By Daryl G. Kimball and Tom Z. Collina
The Barack Obama administration’s fiscal year 2014 budget request proposes spending $7.87 billion for National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Weapons Activities, which would be an increase of $654 million, or nine percent above the 2012 enacted level, and $300 million more than the Continuing Resolution for fiscal year 2013.
And as John Fleck of the Albuquerque Journal notes in a report he posted Wednesday, “The Obama administration’s budget request, being rolled out today, calls for a 23 percent increase in the budget for U.S. nuclear weapons research, manufacturing and maintenance over the next five years,” according to a budget summary document (PDF, page 371) released by the Office of Management and Budget.
So long as the United States has a nuclear arsenal, funding for the core programs to maintain an effective arsenal will be needed, but that can be accomplished in a more cost-effective manner.
Unfortunately, the administration’s proposal for increased NNSA weapons activities spending doesn’t take into account the fiscal headwinds now blowing across the federal budget and it ignores some common-sense cost savings strategies on some of the most costly projects.
Because the administration’s fiscal 2014 budget request is above the levels mandated by the Budget Control Act, the NNSA budget request and future years budget increases are not sustainable or realistic. As a result, it will be up to Congressional budget appropriators to make the tough, practical choices about what is really necessary and what is affordable, or else allow the across-the-board budget cuts mandated by “sequestration” to go forward.
According to the administration’s fiscal year 2014 NNSA budget wish list, the funding would cover cost increases for nuclear weapon life extension programs, such as: upgrades to the W76 and B61 nuclear weapons; initiating new upgrades for the W78 and W88 nuclear weapons; and improving or replacing aging facilities, such as the Uranium Processing Facility; adding funds for tritium production and plutonium manufacturing and experimentation.
The base NNSA weapons activities budget includes programs to sustain the existing stockpile by maintaining the underlying science, surveillance, and other support programs.
NNSA Weapons Activities Funding:
FY 2011 Appropriation: $6.87 billion
FY 2012 Appropriation: $7.21 billion
FY 2013 Request: $7.58 billion
FY 2013 CR: $7.58 billion (excludes sequester reduction)
FY 2014 Request: $7.87 billion
As Congress reviews the NNSA budget request, it must recognize the importance of core stockpile surveillance and maintenance work for the existing stockpile and take a harder look at the increasingly costly and overly ambitious warhead upgrade projects, known as life-extension programs (LEPs), particularly the B61 nuclear gravity bomb LEP, which accounts for a large portion — perhaps as much as $500 million — of the NNSA’s fiscal year 2014 budget request.
Costly B61 Nuclear Bomb Upgrades
The NNSA had estimated last year that the B61 LEP will cost about $7 billion and produce its first rebuilt bomb in FY 2019. But in July 2012, a Pentagon review projected that the program would cost $10.4 billion and take three years longer. Four hundred B61s are reportedly planned for refurbishment, at roughly $25 million per bomb.
The United States currently keeps about 180 tactical B61s in Europe to assure allies of the U.S. commitment to NATO. However, U.S. and NATO military leaders recognize that U.S. strategic nuclear forces—not tactical forces in Europe—provide the ultimate guarantee of Alliance security. Moreover, some NATO members, such as Germany, have called for the B61 to be removed from Europe. It is possible that a future agreement between Russia and the United States would, as the Senate has directed, address tactical nuclear weapons, which could reduce or eliminate these warheads. Thus, tactical B61 bombs might not be deployed a decade from now, when the proposed rebuilding program would be complete.
Even if tactical B61s remain in service, there is no rush to rebuild them. B61s, like all modern nuclear weapons, have two components (neutron generators and gas transfer systems) that have limited life and are replaced on a regular basis. However, the scope of the B61 LEP goes well beyond these limited life components and involves replacing hundreds of other non-‐nuclear parts, such as switches, foams, and cables, as well as the bomb’s uranium secondary.
These parts are continually assessed by the stockpile surveillance program, run by Sandia National Laboratories, and, according to scientists with weapons expertise, there is no evidence that they need to be replaced soon. Moreover, the strategic B61‐7 already underwent significant upgrades in 2009. Leaving aside the limited‐life parts, it does not appear that the B61 LEP must be completed by 2022, as NNSA asserts.
Thus, Congress should mandate that NNSA and the labs explore more cost-efficient alternatives. For instance, by simply replacing the limited life components in the weapon, the bombs could remain in service for at least another 10 years. This would save billions and provide the time necessary to complete the W76 warhead life extension program, and determine whether there will be B61s in the U.S. nuclear arsenal before the United States makes multi-billion dollar investments to upgrade the weapon.
Another option would be to scale‐back the B61 program by replacing only the parts that are known to be at the end of their lives and only for the weapons that are likely to still be deployed a decade from now.
For example, the NNSA could only upgrade the strategic B61‐7, of which there are an estimated 120 in service, and replace only the limited-‐life parts and possibly the radar. As for the roughly 180 tactical bombs based in Europe, such limited upgrades could be made only for those planned to be deployed into the 2020s. This scaled‐back approach could save billions of dollars more.