Take Another Look at B61

, analyst | June 25, 2013, 12:23 pm EDT
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Growing costs of the life extension program (LEP) for the B61 bomb have put the program in the congressional spotlight. Estimates range from the NNSA’s roughly $8 billion (double its original estimate) to DOD’s nearly $10.5 billion. And none of these include the cost of a new guidance system that the Air Force wants to install, which will add another $1-2 billion.

In an era of tight budgets and sequestration, the news that it may cost up to $25 million each to extend the life of 400 B61 bombs has inspired scathing commentary about these “gold-plated” bombs and left many wondering whether there is a more economical way to meet requirements.  Senator Dianne Feinstein, for example, raised this question in an NNSA budget hearing, saying that she had been briefed on an alternative plan that could cost just $1.5 billion.

The alternate plan that Feinstein referred to, known as the “triple alt,” for triple alteration, is a simpler version of the LEP that would replace only the radar (which uses vacuum tubes) and the neutron generator and power source (both “limited life components” that have always been planned for replacement on a set schedule). This could extend the weapon’s life by 10 years or more for billions less than the current, much more ambitious approach, which would also replace hundreds of other non-nuclear components.

Donald Cook, the NNSA deputy administrator for defense programs, replied to Feinstein’s questions at the hearing by saying that the triple alt plan, while less expensive now, would actually be more expensive in the long run, because it would just delay the need for a more extensive LEP. The chosen plan, Cook said, “is the lowest cost life extension program that meets the military needs.” This argument was laid out in greater detail by John R. Harvey, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs in a recent talk.

Harvey’s talk included a response to continuing high profile questions about the need for such an ambitious and expensive LEP in the face of severe budget constraints. He stated that the NNSA had considered the triple alt as one option in the B61 LEP study but rejected it for the following reasons:

  • Does not meet key military requirements (yield, safety, use control, LLC [limited life component] interval, surety, compatibility issues with F-35, B-2A aircraft)
  • Does not address other known aging issues associated with 40 year old components (Multiple Code Coded Switch, parachute, Programmer, Electronic Assembly)
  • Would not achieve consolidation of warhead types from four down to one
  • Eliminates opportunity to reduce stockpile size (e.g., potential to retire B83-1 bomb later next decade)
  • Would not save as much money as some have argued

Some of these reasons, like the consolidation of four warhead types to one, seem to be based more on wishes than real military needs. The military argues that the consolidation will save money in the long run, but according to Hill staff who have looked at the issue closely, there are no figures to justify that argument. Moreover, if there are known aging issues with additional components, new versions could if necessary be added to the changes made in a scaled-back LEP.

Most importantly, though, it is simply not known what the future needs for the B61 will be. While Harvey questions the accuracy of the lower cost estimates for the triple alt, he says that “[t]he big factor arguing against [it] is the cost of the follow-on B61 LEP next decade to ‘finish the job.’” He notes that one of the major costs for the program are operations at the Pantex plant to disassemble the bomb, replace aging components, and then reassemble it. He also says that because of a high workload of LEPs during the 2020s, it is not certain that a second B61 refurbishment program could be fit in.

There are a couple of problems here, however.

First, it is not yet clear whether many of the B61s currently in service will even be needed by the time the planned LEP is completed. The B61 comes in four versions, two “tactical” that are designed to be delivered by fighter planes (the B61-3 and -4), and two “strategic” that are designed to be delivered by long-range bombers (the B61-7 and -11). Exact numbers are classified, but the United States is currently estimated to have a total of about 540 B61s, with about 400 due to undergo life extension. About 180 B61s are kept at bases in Europe; these are tactical versions of the bomb.

NNSA’s plans call for the LEP to produce a new version of the bomb—the B61-12—to replace the B61-3, -4, -7 and -10 (the last of which is not currently deployed). (The B61-11 is a newer version of the bomb. It entered service in the 1990s and is not a part of the current LEP.) The B61-12 will be based on the B61-4 warhead, and will be deliverable by either fighter planes or long-range bombers, thus serving as both a strategic and tactical weapon.

By the time the planned B61 LEP is completed, however, the tactical version of the weapon may no longer be in service. Speaking in Berlin on June 19, President Obama stated explicitly that “we’ll work with our NATO allies to seek bold reductions in U.S. and Russian tactical weapons in Europe.” Those are the very same warheads that the NNSA is insisting have to be reworked so they can be around for decades longer. Does the left hand know what the right hand is doing?

Similarly, as a condition of approval of the New START arms control agreement, the Senate demanded that the administration work with Russia to reduce tactical nuclear weapons. Russia has a much larger stockpile of such weapons than the United States. If the administration decides to reduce or eliminate the tactical B61 bombs in its arsenal to induce Russia to follow suit, this would alter significantly warhead levels and requirements. Stockpiles of strategic warheads like the B61-7 could also be reduced.

Adding to the uncertainty about the future of the tactical version of the B61 is the fact that it is not clear that the European countries that currently host B61s want to continue doing so. Deployment of these weapons in Europe is intended to reassure NATO allies of the U.S. commitment to the alliance. However, both U.S. and NATO military leaders have acknowledged that the weapons’ value is political rather than military. Some NATO members, like Germany, have already called for the removal of the B61, seeing it as too expensive to maintain given its lack of military relevance.

If a new tactical version of the B61 ends up not being needed, then the need to consolidate four weapons into one becomes a non-issue, as does the need to integrate the life-extended version of the bomb with two different types of aircraft (fighters and bombers). This would preclude the need for many of the more ambitious aspects of the currently planned LEP.

A second potential problem is scheduling. While Harvey argues that a heavy workload means that Pantex might not be able to fit in another round of work on the B61 in ten years, the NNSA is notorious for its inability to accurately predict program schedules. The current highest-priority LEP is for the W76 submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead, and this has fallen behind. The NNSA had extended the production period for this program to 2021, but more recently decided to devote more resources to the program so it will be complete by 2019.

The NNSA also says it will begin production on the B61 LEP in 2019. According to the NNSA, it has to meet that date or some components in deployed warheads could start to fail. However, a DOD review of this complicated LEP predicts—based on past experience—that production will not begin until 2022. The more elaborate the LEP, the more likely it is to slip, and DOD notes that the B61 proposal is far more complicated than the W76-1 already in production.

The NNSA has a marked tendency to rush into major projects only to find that its cost and schedule estimates are off by large amounts, that requirements have been overstated, budgets have changed, and, sometimes, that the entire project is unnecessary. Recent examples of this are the canceled Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement- Nuclear Facility and Pit Disassembly and Conversion Facility, the too-small-for-its-equipment Uranium Processing Facility, and now possibly the MOX program.

A simplified version of the B61 LEP would be significantly more likely to proceed on or near schedule. Given the tightness of the timeline—not to mention budget—and since changes in plans or schedules for other LEPs are also likely over the next decade, the workload argument favors using the simpler approach now, rather than falling back to it later when current schedules can’t be met.

Rather than racing ahead with an approach that includes unnecessary bells and whistles, Congress and the NNSA should take the opportunity offered by the triple alt to pause and realistically consider the future of the B61. This approach could provide time for the administration to determine whether a new version of the weapon is truly needed, given possible upcoming changes to the U.S. nuclear arsenal. It could also relieve pressure on the NNSA budget in the short term, allowing it to complete the higher-priority W76 LEP.

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