Compromise Bill Could Make Nuclear Warhead Cost Study “˜Less Painful’

An Everglades National Park, Fla., site coordinator in 2010 opens the doors to one of three facilities used decades ago to store and potentially launch both conventional and nuclear-tipped Nike missiles in reaction to any Russian attack. The U.S. Congress has scaled back earlier demands for costing out alternatives to an Obama administration plan for using a single update package for two different nuclear warheads in today's stockpile.
National Journal
Douglas P. Guarino
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Douglas P. Guarino
Dec. 22, 2013, 11:02 p.m.

A le­gis­lat­ive com­prom­ise should make it “less pain­ful” for Wash­ing­ton to study the cost of mod­ern­iz­ing its nuc­le­ar ar­sen­al, one con­gres­sion­al source says.

At is­sue is an En­ergy De­part­ment plan to cre­ate in­ter­op­er­able nuc­le­ar war­heads cap­able of mul­tiple tasks. The first such weapon that En­ergy con­tract­ors would de­vel­op would be called the IW-1, en­vi­sioned as hav­ing the abil­ity to re­place both the Air Force W-78 war­head — cur­rently fit­ted on ground-based bal­list­ic mis­siles — and the Navy W-88 war­head, used on sub­mar­ine-based mis­siles.

In Con­gress, the plan has promp­ted con­cerns from both sides of the aisle, with law­makers sug­gest­ing that the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion should first com­pare its cost to that of an al­tern­at­ive plan un­der which it would simply re­fur­bish the ex­ist­ing two war­heads.

The Navy has also raised ob­jec­tions to the plan based on cost and tim­ing con­cerns. Mean­time, con­gres­sion­al sources have sug­ges­ted that the ad­min­is­tra­tion might put off the pro­ject for ap­prox­im­ately five years due to in­creas­ing budget con­straints.

In light of these is­sues, both the House and Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tees pro­posed earli­er this year to re­quire a cost com­par­is­on as part of the de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bill for fisc­al 2014. The White House has pro­tested both pro­pos­als, claim­ing the stud­ies them­selves would cause new prob­lems.

A “State­ment of Ad­min­is­tra­tion Policy” that the White House re­leased in Novem­ber said it “strongly ob­jects” to the study ini­tially pro­posed by the ori­gin­al Sen­ate bill, ar­guing it would “sig­ni­fic­antly delay com­ple­tion” of an on­go­ing mod­ern­iz­a­tion-feas­ib­il­ity as­sess­ment and in­crease its costs.

Law­makers non­ethe­less in­cluded a cost-com­par­is­on re­quire­ment in com­prom­ise le­gis­la­tion brokered between House Re­pub­lic­ans and Sen­ate Demo­crats. However, the lan­guage in the con­fer­ence bill is dif­fer­ent and re­quires a less rig­or­ous cost ana­lys­is than either House Re­pub­lic­ans or Sen­ate Demo­crats ini­tially pro­posed, the con­gres­sion­al source said.

The Cap­it­ol Hill aide lacked per­mis­sion to speak pub­licly about the mat­ter and re­ques­ted an­onym­ity for this art­icle.

The in­tent of the new lan­guage “was to make it less pain­ful” for the ad­min­is­tra­tion to con­duct the stud­ies, while at the same time de­mand­ing ana­lyses de­tailed enough to show which op­tion is the most cost ef­fect­ive, ac­cord­ing to the source.

Un­der the House-Sen­ate con­fer­ence re­port, the Nuc­le­ar Weapons Coun­cil — a joint pan­el of the En­ergy and De­fense de­part­ments — must per­form a “com­par­at­ive ana­lys­is” that looks at the cost of re­fur­bish­ing both the W-78 and W-88 war­heads sep­ar­ately, versus re­pla­cing them both with the IW-1.

The ori­gin­al Sen­ate ver­sion of the le­gis­la­tion would have re­quired a more de­tailed com­par­is­on by the De­fense De­part­ment’s dir­ect­or of Cost As­sess­ment and Pro­gram Eval­u­ation. The ori­gin­al House meas­ure would have re­quired an even more rig­or­ous ana­lys­is of feas­ib­il­ity, design defin­i­tion and cost es­tim­a­tion to be con­duc­ted by the En­ergy and De­fense De­part­ment’s through the Nuc­le­ar Weapons Coun­cil.

“The House pro­vi­sion would have giv­en 100 per­cent, the [Sen­ate] pro­vi­sion would have giv­en 80 per­cent,” the con­gres­sion­al source said. “This gives 70 per­cent — which is enough. If you’re in this busi­ness you can usu­ally get a pretty quick read early on — at 60 or 70 per­cent — which way things are go­ing.”

The le­gis­lat­ive com­prom­ise has promp­ted a mixed re­ac­tion from arms con­trol ad­voc­ates.

Marylia Kel­ley, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Liv­er­more, Cal­if.-based watch­dog group Tri-Val­ley CAREs, said she was dis­ap­poin­ted that lan­guage ex­pressly in­volving the De­fense De­part­ment’s dir­ect­or of Cost As­sess­ment and Pro­gram Eval­u­ation, nick­named the “CAPE,” did not make it in­to the fi­nal bill.

However, Kel­ley said she was “cau­tiously op­tim­ist­ic” that the ana­lys­is re­quired by the com­prom­ise bill would provide enough in­form­a­tion to show which mod­ern­iz­a­tion plan is the most cost ef­fect­ive.

“The po­ten­tially fatal loop­hole I see in the fi­nal lan­guage is not in wheth­er the Nuc­le­ar Weapons Coun­cil con­ducts the ana­lys­is versus the CAPE, it is rather the key ques­tion of what fea­tures are to be con­sidered as part of the re­fur­bish­ment of the W-78 and W-88,” Kel­ley said.

Kel­ley re­ferred to a Decem­ber 2012 memo by the Nuc­le­ar Weapons Coun­cil sug­gest­ing that “surety en­hance­ments” would be in­cluded in a study on how much it would cost to re­fur­bish the W-88 war­head, rather than re­pla­cing it with the IW-1.

“The danger is that the ana­lys­is will in­cor­por­ate a false choice between a re­designed or sub­stan­tially new-design in­di­vidu­al war­heads and the in­ter­op­er­able war­head, with neither be­ing a more simple and straight­for­ward re­fur­bish­ment of the ex­ist­ing weapons in or­der to main­tain their ex­ist­ing safety and re­li­ab­il­ity,” ac­cord­ing to Kel­ley.

Steph­en Young, a seni­or ana­lyst with the Uni­on of Con­cerned Sci­ent­ists, said the le­gis­la­tion showed “that Con­gress will rightly in­sist on fairly de­tailed cost es­tim­ates for more straight­for­ward ap­proaches to these pro­grams.

“If this one isn’t good enough, I’m sure they will push back again,” Young said.

This art­icle was pub­lished in Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire, which is pro­duced in­de­pend­ently by Na­tion­al Journ­al Group un­der con­tract with the Nuc­le­ar Threat Ini­ti­at­ive. NTI is a non­profit, non­par­tis­an group work­ing to re­duce glob­al threats from nuc­le­ar, bio­lo­gic­al, and chem­ic­al weapons.

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