Congressional Response to the NNSA’s Budget: Part 1

October 3, 2013 | 2:13 pm
Eryn MacDonald
Global Security Analyst

NNSA FY 2014 Budget RequestBack in the spring, we posted our analysis of the NNSA’s FY 2014 budget request, which sought to reduce funding for nonproliferation programs while increasing funding for nuclear weapons activities. Since then, much has happened, but not much has been finalized. While the House has passed both authorizing and appropriations bills, the Senate still has not passed either, and with the ongoing battles over government shutdowns and debt ceilings, it doesn’t look like an agreed budget bill will happen any time soon.

Even with all the uncertainty, the Congressional efforts to date yield some useful insights into what each house thinks about the NNSA’s latest plans. While the House and Senate do not agree on everything, one thing they do appear to agree on is that it is time to start asking harder questions of the NNSA about the rationale behind its budget request and its ability to manage key programs.

Over the next several days, we will look at several of these key programs in a series of blog posts that examine the Congressional reaction to the NNSA’s request and what this may mean for the future. (Note: we’ve already covered this angle of the B61 story.) We’ll start with the proposed life extension program for the W78/W88 nuclear warheads.

Part 1: Interoperable Warheads, or Why Fix What Isn’t Broken?

The NNSA’s plan for a new “interoperable warhead” (designated IW-1) that would be based on the existing W78 and W88 warheads has inspired serious Congressional doubt. Rather than acquiescing to the NNSA’s request for funding to begin work on the interoperable warhead, both houses directed the NNSA to continue to study a range of options for the W78 life extension program, including the possibility of a much simpler refurbishment of the warhead, similar to the nearly-complete W76 life extension program.

In its bill, the Senate Armed Services committee “fences”—or prohibits any spending on—any work beyond the current phase of the study of the interoperable warhead until the director of the Pentagon’s Cost Analysis and Program Evaluation office has done a “cost comparison with straight life extensions of the W-88 and W-78 warheads.” The Senate appropriators also weighed in, directing that the NNSA “not preclude a separate W78 life extension program similar to the W76 life extension program, which did not require significant design changes.” Like the Armed Services committee, they request an assessment of expected cost savings from an interoperable warhead vs. separate life extension programs for the W78 and W88. They also require an analysis of what effect the program would have on the number of “hedge” warheads the United States maintains in reserve, as the NNSA claims that interoperable warheads would allow a reduction in the hedge but so far has not provided any analysis of this issue.

The House Armed Services committee, which has been the strongest supporter of a number of high-priced NNSA programs, also calls on the agency to consider and provide analysis of a range of options for the W78 life extension program. The committee’s report notes concern about the NNSA’s “ability to execute a W78/88–1 program that contains significant technical and programmatic risk.” Notably, however, the committee’s response is to provide an extra $5.6 million to the program “to reduce risk and prevent schedule slips.”

For their part, in what appears to be a warning to the NNSA, the House appropriators cut about $23 million from the NNSA’s $73 million request for the W78 and stipulated a broad focus for the program. Specifically, they provided funding for continuing to study a range of options for the W78 life extension program, and prohibited the NNSA from discontinuing that work and focusing on the interoperable warhead program. The House appropriations committee does allow consideration of an interoperable warhead, but only as one alternative among several. It notes that the NNSA is required to provide preliminary estimates of costs and schedule and description of alternatives at intervals throughout the program’s development, and that the NNSA “should ensure its study work continues to consider an appropriate and diverse set of alternatives…”

This caution is warranted. The FY14 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Report lays out an aggressive plan for life extension programs over the next 25 years. It projects that the cost for the IW-1 will be $14.5 billion between FY14 and FY38. This would be the first of three planned interoperable warheads, forming the basis of what the NNSA is calling the “3+2” plan for the future of the U.S. nuclear arsenal—a stockpile that would consist of three interoperable warheads to be used on either ICBMs or SLBMs and two air-delivered weapons, a gravity bomb and an air-launched cruise missile. According to the NNSA, the 3+2 plan is projected to have a cost of $60 billion over the next twenty-five years. That should certainly be considered the low-end of the actual cost, given the agency’s track record on cost overruns.

As Congressional hesitation seems to recognize, developing an entirely new interoperable warhead—let alone three of them—is a whole different project than extending the life of an existing warhead. The decision to go down this road should not be made lightly, and certainly not without full information. The NNSA so far has not provided this, and Congress is right to insist on it.