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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