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NNSA OUTLINES PRICE TAG OF ‘3+2’ VISION FOR FUTURE OF NUCLEAR STOCKPILE
Implementing the Obama Administration’s “3+2” vision for the future of the nuclear stockpile could cost more than $65 billion through Fiscal Year 2038, according to the National Nuclear Security Administration’s recently released Fiscal Year 2014 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan. But while arms control experts have scoffed at the high price tag, the Administration says the approach is designed to save money in the long run. The “3+2” approach outlined in the 298-page document was approved late last year by the Nuclear Weapons Council and includes the production by FY 2038 of three interoperable ballistic missile warheads and two air-delivered systems: a nuclear-capable cruise missile and the B61 gravity bomb. But only this week have the potential costs of the approach been broached publicly. Overall, the plan appears to suggest that it will cost about $275 billion to maintain the nation’s nuclear weapons complex and nuclear stockpile through FY 2038.
On top of the NNSA’s estimated $8 billion price tag for the ongoing B61 refurbishment (other estimates suggest the cost could actually exceed $10 billion), the W78/W88-1 refurbishment could cost more than $14 billion. A second interoperable warhead projected to be the W87/W88 could cost more than $13 billion, and a third interoperable warhead involving the W76-1 could cost around $12 billion. A refurbished cruise missile warhead is estimated to cost close to $12 billion, and other refurbishment work on a follow-on B61 life extension program (which would start in FY 2033) as well as refurbishment work on the W88 to replace its neutron generator and ongoing work on the W76-1 contribute to the overall life extension costs.
Aggressive Near-Term Plan Defended
The NNSA also emphasized that the costs are dependent on other efforts to modernize the weapons complex and maintain the nation’s nuclear know-how. “When fully implemented, the ‘3+2’ strategic vision will reduce stockpile maintenance costs while maintaining strategic flexibility and offering the potential to consider decreasing the size of the stockpile hedge without increasing the risk,” the NNSA said in the plan. In the near-term, the NNSA is planning to undertake refurbishment work on the W76-1, B61, W78/W88-1 interoperable warhead, cruise missile warhead, and the W88 ALT 370 over the next decade, beginning work on the cruise missile warhead refurbishment in FY 2015. “This very aggressive plan will place most of the nuclear weapons stockpile in some phase of life extension in the present decade,” the NNSA said. “This work is absolutely essential and must be accomplished while maintaining the stockpile and continuing stewardship- based surveillance.”
Jury Still Out on Interoperability Concept
While the NNSA’s laboratories have expressed confidence in the “3+2” vision and their ability to complete an interoperable warhead on the W78/W88-1, the jury is still out on the concept, and the Navy and Air Force—as well as Congress—have been somewhat skeptical. Last year, the Navy successfully urged the Nuclear Weapons Council to add a study of refurbishing the W88 warhead to its plans to study creating an interoperable warhead, and the House Armed Services Committee drafted language in the FY 2014 Defense Authorization Act that would mandate a study on the W78 as well. Air Force officials have also voiced caution, with Maj. Gen. Garrett Harencak, the Air Force’s Assistant Chief of Staff for Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration, emphasizing that the Administration should not try to force the issue if its not technically feasible even while expressing optimism about the current state of the effort. “I think we have to be mindful of the fact that should there come a time where we believe, for whatever reason, that it not be feasible or affordable to do so, that we have the good sense, if you will, to say, ‘Hey, we tried it,’” Harencak told the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee in March. “It may not work for a host of reasons, maybe technical reasons or just the world has changed, so to speak. I think we have to be ready to have some off ramps on that.”
In a speech last week at the Capitol Hill Club, Principal Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Programs John Harvey outlined the benefits of moving to interoperable warheads. The approach would “increase the resilience of deterrence by reducing today’s heavy reliance on a single SLBM [submarine launched ballistic missile] warhead, the W76,” he said. “It would enhance warhead safety, security and use control. It would potentially reduce NNSA costs if one warhead development program could meet the life extension objectives of two existing warheads. Interoperability would maintain nuclear design and development skills by challenging designers and engineers at our national labs in ways that refurbishment LEPs on existing warheads do not. It would reduce the number of warhead types and reduce the total stockpile size because fewer reserve warheads would be required to hedge contingencies.”
He said that establishing whether an interoperable warhead is feasible and affordable is an “essential first step” for the “3+2” vision, but he acknowledged there was still a great deal of uncertainty surrounding the program. “We don’t know yet if we can get there,” he said. “It will depend upon whether this life extension program, as we call it the W78/88, is feasible and affordable, if we assess that. And then we go off and develop and field it and we get some experience with it. … We won’t know that for years, but that will tell us whether we can now move down that path to introduce interoperability into other parts of the triad.”
Concern from Congress?
The extent of the work on the NNSA’s plate, and the price tag, is likely to draw increased scrutiny from Congress, said Kingston Reif, the director of Nuclear Non-Proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “The sticker shock is just incredible,” Reif said. “You have to look at this in the context of NNSA being unable to accurately project costs historically. If this is their opening bid and previous history is any indication, this could be two to three times the cost.” Stephen Young, a nuclear weapons analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, echoed Reif’s concerns about the price tag. “The amount of money being discussed is not stainable,” he said. “The U.S. needs to find a more affordable way to maintain the stockpile. Fortunately it can do so. Those options are out there.” Some corners of Congress also appear unconvinced. “We still have to have a frank discussion about what it’s going to cost and what it’s going to get us,” one Congressional aide told NW&M Monitor. —Todd Jacobson