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By Elaine M. Grossman,
Global Security Newswire,
20 January 2010

Nuclear Bomb Update Effort Slowed by Posture Review, Science Studies

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration has slowed an effort to modernize a key U.S. nuclear weapon, following congressional action to scale back its budget.

Lawmakers in October cut in half the fiscal 2010 funds available for updating the Air Force B-61 gravity bomb, and barred the Energy Department from spending a portion of program dollars pending the completion of several reports.

The department`s semiautonomous atomic arms agency, the National Nuclear Security Administration, in fiscal 2009 began a study on how engineers might update the decades-old B-61 thermonuclear bomb with fresh components that could make it function longer. The modernized versions could begin entering the fleet as early as 2017.

The design study -- which could propose reusing, refurbishing or replacing aging components in the bomb -- "was originally scheduled for completion by the end of FY 10," said NNSA spokeswoman Jennifer Wagner, referring to the current fiscal year. Due to congressional cutbacks, "it is now scheduled for completion in late FY 11," she said.

New fiscal years begin each Oct. 1.

Nuclear weapon experts differ over how long the B-61 might be expected to last in the absence of a life-extension effort. Under an ongoing Stockpile Stewardship Program, U.S. scientists monitor the warhead`s viability on a continual basis and make repairs as needed. Information about the B-61`s anticipated life span following a concerted modernization effort has not been released, according to Hans Kristensen, who heads the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.

Under the B-61`s "Mod 12" modification effort, aging components in at least three different versions of the B-61 aircraft-delivered bomb would be updated: the so-called Mod-3 and Mod-4 tactical bombs deployed on fighter aircraft and the Mod-7 strategic bomb fielded on the B-2 bomber.

Each "mod" number designates a slightly different warhead design intended for potential use against different kinds of targets, such as tank columns, buildings or underground command facilities.

The oldest of these B-61 bombs was fielded in 1979, according to data compiled by Kristensen and Robert Norris of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

A House-Senate conference on energy and water appropriations in October slashed the $65 million in fiscal 2010 funds the Energy Department had requested for the design study for the B-61 warhead`s non-nuclear components.

Though $2.1 million was requested and appropriated in fiscal 2009 for studying how to modernize the bomb warhead`s nuclear components, no such request was made for fiscal 2010.

The reduction in funds for designing the non-nuclear update leaves the effort $32.5 million for the new fiscal year. Congress said an additional $15 million could be appropriated for the study this year, but only if a major nuclear strategy review confirms that the modernization program -- sometimes called "B61-12" -- remains necessary for deterring current threats.

The Defense Department is leading that assessment, the Nuclear Posture Review, which is to set out the administration`s plans for nuclear strategy, forces and readiness. However, the review has been hamstrung by competing views inside the administration about how best to modernize the arsenal in light of President Barack Obama`s pledge to decrease the role of nuclear weapons (see GSN, Aug. 18, 2009).

The posture review report has been delayed twice over the past several months, and is now expected to be delivered to Capitol Hill by March 1 (see GSN, Jan. 6).

The new restrictions on the B-61 non-nuclear update effort stemmed from a move earlier last year by the House Appropriations Committee to zero its budget. "Until the Administration finalizes its plans for the nation`s nuclear strategy, stockpile, and complex plans, the committee does not support the effort to develop what is essentially a new nuclear weapon," the panel said last July.

However, the committee`s Senate counterpart fully funded the B-61 modernization study, leading to the compromise found in the conference bill.

Overall, lawmakers cut by more than a quarter the Energy Department`s $124.5 million request for maintaining the B-61 bomb for the new fiscal year, allotting $92 million instead. The energy and water appropriations bill for the current fiscal year was signed into law on Oct. 28.

Congress also prohibited Energy`s nuclear agency from using any fiscal 2010 funds for designing updates or changes to the B-61 warhead`s "physics package" -- its atomic components -- without Capitol Hill consent.

"No funds may be obligated or expended for B61-12 nuclear components without prior approval by the appropriations committees of the House and Senate," lawmakers said in their conference report.

The congressional language was apparently aimed at limiting the government`s ability to make changes to a warhead that accounts for roughly 500 of the nation`s approximately 2,700 actively maintained nuclear weapons. Of that total, the United States keeps 2,200 warheads operationally deployed on delivery vehicles under the terms of the 2002 Moscow Treaty.

"It sounds to me like what Congress has done is put the brakes on the program now, [making officials] wait until after the Nuclear Posture Review has been completed," said Kristensen.

"That`s the least you could expect" lawmakers to do, he said, to restrict warhead modernization as they await the release of an overarching nuclear strategy.

The same appropriations report also called for two additional assessments that might affect future modernization funding for the B-61 bomb.

First, lawmakers said that within 60 days of the release of the Nuclear Posture Review, the government must commission a study by the National Academy of Sciences "addressing the national security and extended deterrence value of the B-61 for both strategic and tactical purposes in light of nuclear terrorism risks and military threats."

Second, within 90 days of the posture review`s debut, the Obama administration is to task the independent JASON defense advisory panel with "examining whether the planned B61-12 can be expected, without nuclear testing, to offer sufficient margin and other advantages as to constitute a long-term 21st century weapon," the appropriations conference report stated.

The United States has maintained an informal moratorium on underground nuclear tests since the early 1990s.

The JASON panel should also address the alternative possibility, namely whether an updated B-61 "is more likely to be an interim weapon leading to near-term replacement or retirement," lawmakers said. They asked the JASON experts, as well, to "recommend any additional research" required for making an informed decision on the matter, according to the appropriations report.

