The B61 is a tactical nuclear weapon first produced in the 1960s, which now requires expensive refurbishment. How expensive? The cost of refurbishing up to 500 B61 bombs will cost more than twice their weight in gold, around $12 billion total. But are these expensive modifications for the B61 truly necessary? This was the subject of a House Armed Services Committee hearing earlier this week.
The modification process is formally known as a life extension program (LEP), and the goal is to repair or replace any deteriorating components to ensure that the U.S. nuclear stockpile remains reliable and credible.
All four hearing witnesses—Dr. Donald Cook, Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs at the National Nuclear Security Administration; Madelyn Creedon, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Global Strategic Affairs; Dr. Paul Hommert, Director of Sandia National Laboratories; and General C. Robert Kehler, Commander of U.S. Strategic Command—expressed their complete support and reiterated the necessity of the B61 life extension program.
However, during the hearing, some Members of Congress questioned the need, raising concerns about cost, modifications, and alternatives to this expensive nuclear weapon program.
Representative John Garamendi (D-CA) asked the billion-dollar question (or to be more specific, the twelve-billion-dollar question): Does the U.S. need a modified B61 or are there alternative warheads in the stockpile that can maintain nuclear deterrence at a fraction of the cost? He went on to point out that, for instance, the United States has a stockpile of B83 tactical nukes that do not currently require refurbishment.
The witnesses tiptoed around Garamendi’s question, stating that the B61 is a preferable weapon because it can produce a lower-yield explosion, and therefore less collateral damage, than the larger B83. Despite concerns raised by POGO and others about the B61 LEP’s spiraling cost growth and questionable utility, the witnesses reiterated their staunch support for the program.
During the hearing, Assistant Secretary Creedon stated that the B61 refurbishment is consistent with President Obama’s goals for a safe, secure, and reliable nuclear stockpile, a point reiterated by all four witnesses. However, just this month the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a report which found that major changes to nuclear warheads, like the B61, could actually reduce the reliability of the weapon. Furthermore, a thorough look by UCS at the Fiscal Year 2014 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan found that the modifications planned for the B61 largely improve performance—thereby significantly altering the weapon—rather than focusing on reliability, safety, or security. Such significant changes to the B61 are troubling since they could actually be seen as moving counter to the Obama Administration’s assertion that the U.S. will not develop any new nuclear weapons, and would instead rely on designs that have already been tested. Furthermore, a recent report from JASON, an independent group of scientific advisors, found that the B61 already has “substantial safety and security capabilities.”
But the witnesses stood by their assertions that a B61 LEP is the only way forward for the nuclear stockpile, even when Representative Garamendi pointed out that the B61 will require another costly life extension program in just twenty years, a fact that General Kehler confirmed.
Questions about the need for such significant modifications to the B61 were only briefly discussed during the hearing, but the rising costs of the program were given much more attention. In 2008, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) requested $4 billion for the entire B61 modernization program. That NNSA estimate has now doubled to $8 billion. Separately, the Department of Defense puts that cost closer to $10.4 billion plus an additional $1.4 billion for a new guided tail kit assembly. In total, the cost of the program is now estimated around $12 billion.
Dr. Cook was quick to backpedal away from the initial low cost estimate of $4 billion when asked about it at the hearing, saying that it was merely a placeholder and never a baseline price. He further stated that automatic spending cuts, known as sequestration, are causing a six month delay and $244 million cost increase to the B61 program. This delay will have a cascading effect on life extension programs for several other nuclear warheads. Additional delays in the B61 program can be expected down the road because sequestration has only just begun.
Kingston Reif, director of nuclear non-proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, noted in a Politico Pro article called “Nuclear modernization battle heads to Hill” that, “Each refurbished weapon will be more than twice its weight in gold… It’s an enormous program; it’s a budget-busting program.…It’s not affordable, it’s not realistic and it’s unnecessary.”
Indeed, POGO has also questioned the costs of the B61 modification program. In April we sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel questioning the rising price tag and the military utility of the approximately 200 B61 bombs deployed in Europe. We suggested that if our NATO allies believe these bombs are a necessary component of NATO deterrence, then our European partners should bear an increased share of the costs to maintain the weapons, including the life extension program.
But that cost-sharing seems unlikely. As Representative Loretta Sanchez (D-CA) pointed out during the hearing, several NATO parliamentarians have written letters opposing the continued deployment of the B61 in Europe, saying that it is a waste of resources for both the U.S. and Europe. Representative Sanchez requested that the Administration provide the exact amount the Pentagon spends to maintain and deploy these weapons in Europe, an amount Sanchez said she has been seeking from Administration officials for years.
Although it is heartening to see that some of the issues with the B61 Life Extension Program are being taken seriously by some Members of Congress, further oversight is clearly needed. The NNSA has a long history of mismanaging major projects, so much so their contract management and even the B61 program specifically are mentioned in the Government Accountability Office’s 2013 High Risk Series, which identifies government operations susceptible to fraud, waste, and abuse. Furthermore the NNSA’s ten largest programs are all over budget, all behind schedule, and have a combined cost increase of $16 billion.
The probing questions delivered by Representatives Garamendi and Sanchez were a good start, but a close eye is needed by all to make sure that this program doesn’t spiral any more out of control.