Rising Costs for B61 Prompt Questions

Article excerpt

A Defense Department review has found that the program to extend the service life of the B61 nuclear bomb, many of which are currently deployed in Europe, may cost billions of dollars more and take years longer than previously estimated.

The projected cost growth and schedule delay raise new questions about the viability of the program in the face of increasing pressures on the federal budget and the bomb's uncertain future in Europe, congressional staffand former administration officials said.

The United States currently keeps about 180 B61s for tactical use on short-range aircraftin Europe to support NATO. These weapons have become a major symbol of U.S. military commitment to the alliance. But pressure from some NATO allies, such as Germany, to remove the weapons raises the possibility that the bombs might not be needed a decade from now, when the proposed rebuilding program would be complete.

An additional factor is the prospect that a future agreement between Russia and the United States might require that such bombs be deployed only on those two countries' territories. As one congressional staffer said in a Nov. 16 interview, "By the time these weapons are ready, will we still have nuclear weapons in Europe?"

The Pentagon review of the B61 life extension program (LEP), dated July 13, has not been publicly released. Arms Control Today obtained a copy in November.

The study estimated that the program would cost $10.4 billion and would not produce the first refurbished bomb until fiscal year 2022. With about 400 B61s reportedly planned for renovation, that works out to roughly $25 million per bomb.

The Energy Department's semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which oversees the B61 program, is sticking to its current estimate that the program will cost about $7 billion and produce its first bomb in fiscal year 2019. Two years ago, the NNSA estimated that the program would cost $4 billion and start in 2017.

The Pentagon review, conducted by the Cost Analysis Program Evaluation (CAPE) office, said the NNSA was underestimating labor costs and the complexity of the B61 LEP, which Sandia National Laboratories said in April is roughly three times more complex than the LEP for the W76 warhead deployed on Trident submarinelaunched missiles. An NNSA spokesman said in a Nov. 15 e-mail to Arms Control Today that the agency was reviewing the CAPE study and other information "so that we're certain we have a cost baseline that is as accurate as possible."

Congressional Scrutiny

The cost increases in particular have drawn attention to the program on Capitol Hill. When the Defense Department estimate of $10.4 billion, one of the few elements that has been made public, was first revealed in July, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that controls NNSA funding, said the new price tag requires the NNSA to find billions of dollars "at a time when budgets are shrinking." For fiscal year 2012, Congress, concerned that NNSA plans for the B61 LEP were too risky, required an independent review by JASON, a group of senior science and defense advisers to the government.

The projected schedule slippage also is potentially significant as the Pentagon and the NNSA have stated that B61 bomb parts will need to be replaced soon or the bombs will no longer meet operational requirements, such as the ability to produce a specific explosive yield. The NNSA had planned to complete the program by 2022, but the Pentagon review suggests this deadline would be missed by a few years.

"NATO reaffirmed recently that it wants U.S. forward-deployed tactical nuclear weapons to remain in Europe," said Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, at an Aug. 1 hearing. "Yet, we are faced with the risk, of our own doing, that we may fail to honor that commitment," he said.

The B61 is the only tactical nuclear bomb in the U. …