The energy secretary is to submit both of the outside studies to the House and Senate appropriations committees within 180 days of their commissioning. If the Nuclear Posture Review is released March 1, as expected, the NAS study would be due by Oct. 27 and the JASON study by Nov. 26.

Though the two studies have not yet been commissioned, a key government panel has begun preparatory work on the matter.

The Nuclear Weapons Council -- a group from the Defense and Energy departments that provides policy guidance and oversight for managing the nuclear stockpile -- is "working with both [the NAS and JASON] organizations to determine timing and scope of the reviews," Wagner, the NNSA spokeswoman, told Global Security Newswire last week.

Even as they restricted the B-61 maintenance budget, the appropriators offered more than full funding for another warhead life-extension project, the Navy`s W-76 warhead. The W-76 overhaul is extending the warhead`s life "for an additional 30 years by refurbishing the nuclear explosive package, the arming, firing, and fusing system, the gas transfer system, and associated cables, elastomers, valves, pads, cushions, foam supports, telemetries, and other miscellaneous parts," according to the NNSA Web site.

These weapons, which comprise two-thirds of the deployed warheads aboard Navy Trident D-5 submarine-launched missiles, were first fielded in 1992. The modernization effort is expected to wrap up in 2022.

For fiscal 2010, lawmakers appropriated $223.2 million for extending the life of the W-76 warhead, $14 million more than requested. The plus-up reflects a compromise between the House version of the bill, which offered a $24 million increase for the effort, and the Senate version, which matched the original budget request.

The House Appropriations Committee said in its July 2009 report that the additional funds were required "in order to achieve the Navy refit schedule." The W-76 life-extension experienced a setback when the nuclear weapons complex initially had difficulty replicating a Cold War-era material used inside the warhead (see GSN, Nov. 6, 2009). Nuclear agency officials have said the problem has since been resolved.

Lawmakers made "an interesting decision" to "throw full funding [at] the W-76 LEP," Kristensen said of the warhead`s life-extension program, which could modernize as many as 2,000 warheads that are deployed or kept in operational reserves. "It`s interesting that they got the money and there`s not a similar wait-and-see until the Nuclear Posture Review is done," as in the case of the B-61.

In total for fiscal 2010, Congress provided nearly full funding for the National Nuclear Security Administration at $9.9 billion, of which $6.4 billion is dedicated to weapons activities, matching the Obama administration request.

Stockpile Management

For the current fiscal year, Congress also laid out new guidelines for how the nation could preserve the viability of aging nuclear warheads without expanding military capability in the arsenal. Striking this balance had posed a challenge for the Bush administration, which twice saw its proposal to build a Reliable Replacement Warhead struck down on Capitol Hill.

The RRW program was aimed at building a new series of warheads from previously tested component designs, which could replace aging weapons in the arsenal with ones that were to be more safe, secure and dependable.

However, critics were concerned that the Defense and Energy departments might use the RRW effort to create new warheads with increased capabilities against adversary targets. That, in turn, could harm Washington`s efforts to generate global support for curbing the nuclear arms ambitions of a growing number of nations like North Korea and potentially Iran, critics charged.

In a second fiscal 2010 conference report issued in October -- this one by the House and Senate Armed Services committees -- lawmakers set the parameters of a "Stockpile Management Program" as being solely to improve the arsenal`s safety from accidental detonations, security from theft, and reliability against malfunctions as the weapons age.

This approach would be different from the RRW effort, though, in that under the new legislation, the energy secretary must "ensure" that "any changes made to the stockpile" are consistent with the three objectives of safety, security and reliability, according to the 2010 defense authorization report. Moreover, such changes can only be made without resorting to explosive testing and must hew to "current mission requirements of the existing stockpile," lawmakers stated.

"If you read the Defense Authorization Act and you read what Stockpile Management allows you to do and encourages you to do, there`s a big trade space there to maintain a safe and effective and reliable stockpile," Ellen Tauscher, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, said last week.

Formerly a Democratic lawmaker from California whose district houses one of the national nuclear arms laboratories, Lawrence Livermore, Tauscher said debate over warhead modernization during the prior administration gradually had evolved into a discussion about developing new weapons -- something she regarded as unnecessary.

As chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee -- before joining the Obama administration in June -- Tauscher led the congressional effort to craft the Stockpile Management limitations.

"What we did, I believe, was to make sure that nobody was confused," she told reporters during a Wednesday breakfast session. "That not only shouldn`t you be talking about new weapons, but that you shouldn`t have any authority that could make you think you could do it."

She said the "clearly defined fences" in the fiscal 2010 law that limit any warhead changes should send a strong signal to any U.S. officials contemplating the possibility of adding new nuclear capabilities to the nation`s arsenal.

Lawmakers wanted to make certain "that these fences couldn`t be penetrated," Tauscher said. "There are still people out there -- believe me, I see them all the time -- that think, `Hey, let`s go build some new weapons. Hey, it`s not a problem. Hey, what`s the problem with that?`

"The answer had to be no," Tauscher continued. "Not only no, but probably hell no."

She said this would help right the balance of Washington`s priorities regarding its nuclear arms.

"We can do things that are going to improve the life and the surety and the certifiability of them," Tauscher said. "But you cannot test, you cannot add capabilities, you`re not going to change platforms, [and] you`re not going to do things to cause people to think that we`re saying one thing and doing another."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates -- who publicly championed the RRW effort while serving under then-President George W. Bush -- accepts the new Stockpile Management limits imposed by Congress, Tauscher said.

"Secretary Gates does not support RRW," she said. "A lot of people have morphed to where we are right now."

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