Too Much, Too Late: The DOD’s Assessment of the B61 Life Extension Program

November 5, 2012 | 6:12 pm
Stephen Young
Senior Washington Representative

As has been widely reported, the DOD estimates that the B61 Life Extension Program will cost $10 billion, more than twice the estimate the NNSA had a little over a year ago. What has not been noted is that the DOD expects that the first updated warhead, what is called the “first production unit,” will not appear until at least 2022, three years AFTER the NNSA has stated it absolutely must be deployed.

That fact emerges from DOD’s cost estimate, which we obtained a copy of and are releasing now.

Paying the Bill

The implications of the cost increase are clear. If the DOD wants to keep its ambitious goals for the B61 update, it will have to pay the bigger bill. As we’ve noted before, for the first time in history, the Pentagon has for two years been providing funds directly to the NNSA.

It is not clear they will want to pony up a lot more money. For one, in the FY13 budget, NNSA already slowed down the on-going life extension program for the W76 so they could speed up the B61. And that was when the cost estimates for the B61 were merely rising, not exploding. Second, there a lot of nuclear weapons programs that have rising costs, including the W76 life extension program, the Uranium Processing Facility, and all the delivery systems DOD handles directly. Together, it may become more than the DOD wants to pay for, particularly when the role of nuclear weapons in security continues to decline. Sequestration, if it happens, would leave even fewer funds available.

Meeting the Schedule

NNSA testified earlier this year that the first B61 must be produced by 2019 to “meet the military requirements of the Nation.” (Note that date is also a delay, as last year NNSA said they HAD to have the first units in 2017.)

I have it on good authority that the NNSA claims that if the deadline is missed, then by 2021 or 2022, the reliability of the warheads will begin to decline and the NNSA will in relatively short order not be able to certify them.

Nominally, one might think this is most worrying for the 180 or so B61 bombs in Europe. Fortunately, even if those weapons are decertified, it won’t decrease European security. As former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright has stated, those warheads have no military role in U.S. or allied security. They are there as political reassurance for some NATO countries, though not—one should note—for the countries that actually host the warheads. Most of those governments would be happy for the warheads to go home.

So, really, this is a political problem. It’s embarrassing that the United States would have to declare that the useless warheads in Europe actually might not work as designed. There may be a need to find other political reassurances, but there is no risk to security.

Security Concerns

The presence of the weapons in Europe, however, does create a security risk; they are easily the most vulnerable of any in the U.S. stockpile. That is a problem worth losing sleep over. The B61 life extension program is intended to increase the safety and security of the warheads.

Of course, the simple answer is the best: bring them back to the United States. The majority of B61s are stored at the Underground Munitions Storage Complex at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. I’m told this is the one facility in the country where, in the DOD force-on-force protection exercises, the attackers always fail. Even better, withdraw these B61 from service entirely and put them at Pantex. Problem solved.

The Modest Option

If it is determined that United States needs to maintain these warheads (not a foregone conclusion), the sensible alternative to save money and speed up the process is to simplify the B61 life extension program. The current goal is to create one new mod, the B61-12, that is based on the B61-4 with surety improvements and other updates, and get rid of mods -3, -4, -7 and -10.

Instead, make only modest component swaps that are needed to extend the life of the four mods, add new surety features only if the technology is in hand and the cost small. That could get you a life extension program that would be on-time and for less than $10 billion.

That choice is almost entirely in the hands of the DOD. It is the one that asked to reduce the number of mods so it can simplify the handling procedures and, in theory, reduce costs in the long run. Given the huge costs of the current life extension proposal, that seems like a reasonable goal only if the simpler handling procedures significantly reduce costs, something that DOD should know.

But let’s return to the DOD’s cost estimate report. It has many details worth noting.

The DOD’s Assessment

The 2022 date appears in the analysis by the Pentagon’s Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE), which is conducting a review of every NNSA program for which DOD is providing funding. That includes the B61 LEP, the W76 LEP (in process), the W78 LEP (in development), the Uranium Processing Facility, increasing pit production capacity at PF-4, and—at least up until it was deferred—the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility.

The CAPE document, labeled “For Official Use Only” describes, point by point, why the Pentagon’s cost estimate is significantly higher and production schedule slower than the NNSA’s estimate. The document provides a side-by-side comparison of the DOE’s estimate and CAPE’s, showing how the two arrive at different numbers and dates.

Schedule Problems

NNSA has a major timing problem. The new components being developed for the B61 are not ready now and likely will not be ready in time for production to begin on the schedule NNSA currently says is required.

Here’s why. The DOD requires technical assessments of the new components in any acquisition program, and NNSA uses them as well. It is called a “Technology Readiness Level” designation, or TRL, with levels from 1-9. Level 1 indicates the component is in basic research and level 9 is for a system proven through operation in the field. To be in any weapons program, developers like to have components at level 7, a working prototype, but the minimum is supposed to be level 6, which is basically some kind of prototype, somewhere.

As the CAPE document points out, 15 of the 29 major components for the B61 life extension are at level 5 or less. One, the weapon control unit, is at level 2, meaning the concept is formulated on paper.

NNSA, of course, hopes that it can development the new warhead and these technologies concurrently. CAPE doesn’t think that will work.

To show why, CAPE compares the scope of W76 LEP, which is in production, and the B61, still in development. The results are not pretty for NNSA.

Here a just a few of the tidbits DOD points out:

  • The W76 LEP has 18 major components; as noted above, the B61 has 29.
  • The W76 warhead has to integrate with just one platform, the Trident missile. The B61 has five platforms, including B52 and B2 strategic bombers and F15, F16, and Tornado fighter aircraft. A sixth, the F35 Joint Strike Fighter still in development, is coming but was apparently left out by CAPE, unless something else is happening.
  • Quote: “Sandia claims [B61] effort is 3 to 4 times the effort of the W76 LEP”
  • Despite Sandia’s estimate, the NNSA plans a shorter development schedule for the B61 with more concurrency.
  • On the W76, teams worked seven days a week for four years on critical components, yet NNSA is planning five-day work weeks for the B61.
  • NNSA is simultaneously doing a major alteration to the W88, installing a new arming, firing and fusing mechanism. (Why this cannot wait until the planned W88 LEP, next in line after the W78, is not clear.)

Based on this comparison, the CAPE concludes “Top-Level Comparison to W76 LEP actual schedule indicates B-61 LEP execution assumptions are very aggressive to meet 2019.”

Very aggressive indeed.

Sometime late next month, the Pentagon is expected to get the NNSA’s response to CAPE’s assessment. It’s hard to see how NNSA can defend its current B61 plans and assumptions.

About the author

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Stephen Young lobbies administration officials, members of Congress, and journalists to advance UCS security-related campaigns, largely focusing on arms control, nuclear weapons policy, missile defense, and nuclear threat reduction programs. He also works with scientists across the country to help amplify their concerns on critical national security policies.