[Vredeslijst] Pentagon pushes for billions to refurbish nuclear bombs ("Volkel bommen")
Henk van der Keur
henk.vdkeur op antenna.nl
Vr Okt 25 23:19:50 CEST 2013
Pentagon pushes for billions to refurbish nuclear bombs
25 OCTOBER 2013 - Kingston Reiff
At an estimated cost of more than $11 billion, the life-extension program for the B61 bomb
would be the most ambitious and expensive nuclear warhead refurbishment in history.
Concerned by this massive (and still growing) cost and skeptical of the need for a program of
such breadth, two of the Senate's appropriations subcommittees-Energy and Water, as well
as Defense-slashed allotted spending on it in their respective fiscal 2014 funding bills.
Worried that their favorite refurbishment program is on the ropes, the Pentagon and the
National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) have launched a counteroffensive with an
assist from supporters in Congress. The lobbying effort will be on full display on October 29
at a hearing hosted by the House Strategic Forces Subcommittee. It will include testimony in
support of the life-extension program from the head of US Strategic Command and
high-ranking representatives of the NNSA and the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
The case against the proposed B61 life extension is simple: It is unaffordable, unworkable,
and unnecessary. In addition, it is premised on assumptions about demand for nuclear
bombs that may no longer be valid 10 years from now, when the program is scheduled to be
completed. It would be foolish to spend $11 billion on an overly ambitious overhaul, when the
future of at least half the weapons is uncertain and more cost-effective alternatives are
The B61 nuclear bomb is a weapon that was first developed in the 1950s and 1960s. It is a
gravity bomb, or one that falls from an airplane without any guidance system. Five different
variants of the B61 (called "mods" for "modifications") remain in the stockpile: the
non-strategic mods 3, 4, and 10 (the last already slated to be retired) and the strategic mods
7 and 11. Approximately 180 of the mods 3 and 4 are still deployed in Europe in support of
NATO commitments. Roughly 200 mod 7s, which are carried by the B-2A bomber, are also
believed to be in service.
As currently proposed, the B61 life-extension program would consolidate four different
variants of the B61 (the non-strategic mods 3, 4, and 10 and the strategic mod 7) into a
single version known as the B61 mod 12. Approximately 400 to 500 mod 12s are scheduled
for production and their service life is estimated at 20 years. The mod 12 will also be outfitted
with an expensive new guided tail kit, significantly increasing the accuracy of the bomb.
Exploding costs. The NNSAīs cost estimate for the B61 life-extension program has doubled
from $4 billion to more than $8 billion in just two years, and its schedule to begin production
slipped from 2017 to 2020. As if that werenīt bad enough, a 2012 assessment by the
Pentagonīs Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation said that the NNSAīs
proposed schedule was still too aggressive, and that the cost could exceed $10 billion and
production be delayed until 2021. In addition, the US Air Force would fund the guided tail kit
for the weapon, at an estimated cost of more than $1 billion.
According to the NNSA, the implementation of sequestration in fiscal 2013 delayed the
program by an additional six months, and by increasing labor expenses, thereby increased
the total cost by more than $200 million. On October 16, Congress passed a short-term
spending bill that gives the NNSA $900 million (or nearly 11 percent) less than its proposed
budget request for fiscal 2014, which began on October 1. If the cut stays in effect for the
entire year-highly probable given the current budget gridlock in Congress-such a drastic
reduction would further delay and increase the cost of the B61 program, while reducing the
resources available to pay for it.
The Pentagon and the NNSA have stated that if the B61 refurbishment does not begin by
2019, some components in the existing weapons could begin to fail. Yet due to sequestration
there is little chance that the NNSA can complete its currently proposed scope of work by
2019. The implementation of the first phase of sequestration in fiscal 2013 has already
delayed the beginning of production to 2020. A simpler and cheaper life-extension program
would be much more likely to be delivered on time and on budget, thus ensuring that US
NATO commitments are not put at risk. But the NNSA does not appear to have a Plan B in
case the program is significantly delayed.
Uncertain need for the B61. In cutting the NNSAīs fiscal 2014 budget request of $537 million
for the B61 program, the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee stated that
it was "concerned that NNSA's proposed scope of work for extending the life of the B61
bomb is not the lowest cost, lowest risk option that meets military requirements and replaces
aging components before they affect weapon performance." According to the subcommittee,
the NNSA could pursue a refurbishment plan that upgrades the different variants of the B61
but does not consolidate them into a single version, a major and unnecessary cost driver of
the current proposal. This approach would extend the life of the weapons for roughly as long
as the mod 12 would, Congressional staff say, while saving the NNSA an estimated $2 to $3
billion. In addition it would obviate the need for the new $1 billion tail kit.
Yet another data point in favor of a scaled-back B61 life-extension program is that the US
stockpile of nuclear gravity bombs could look radically different a decade from now when the
program is scheduled to be completed.
For example, one argument in favor of building the mod 12 is that the United States must
continue to deploy a lower-yield B61 in Europe in support of NATO extended-deterrence
commitments. However, US President Barack Obama has called for "bold reductions" in the
number of US and Russian tactical nuclear warheads in Europe, which could lead to the
retirement of the weapons. Moreover, some of the European nations that currently host
American B61s on their soil may not build replacements for their existing nuclear-capable
aircraft, which could force removal of the bombs. Retirement of mods 3, 4, and 10 would
seem to eliminate the need to consolidate four weapons into one, allowing for a
less-expensive life-extension program.
The Pentagon and the NNSAīs response to this argument is that the life-extension program
is not primarily contingent on the B61's continued deployment in Europe, and that the mod 12
would still be required to ensure that the B-2A bomber could deliver the weapon. They also
claim that failure to complete the mod 12 would force the NNSA to conduct a life-extension
program for the B83 strategic nuclear gravity bomb, which has the highest yield of any
remaining warhead in the US arsenal (up to 1,200 kilotons).
But all of the available evidence, including previous NNSA planning documents, suggests
that the NNSA has been planning to retire the B83, and prior to this year never linked it to the
B61 life-extension program. Moreover, the new high-level nuclear weapons policy guidance
signed by President Obama in June could reduce the number of strategic gravity bombs that
are required for deterrence, allowing for the eventual retirement of the B83.
The proposed B61 life-extension program is premised on the flawed assumption that existing
nuclear deterrence requirements will remain in place for the foreseeable future-despite the
fact that the President has made it a goal to continue reducing the role of nuclear weapons in
US national security policy. This myopic planning is symptomatic of a larger blind spot in
American nuclear policy: The Pentagon and the NNSA are planning to rebuild all three legs of
the nuclear triad-long-range bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and
submarine-launched ballistic missiles-over the next 25 years, at a price tag that could
exceed $300 billion. Is it affordable, desirable, or necessary to maintain roughly the same
nuclear force structure the United States has had for the last 50 years for the next 50 years?
Itīs not at all clear that such questions are even being asked within the national security
establishment, let alone debated.
The Pentagon and the NNSAīs proposed B61 life-extension program is egregiously over
budget and continues to grow even more expensive with each passing day. Given the
implementation of sequestration, the NNSA cannot complete the program at its proposed
scope by 2019. The logical alternative should be to consider a less-ambitious refurbishment
that can be completed on time and on budget and also takes into account the uncertain
future of the weapon. The sooner the Pentagon and the NNSA reassess their plans, the
better off they and the country will be.
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