Cost Concerns Could Prompt New Look at Warhead Modernization Plan

Douglas P. Guarino, Global Security Newswire
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Douglas P. Guarino, Global Security Newswire
Oct. 25, 2013, 9:02 a.m.

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.

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