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The Obama Administration appears set to indefinitely defer work on the W78/W88 life extension program, which was to be the first interoperable warhead that could be launched from missile silos or nuclear submarines, NW&M Monitor has learned. While the Administration has not finalized its Fiscal Year 2015 budget plans, Congressional staff and officials with knowledge of the program have confirmed that the W78/W88 refurbishment is on the chopping block due to budgetary pressures facing the National Nuclear Security Administration. The NNSA declined to comment, but a senior Department of Defense official told NW&M Monitor that the fate of the program has not been determined, and much is riding on funding levels for FY 2014 and FY 2015, which have not been finalized. “Obviously we have to look and see where the budgets go for ‘14, how much we get for ‘15, and then based on a lot of that knowledge and based on the new Budget Control Act, it’s how much money do we have to put against it and what are the requirements and the long laundry list of questions that are going to have to be associated with it.”

The W78/88 refurbishment is one of the key parts of the Administration’s “3+2” strategy for maintaining the nation’s nuclear stockpile over the next few decades. But while the Administration has touted its potential to help hedge against technical problems in the stockpile and potentially save money, the Administration’s top priority has been getting the W76 refurbishment finished on time and maintaining support for the B61 refurbishment. Other warhead maintenance efforts have also moved in front of the program in priority, including the W88 alt 370 and cruise missile warhead life extension program. “If you look at the timeline for this program, it’s still way far out,” said Stephen Young, a senior analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “There is no pressing need to do this now. So it would certainly make sense in a tight budget time to postpone spending money now. What’s the rush? There is no warhead emergency. This is a proposed plan that some people like, and parts of it might make sense in the long-term, but in the current environment there’s no need to do it now.”

Navy Official: No Pressing Need

After a speech this week in Washington, Vice Adm. Terry Benedict, the director of the Navy’s Strategic Systems Program, confirmed that there is no pressing need for the warhead. “We were never on the critical, it-has-to-happen-now path because of the status of both [re-entry] bodies,” Benedict told NW&M Monitor. “The real question is what does it replace and right now it’s not slated to replace either one,” he added. “It was meant to replace both eventually. If that decision is financially delayed then I’ll have to come up with an alternate plan and the Air Force will have to come up with an alternate plan.”

While the Air Force has pushed for the interoperable warhead, the Navy has been somewhat hesitant, and last year the Navy urged the Nuclear Weapons Council to add an option to its W78/W88 study that would focus on refurbishing just the W88 warhead to provide an off ramp in case the interoperable warhead proves to be too challenging, or too expensive. Benedict, however, said it was important to complete a study of the concept and get a firmer sense of how much it might cost. “I think we need to go through that exercise,” he said. “I think we need to do the hard engineering analysis and costing to truly understand what does an interoperable warhead mean.”

A Question of Funding

The budget savings from deferring the program are also minimal. While the Administration earlier this year projected spending $241.9 million on the W76 refurbishment and $596.5 million on the B61 refurbishment in FY 2015, it anticipated spending only $72.6 million on the W78/W88—about the same it requested in FY 2014. Still, the senior DoD official suggested it was not a matter of support for the concept, but budget driven concerns driving consideration of delaying the project. “There’s no daylight in terms of the support between NNSA and DoD,” the official said. “The real problem is budgets across the board.” The official added: “A lot of the future of the ‘3+2’ strategy is highly dependent on where the budgets go. If the strategy isn’t funded then it won’t look the way we laid it out.”

Creating an interoperable warhead has never been done before, and while the nation’s nuclear weapons laboratories have suggested they are up to the task, observers have noted that there are significant risks in developing an interoperable warhead. “The proposal to take a primary from one warhead and a secondary from another warhead into this new weapon has risks. There’s no way around that,” Young said. “The NNSA and the labs argue the risks are manageable, otherwise they wouldn’t do it obviously. They may be right. They may not be right. That’s a concern.”

Project Faces Skeptical Congress

One other factor that could be influencing the Administration’s decision is Congressional support. Appropriators on the House and Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittees also voiced concern about the approach, with Senate appropriators directing the NNSA to not dismiss a separate life extension program on the W78, which it suggested could be cheaper, and like the W76 LEP, would not require significant design changes. “The Committee is concerned that an integrated warhead may be unnecessarily complex and expensive, increase uncertainty about certification and meeting the full range of military characteristics and stockpile-to-target sequences needed for submarine and intercontinental ballistic missile systems, and fail to address aging issues in a timely manner,” the Senate Appropriations Committee said in the report accompanying its version of the FY 2014 Energy and Water Appropriations Act.

The appropriators also questioned the estimated $14 billion price tag for the effort. “Given NNSA’s poor cost estimating practices, the cost is likely to be much higher, the Senate Appropriations Committee said. Senate appropriators fully funded the NNSA’s $72.7 million request to continue to study the W78/W88-1 refurbishment, but House appropriators took a harder stance. They provided only $50 million for the refurbishment study, a cut of $22.7 million, earmarking the funding only for a life extension study on the W78 rather than pursuing work on the W78/W88-1. “The recommendation permits continued consideration of an integrated warhead, but only as part of a continued study of alternatives,” the committee said in the report accompanying its bill. In the Defense Authorization Act passed by the Senate this week, Congressional authorizers took a similar approach, requiring the Pentagon and NNSA to develop cost estimates for separate life extension program options as part of a study on the W78/W88 refurbishment.

HASC Lawmakers Worry About Diverting Resources

Lawmakers on the House Armed Services Committee, however, have been wary that cuts from the NNSA’s weapons program could go toward other DOE efforts, and in an Oct. 22 letter approving a nuclear nonproliferation-related reprogramming request, they warned the Department not to “divert resources from higher priority efforts within the NNSA” for the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility. DOE leaders are believed to be poised to resurrect the MOX project. “Sustaining the nuclear weapons stockpile and nuclear threat reduction efforts must be NNSA’s highest priorities, and therefore must receive priority in budgeting,” the committee wrote in a letter obtained by NW&M Monitor. “The committee is concerned that this lack of priority may be reflected in the proposed fiscal year 2015 budget request submitted to the Office of Management and Budget, which was apparently submitted prior to any consultation with the Nuclear Weapons Council.”

The committee said it expected DOE to “assure the committee that the Weapons Activities account will not be reduced from levels described in the Future Years Nuclear Security Program submitted in April 2013 and that nonproliferation research and development investments as well as efforts to guard against the nuclear terrorism threat remain national priorities. We expect this means any increases for MOX would come from outside of budget function 050, which funds the nation’s critical national security priorities.” —Todd Jacobson

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