Each B61 nuclear warhead will cost ten times W76 warhead to refurbish

The over budget costs of near everything that the National Nuclear Security Administration touches is growing increasingly controversial. Of particular interest now is the Life Extension Program for some 400 B61 nuclear bombs. That program was originally going to cost $4 billion, but is now estimated at  ~$10.4 billion. At this point each 700 lb. bomb will cost more than twice its weight in gold. And this doesn’t include original production costs and ongoing support costs since they were first produced in the late 1960’s (which under “Stockpile Systems” is currently ~$80 million annually). And of course it doesn’t include the cost of the bombers over the years that were designed to deliver them.

In lockstep with NNSA’s Life Extension Program, a synchronized Pentagon program will provide new tail fin guidance kits that will transform the B61 into the world’s first nuclear “smart” bomb, for delivery by future super stealthy (and exorbitantly expensive) F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. That clearly constitutes new military capabilities, despite policy declarations at the highest levels of government (for example at the 2010 NonProliferation Treaty Review Conference) that the U.S. would never endow existing nuclear weapons with new military capabilities. An unarmed prototype of the refurbished bomb, designated the B61-12, is to be “flight tested” and dropped with the new tail fin kit in this FY 2014.

Stephen Young of the Union of Concerned Scientists recently made available an August 2012 JASON Report on the B61 Life Extension Program while providing his own excellent analysis http://allthingsnuclear.org/jason-on-the-b61/ [The JASONs are pretigious scientists periodically consulted with by the government on nuclear weapons issues.] Among their findings the JASONs reported “In implementing important and desirable, but not essential, elements in the 3B program [the 2nd most expensive B61 LEP option picked by the NNSA], there should be a clear understanding of their cost and impact on the schedule. These elements should be prioritized in the event that unanticipated program delays or cost overruns are encountered that could threaten meeting the FPU [first production unit] deadline.” The JASONs also noted “the Pentagon’s already strongly expressed displeasure at the inability to complete the W76 as scheduled.”

The W76 is one of two warheads for the Navy’s sub-launched Trident missiles, and is the single most common nuclear warhead in the U.S. stockpile. This got me wondering how much the W76 Life Extension Programs will cost, which I tracked down as follows:

In millions of dollars

Original appropriation         NNSA data source     Inflation adjustment

2003     $72                    FY 2005 budget request              $91.52

2004   $139                     FY 2006 budget request           $172.10

2005   $181                     FY 2006 budget request           $216.75

2006   $182                     FY 2008 budget request          $211.14

2007   $152                     FY 2008 budget request          $171.45

2008   $190                     FY 2010 budget request          $206.39

2009   $203                     FY 2010 budget request          $221.30

2010   $232                      FY 2012 budget request         $248.83

2011   $249                      FY 2012 budget request         $258.89

2012   $254                      FY 2012 budget request         $258.74

2013   $198                      FY 2014 budget request          $198

2014   $235                      FY 2014 budget request          $235

2015   $242               Future Years Nuclear Security Plan in NNSA’s FY 14 request

2016   $237                          ditto                                     $237

2017   $235                          ditto                                     $235

2018   $230                         ditto                                      $230

2019   $200               NNSA’s FY 2014 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan

2020     $60                         ditto                                        $60

Total (adjusted for inflation)                                            $3.694 billion

The number of W76’s to be refurbished is classified, but is believed to be around 1,600. [In 2007 Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists estimated ~2,000 (http://blogs.fas.org/security/2007/08/us_tripples_submarine_warhead/), but told me that number has since been scaled down.] Using 1,600, then each W76 warhead will cost ~$2.31 million to refurbish. This is in contrast to the B61, more than ten times that at $26 million per warhead ($10.4 billion/400), or more than twice its weigh in gold.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has cut the NNSA’s FY 2014 budget request of $537 million for the B61 LEP (that request is a 45% increase above FY 2013) by $168 million. Its report said:

The Committee is concerned that NNSA’s proposed scope of work for extending the life of the B61 bomb is not the lowest cost, lowest risk option that meets military requirements and replaces aging components before they affect weapon performance.

According to the budget figures that I have compiled the W76 LEP is a 17-year program start to finish. In its FY 2014 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan NNSA claims that the much more complex (and hence much more expensive) B61 LEP will be completed in 10 years by 2024. Granted we’re talking about 4 times fewer nuclear weapons being refurbished, but the work is much more aggressive and involves 100’s of parts, all of which cannot be full-scale tested as a weapon (thank God!). And NNSA’s track record of staying on budget and on schedule is becoming a matter of scorn even amongst congressional staff.

The take away lesson is that NNSA and the labs should simplify. For the sake of stockpile maintenance limited life components such as neutron generators and tritium reservoirs should be replaced as needed, which is a near routine practice, and perhaps the B61’s radar needs replacement as well (which NNSA is fond of pointing out uses old style vacuum tubes). All of that would bring the costs down somewhere along the lines of the W76 LEP. It would also be better aligned with declared nonproliferation policy by not introducing new military capabilities, and better align with national security concerns by not possibly eroding confidence in stockpile reliability through major changes that can’t be full-scale tested. In addition, Congress should require NNSA to disclose in its budget requests annual costs per warhead type, as once was the practice, so that the public can be fully appreciate just how much each warhead costs for arguably archaic missions.

Finally, New Mexico’s Tom Udall sits on the Senate’s Appropriations Committee. He opposed the cut to the B61 LEP, among other things saying that he wanted to save 200 in-state jobs. That is no way to formulate nuclear weapons policy, especially given that the B61 Life Extension Program far exceeds mere maintenance. Tom Udall should support his own committee’s cut.


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