/August 2009.) In 2009, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that the ABL “has significant affordability and technology problems and the program’s proposed operational role is highly questionable.”
The Pentagon announced that it would not support the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS), a joint program with Germany and Italy, past 2013. The system is intended to protect battlefield troops from short-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and aircraft and was slated for delivery in 2018. The program failed to perform within time and cost projections, despite some notable progress, the Pentagon said Feb. 14. “Our partners may go forward with some MEADS, but it is not our plan to do so,” Defense Department Comptroller Robert Hale said at a briefing for reporters on the budget request. The German government said Feb. 15 that it would abandon MEADS as well.