On Tuesday, May 23, the Trump administration released its Fiscal Year 2018 (FY2018) budget request. I am doing a three-part analysis of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s budget. That agency, a part of the Department of Energy, is responsible for developing and maintaining US nuclear weapons. Yesterday we focused on The Good, today we have The Bad, and The Ugly is still to come.
Rising costs in warhead life extension programs
The NNSA’s most important task is to ensure that the weapons in the US nuclear arsenal are safe, secure and effective. As part of that work, the NNSA is simultaneously undertaking four different programs to extend the lives of four different warheads in the US stockpile: the W76 warhead deployed on submarines, the B61 bomb deployed on aircraft, the W88 warhead deployed on submarines and the W80 warhead for the proposed new air-launched cruise missile. The NNSA has not had such a confluence of work in decades.
That leads many observers to worry about how well the NNSA will manage such a heavy workload, especially when it is also trying to build one major new facility for uranium metal work and ramp up the new approach to dispose of excess plutonium.
Those concerns are only increased when a new president comes in talking about the need to “greatly strengthen and expand” the US nuclear capability. As described in The Good, this budget does not hint at any such effort.
Trump’s budget does, however, reveal rising costs for the existing warhead life extension programs initiated under the Obama administration. For the B61 and the W88, the Trump budget requests significantly more than what the Obama administration projected would be required for FY2018. For the B61, the Obama administration projected in the FY2017 budget that $728 million would be required in FY2018, an already large 15 percent increase above the FY2017 request. But the Trump administration’s request is $789 million, a 22 percent increase above FY2017. For the W88, a planned decrease of $30 million to $255 million (a 9 percent cut) became a $50 million–or 15 percent–increase, to $332 million.
The FY18 budget request offers relatively mundane explanations for these rising costs, including unexplained “increases.” They are particularly troubling, however, when considered in tandem with a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the life extension programs.
That report cites internal NNSA cost estimates showing the B61 will cost $10 billion, or $2.6 billion more than the NNSA currently predicts, and take an extra two years to produce the first new B61-12. Another internal NNSA estimate found that the W88 update could cost $1 billion more than previously expected. The GAO report also cites yet another internal NNSA estimate that the W80-4 warhead, being developed for the proposed new nuclear-armed cruise missile, may be underfunded by $1 billion, while a proposal to update the warhead’s secondary could add another $250-300 million to the total cost. That could bring the W88 program to over $10 billion as well.
Cost increases like that will mean increasing trouble for the NNSA. The “Weapons Activities” budget line, which funds all work on nuclear warheads, has already benefited from eight straight years of rising budgets averaging over 5% annually. The Trump budget seeks a 10% increase above the final level of funding Congress approved in the FY17 omnibus appropriations bill. If the numbers the GAO cites are correct, even larger increases will be needed in the future.
Another complicating factor is very tight timelines. The GAO notes the W80-4 is operating on an “accelerated, compressed schedule,” while officials have said the B61 may no longer meet certification requirements if there are any further delays producing new bombs. It looks more and more like the intersection of multiple warhead life extension programs, rising costs, and rushed production schedules could lead to a train wreck for NNSA.
And that is before the NNSA even starts work on its most far-reaching plan to develop a suite of new warheads to replace the existing ballistic missile warheads (but more on that in The Ugly).
In its final budget, the Obama administration proposed a modest increase in funding—from $52 million in FY2016 to $69 million in FY2017—for dismantling warheads that have been retired from the US nuclear stockpile. The result would be that the long line of weapons already in the queue for dismantlement would be taken apart more quickly, thus allowing the warheads retired under the New START agreement with Russia to be dismantled sooner as well.
Those in Congress who supported the Obama administration proposal pointed out that increasing dismantlement in the near term actually benefits life extension programs in the mid-term. Bringing on new employees and training them to dismantle warheads will help prepare them for the coming work on the B61 and the W88, which will entail dismantling the warheads, replacing aged components and reassembling them.
Led by the House Armed Services Committee, however, Congress ended up rejecting most of the increase, allowing only an additional $4 million in FY2017. For the House, anything proposed by the Obama administration that smacked of disarmament was too much, even if it was only taking apart weapons that have already been retired.
And now the Trump administration has dumped any thought of dismantling weapons sooner, noting in the FY18 budget that it is “eliminating the planned acceleration stated in the FY 2017 budget request.”