White House Warns Senate Off of Warhead-Cost Measure

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A U.S. Navy Ohio-class submarine capable of firing Trident nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. The Obama administration is protesting a Senate committee-passed measure that would call for cost and feasibility studies on alternative approaches to modernizing Navy and Air Force warheads for ballistic missiles.
National Journal
Elaine M. Grossman and Douglas P. Guarino, Global Security Newswire
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Elaine M. Grossman and Douglas P. Guarino, Global Security Newswire
Nov. 19, 2013, 9:02 a.m.

WASH­ING­TON — The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion on Monday even­ing pushed back against sug­ges­tions it might re­con­sider a costly plan for up­grad­ing a pair of U.S. nuc­le­ar war­heads due to in­creas­ing budget con­straints and grow­ing skep­ti­cism about the pro­ject’s feas­ib­il­ity.

The White House on Monday is­sued a form­al ob­jec­tion to lan­guage in the Sen­ate ver­sion of the fisc­al 2014 an­nu­al de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bill that calls on the ad­min­is­tra­tion to launch new stud­ies of al­tern­at­ives to its ex­ist­ing plan for a joint Air Force-Navy pro­gram to ex­tend the ser­vice lives of two nuc­le­ar war­heads.   In re­cent weeks, con­gres­sion­al aides and oth­er ob­serv­ers said so-called se­quest­ra­tion fund­ing cuts and spend­ing con­straints caused by the use of con­tinu­ing budget res­ol­u­tions — rather than an­nu­al ap­pro­pri­ations bills — might prompt the ad­min­is­tra­tion to re­vis­it a 25-year plan to mod­ern­ize the U.S. nuc­le­ar weapons stock­pile.   The plan, which the En­ergy De­part­ment is­sued earli­er this year, in­cludes the cre­ation of new, in­ter­op­er­able war­heads cap­able of mul­tiple tasks. The first such war­head would be called the “IW-1,” and would have the abil­ity to re­place both the W-78 — cur­rently fit­ted on Air Force ground-based bal­list­ic mis­siles — and the Navy W-88, used on sub­mar­ine-based mis­siles.   Law­makers on both sides of the aisle have raised con­cerns about the plan, sug­gest­ing that it might be cheap­er to re­fur­bish the ex­ist­ing war­heads rather than cre­ate the new, in­ter­op­er­able weapons. An­nu­al ap­pro­pri­ations and au­thor­iz­a­tion bills ap­proved earli­er this year in both the Re­pub­lic­an-con­trolled House and Demo­crat­ic-run Sen­ate — though not yet signed in­to law — en­cour­age the ad­min­is­tra­tion to study both op­tions be­fore mak­ing a com­mit­ment.   The Sen­ate de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion le­gis­la­tion, which was be­ing de­bated on the cham­ber floor on Tues­day, would re­quire the ad­min­is­tra­tion to es­tim­ate the cost of both the in­ter­op­er­able ap­proach and simple re­fur­bish­ment of the ex­ist­ing war­heads, rather than just the in­ter­op­er­able op­tion.   “The ad­min­is­tra­tion strongly ob­jects” to the pro­posed re­quire­ment, ac­cord­ing to the White House Of­fice of Man­age­ment and Budget’s new “State­ment of Ad­min­is­tra­tion Policy.” Study­ing both op­tions would ex­act costly delays on cur­rent mod­ern­iz­a­tion plans, the White House ar­gued.   An arms-con­trol ad­voc­ate op­posed to the in­ter­op­er­able war­head plan said the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s res­ist­ance to study­ing the cost of con­trast­ing ap­proaches “is fur­ther evid­ence that it is in­hab­it­ing Nev­er-Nev­er­land when it comes to” stock­pile mod­ern­iz­a­tion.   “It de­fies com­pre­hen­sion that the ad­min­is­tra­tion would op­pose stud­ies of al­tern­at­ive op­tions to the IW-1 giv­en the ma­jor con­cerns about the af­ford­ab­il­ity, tech­nic­al feas­ib­il­ity, ne­ces­sity and ex­ecut­ab­il­ity of the cur­rently en­vi­sioned” life-ex­ten­sion pro­gram, said King­ston Re­if of the Cen­ter for Arms Con­trol and Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion.   Even Navy of­fi­cials have voiced re­ser­va­tions about go­ing for­ward with the ad­min­is­tra­tion plan, which has been in the works since 2009. The Navy said in a Septem­ber 2012 memo that it did not sup­port en­ter­ing in­to the next phase of study re­lated to the planned in­ter­op­er­able war­head “at this time” and sug­ges­ted “delay­ing this study ef­fort un­til the mid 2020s.”   The Navy raised con­cerns that the En­ergy De­part­ment con­tract­ors are already miss­ing budget­ary and schedul­ing tar­gets for ex­ist­ing weapons work — in­clud­ing re­fur­bish­ment of the Navy’s W-76 war­head.   The Sen­ate le­gis­la­tion calls for the Pentagon to as­sess by Feb. 1 the cost and feas­ib­il­ity of sep­ar­ately up­dat­ing the W-78, W-88 and the W-87 war­heads, with the lat­ter be­ing a second, more mod­ern war­head used on a por­tion of today’s Minute­man 3 in­ter­con­tin­ent­al bal­list­ic mis­sile force. By April 1, the de­fense sec­ret­ary would have to is­sue a second re­port to Con­gress on how those costs com­pare to the ef­fort to pro­duce the IW-1 joint Navy-Air Force war­head life-ex­ten­sion, which has been es­tim­ated to cost on the or­der of some $14 bil­lion over the span of a dec­ade.   In its Monday state­ment, the White House budget of­fice said the De­fense De­part­ment already has un­der way a study that “will in­form a cost/risk/be­ne­fit de­cision on a war­head with an in­ter­op­er­able nuc­le­ar ex­plos­ive pack­age that can be used on mul­tiple plat­forms.” If Con­gress forced the Pentagon to carry out a new study of al­tern­at­ives to the ex­ist­ing mod­ern­iz­a­tion plan,” it “would sig­ni­fic­antly delay com­ple­tion and in­crease costs of the feas­ib­il­ity study,” the ad­min­is­tra­tion said.
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