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Congressional Panel to Review B61 Nuclear Weapon’s Spiraling Costs

Although the international community has largely walked away from the production and high-risk deployment of tactical nuclear weapons, the United States still maintains a stockpile in Europe for defense against a Soviet threat that no longer exists. These tactical nuclear weapons, called B61s, are deployed at six bases located in five European countries as part of NATO’s defense. Unfortunately, these B61s require an expensive refurbishment, with cost estimates continuing to grow out of control—and U.S. taxpayers primarily footing the bill.

Originally, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) estimated that the cost of refurbishing the B61, work formally known as a “life extension program,” would cost approximately $4 billion; however, that official figure has now grown to more than $8 billion. An independent analysis, conducted by the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation office, concluded that the cost of extending the life of the B61 is likely closer to $10.4 billion. This does not include the cost of retrofitting the weapon with a new “tail kit” modification that would cost an additional $1.4 billion. Given the enormous cost growth already experienced in the B61 life extension program, American taxpayers are right to question whether they’re getting a bad deal on this program. But wait, there’s more.

The NNSA is now in the process of implementing a second round of sequestration cuts, which result from passage of the Budget Control Act in 2011 and the subsequent failure of Congress, and then the Super Committee, to enact deficit reduction legislation. During the first round of sequestration cuts, in Fiscal Year 2013, the NNSA applied $30 million in reductions to the B61 program, which will result in a six-month delay in schedule. Because of this cut, and subsequent delay, the program’s overall cost is estimated to increase by an additional $230 million. That’s right, in the wacky world of weapons programs, reductions in spending lead to cost increases, and in this case at least $200 million more.

Now, in Fiscal Year 2014, the B61 program faces another $60 million cut due to a series of management reforms on top of more sequestration cuts. And because of the government shutdown, the B61 program will suffer further cost increases as well as even more delays. It’s time for Congress to look at cutting its losses on modifying these bombs.

And lest you think the B61 is an isolated incident of an American nuclear program whose budget has spiraled out of control, keep this in mind: the NNSA’s 10 largest programs are all over budget, all behind schedule, and have combined cost increases of $16 billion.

Besides the tremendous cost of refurbishing the B61, the Project On Government Oversight has long highlighted other serious problems with this nuclear weapons program, including its military efficacy (or lack thereof) and security vulnerabilities. Some of America’s NATO allies do not have, or are not planning on developing, military aircraft capable of delivering B61 nuclear weapons, which would leave these countries unable to deliver a B61 during a time of war. In addition, established security vulnerabilities at European bases raise concerns about the level of risk the U.S. must assume to secure these weapons.

Next Tuesday, the House Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing entitled “Nuclear Weapons Modernization Programs: Military, Technical, and Political Requirements for the B61 Life Extension Program and Future Stockpile Strategy” to measure progress on the B61 program.

It’s important that our elected officials realize the extent to which the costs of this program have spiraled out of control and that its current deployment to Europe represents an outdated Cold War strategy. Given the current economic climate, asking U.S. taxpayers to shoulder the burden of refurbishing this weapon without a critical mission and plagued with cost overruns is irresponsible. It is beyond time for policymakers to seriously examine and pursue alternatives to keeping this Cold War-era relic alive. At the very least, our allies in Europe should be paying their fair share—if they even want to keep these bombs at all.