WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration might reconsider a potentially costly plan to upgrade certain nuclear warheads because of increasing budget constraints and skepticism from lawmakers and some military officials, congressional aides and other observers say.
As part of its fiscal 2014 budget proposal, the Energy Department earlier this year introduced a 25-year plan which it said could ultimately reduce the overall number of warheads in the U.S. arsenal by creating interoperable warheads capable of multiple tasks. The first such warhead, to be called the "IW-1," would replace both the existing W78 warhead -- fitted on intercontinental-ballistic missiles launched from the ground -- and the W88 warhead, used on submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
The proposal prompted concerns from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Report language accompanying appropriations and authorization bills approved earlier this year in both the Republican-controlled House and Democratic-run Senate -- which are not yet signed into law -- encourages the administration to first study the cost of refurbishing the existing W78 and W88 warheads before committing to the development of an interoperable replacement for both.
The Navy also expressed reservations about the plan, even before the administration formally introduced it this year. In a September 2012 memo to the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Council -- an interagency organization of the Energy and Defense Departments -- the Navy said it did not support entering into the next phase of study related to developing a combined W78/W88 life extension program "at this time." It suggests "delaying this study effort until the mid 2020s."
The memo, obtained by the Livermore, Calif.-based watchdog group Tri-Valley CAREs and Nuclear Watch New Mexico, noted the Navy is not even scheduled to start planning for the W88 refurbishment until fiscal 2020, and therefore has not budgeted to spend funds related to such an effort before that time. It also raised concerns that the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration already is missing budgetary and scheduling targets for its existing weapons work. Such work includes refurbishment of the Navy's W76 warhead, which is already ongoing, and which the Navy considers a higher priority.
According to the Navy, "the uncertainty of the National Nuclear Security Administration's ability to execute its current programmed work … raises questions as to the feasibility of effectively accomplishing this new emergent work."
The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office said in a report to Congress last month that the Navy's reluctance to contribute funds for the interoperable warhead project, along with budget constraints that limit its ability to do so, could ultimately make it "poorly positioned to undertake the more-detailed analyses needed validate the interoperable warhead on Navy systems, resulting in further program delays and potentially costly modifications."
According to one congressional aide with knowledge of the issue, the administration might put off much of the work related to the interoperable warhead project for about five years.
"They'll do some studies, and they need to do some studies, to figure out if this whole thing makes sense, but actually guns blazing, 'Let's go do this thing,' I think may be pushed out," said the congressional staffer, who was not authorized to discuss the issue publically and asked not to be named.
The aide expected increasing budget constraints -- among them so-called sequestration funding cuts and limits caused by Congress approving only continuing budget resolutions rather than annual appropriations bills -- would be the main drivers causing the administration to potentially revisit the plan it issued only months ago.
"When you have one year when you're cut $35 billion and another year where you're being cut $55 billion, things become very crystal clear," the staffer said. "I think everyone's jaw dropped when they came out with that 25-year stockpile stewardship management plan where they show … that this IW-1 would be something like $14 billion over 10 years."
In contrast, refurbishment of the W76 warhead is costing "only about $3 or $4 billion," the aide said.
A second congressional staffer noted that the interoperable warheads are among several other projects included in the 25-year plan. Others include the controversial refurbishment of the B61 gravity bomb, the development of a new intercontinental-ballistic missile and a new bomber for the Air Force. Lawmakers are also looking into why the plan accelerates the development of a new cruise missile, according to the aid.
"There's a lot in the mix," the aide said, noting the proposal calls for several of these projects to occur simultaneously. This contrasts with the present time, when the only warhead refurbishment project in the production phase is the W76, which already is running into issues with cost overruns and scheduling.
"I think there's concern about whether or not they can deliver," the aide said. "Are they biting off more than they can chew?"
The administration is "still trying to pull together a lot of those answers," according to a third congressional aide. "I wouldn't be surprised if there was a push to reevaluate their ideas for the interoperable warhead."
Some watchdog groups, meanwhile, argue that developing the interoperable warheads is tantamount to the United States developing new nuclear weapons.
"Creating new weapon types -- even if they only use weapon components of existing designs -- would be viewed by many as violating the administration's pledge not to develop new nuclear weapons, and could generate concerns about weapon reliability," the Union of Concerned Scientists says in a report it released last week.
Activists, along with some lawmakers, have also raised cost and reliability concerns regarding the B61 gravity bomb life extension.
The Senate Appropriations Committee in June approved legislation that would cut the Obama administration's fiscal 2014 request for the project by $168 million. Accompanying report language said the committee is concerned the NNSA refurbishment plan "is not the lowest cost, lowest risk option," and that its cost estimate "has doubled in the past two years as work scope has increased."
The B61 issue is expected to be in the spotlight again on Tuesday, when the House Armed Services Committee is planning to hold a hearing on nuclear weapons modernization programs.
However, while revisiting the plan to replace the W78 and W88 warheads with an interoperable device is likely, it may be more difficult to prod the administration into stepping back from its B61 plans, the first congressional aide suggested.
"They're so far along in the B61 program that it's hard for them to divest themselves from that from a budgetary standpoint and as a result I think they're looking at programs that haven't necessarily started up and that they're still doing studies on," the aide said.
As far as the W88 warhead goes, a December 2012 memo by the Nuclear Weapons Council suggests that, in addition to looking at the possibility of a replacement interoperable with the W78, it will develop a life extension option "based on the current design." However, language in the memo stating that "surety enhancements will be considered objective requirements for this option," is causing concern among activists that the study will not truly consider a simple refurbishment of the existing weapon.
The surety enhancements "may lead to two designs of which neither is the narrowly-scoped refurbishment necessary for maintenance of the stockpile," said Marylia Kelley, executive director of Tri-Valley CAREs. "That said, new budget realities are just beginning to impact NNSA planning, and I do expect that some internal pressure will come to bear."
Asked to comment, NNSA spokesman Josh McConaha said only that the agency works closely with its "partners at the Department of Defense to execute the president's priorities."
Defense Department officials could not be reached for comment.