By Kingston Reif
At an estimated cost of more than $11 billion, the life-extension program for the B61 bomb would be the most ambitious and expensive nuclear warhead refurbishment in history. Concerned by this massive (and still growing) cost and skeptical of the need for a program of such breadth, two of the Senate’s appropriations subcommittees—Energy and Water, as well as Defense—slashed allotted spending on it in their respective fiscal 2014 funding bills.
Worried that their favorite refurbishment program is on the ropes, the Pentagon and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) have launched a counteroffensive with an assist from supporters in Congress. The lobbying effort will be on full display on October 29 at a hearing hosted by the House Strategic Forces Subcommittee. It will include testimony in support of the life-extension program from the head of US Strategic Command and high-ranking representatives of the NNSA and the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
The proposed B61 life-extension program is premised on the flawed assumption that existing nuclear deterrence requirements will remain in place for the foreseeable future—despite the fact that the President has made it a goal to continue reducing the role of nuclear weapons in US national security policy. This myopic planning is symptomatic of a larger blind spot in American nuclear policy: The Pentagon and the NNSA are planning to rebuild all three legs of the nuclear triad—long-range bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles—over the next 25 years, at a price tag that could exceed $300 billion. Is it affordable, desirable, or necessary to maintain roughly the same nuclear force structure the United States has had for the last 50 years for the next 50 years? It’s not at all clear that such questions are even being asked within the national security establishment, let alone debated.
The Pentagon and the NNSA’s proposed B61 life-extension program is egregiously over budget and continues to grow even more expensive with each passing day. Given the implementation of sequestration, the NNSA cannot complete the program at its proposed scope by 2019. The logical alternative should be to consider a less-ambitious refurbishment that can be completed on time and on budget and also takes into account the uncertain future of the weapon. The sooner the Pentagon and the NNSA reassess their plans, the better off they and the country will be.