Nuclear Weapons

B61-12: NNSA’s Gold-Plated Nuclear Bomb Project

07.26.12 | 6 min read | Text by Hans Kristensen

Escalating cost estimates for the B61 Life- Extension Program threaten to make the new B61-12 bomb the most expensive ever.

By Hans M. Kristensen

The disclosure during yesterday’s Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing that the cost of the B61 Life Extension Program (LEP) is significantly greater that even the most recent cost overruns calls into question the ability of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to manage the program and should call into question the B61 LEP itself.

If these cost overruns were in the private sector, heads would roll and the program would probably be canceled.

At the hearing yesterday, Senator Dianne Feinstein revealed that NNSA recently told her that the $4 billion cost estimate they provided in the FY2011 Stockpile Stewardship Management Plan was too low and that they would need $4 billion more to complete the program. Two months ago I reported that the cost had increased to $6 billion.

NNSA’s new cost estimate is already being challenged, this time by the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office, which only a few days ago increased the estimate by another $2 billion to a whopping $10 billion.

But get this: the already too high B61 LEP cost estimate does not include other pricy elements of the B61 modernization program. In addition to the LEP itself comes a new guided tail kit assembly that the Air Force is developing to increase the accuracy of the B61. The cost estimate for that tail kit has recently increased by 50 percent from $800 million to $1.2 billion.

Add to that the cost of equipping the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter with the capability to carry the new weapons, recently estimated at around $340 million. If the LEP and tail kit increases mentioned above are any indication, however, then the cost of equipping the F-35 with nuclear capability is also likely to increase.

The escalating costs may eventually make the B61 LEP the most expensive nuclear weapons program (per warhead unit) in the U.S. arsenal. Already the projected B61 LEP cost far exceeds the cost of the W76 LEP, which probably involves three times as many warheads as will produced by the B61 LEP. As Nick Roth points out, the new $10 billion estimate is equivalent to two-thirds of what NNSA planned to spend on life extending all the other warhead types in the US arsenal over the next twenty years!

The precise number of B61-12 planned is still a secret. My take currently is around 400. If so, that would mean each B61-12 bomb would cost $28 million (including cost of tail kit).

Because of the way the B61 LEP has been presented, many have the impression that the program will life-extend all four versions of the B61. In reality, only one of the four versions will be life-extended: the B61-4. It may cannibalize components from the other three (B61-3/7/10), but the heart of the new B61-12 is the B61-4 nuclear explosive package. Instead of the simple chart that STRATCOM has been circulating, the following chart more accurately illustrates the process:

Rather than a B61 life-extension program that consolidates four bombs into one, the B61 LEP should more accurately be described as a life-extension of the B61-4 that incorporates selected non-nuclear components from three other B61 versions that will be retired with new surety features and a new guided tail kit assembly.


Implications and Recommendations.

The fact that the B61-12 will use the B61-4 nuclear explosive package obviously limits the number of B61-12s that can be built to the number of B61-4 that were originally produced. That number is about 660. But most of those have been retired and only about 200 are thought to be left in the DOD stockpile. If B61-12 production is to exceed 200, then it would have to also use warheads from retired B61-4s. Given that the B61-12 will not be carried on the B-52 bomber, that B-2 bombers are probably not allocated a maximum load of weapons (they also carry others), and that the stockpile in Europe is likely to decrease within the next decade, it seems reasonable to assume a B61-12 stockpile of around 400 weapons. But the number is secret – not because it matters to national security but because it is nuclear.

The escalating cost of the B61 LEP adds to NNSA’s abysmal record of underestimating costs of nuclear weapons programs. It follows enormous budget overruns of the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement – Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, and the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at the Y-12 National Security Complex at Oak Ridge in Tennessee.

As mentioned above, if these cost overruns happened in the private sector, heads would roll and the program would probably be canceled.

Apart from poor planning, the B61 LEP cost escalation is probably also fueled by planners that appear to be drunk on promises of increased nuclear funding and political commitments to nuclear modernization. The result is an overly ambitious program that instead of doing basic life-extension of existing designs is trying to add exotic features and components to the weapon that was originally tested. And the planned B61-12 is not even the most ambitious version the planners had asked for (they were not allowed to add multi-point safety and optical firing sets), which would have been even more expensive.

If poor planning is not the reason, then NNSA must be working under the assumption that costs should be underestimated when seeking initial program approval from Congress because the taxpayers will have to pay for the cost increase later on anyway. To her credit, Senator Feinstein is pushing for greater program control and told Aviation Week that the cost escalation will trigger additional congressional scrutiny. “We have to find a way to stop this from happening. …We’ve asked that we receive monthly reports, that one person be put in charge. … The purpose of that is to make people solve problems quickly, before they are left and they just continue to grow.”

The B61 LEP is not the only or necessarily most complex LEP on the horizon. NNSA and DOD are already planning the W78 LEP and envision building a “common” warhead that can be used on both ICBMs and SLBMs. Such a warhead is not currently in the stockpile. Although the design is still being worked out, it could combine W78 and W88 features and use a plutonium pit from a third warhead – the W87. If you’re worried about B61 LEP costs, just wait for the W78 LEP! Is Congress prepared to authorize $10 billion-plus per exotic LEP versus more basic LEPs?

But apart from money, the escalating B61 LEP costs must also raise questions about the importance of the mission. While the strategic mission on the B-2 strategic bomber is probably not in doubt, the non-strategic mission certainly should be. Under current plans, the B61-12 will be fitted onto four tactical aircraft – F-15E Strike Eagle, F-16 Falcon, F-35A Lightning and PA-200 Tornado. There are no important or urgent threats that require the United States to equip all these tactical aircraft with the new bomb. But the modernization will increase the military capability of NATO’s nuclear posture, not exactly in sync with the pledges from the White House and NATO to reduce the role of nuclear weapons and not increase military capabilities during LEPs.

And the few NATO officials that have either misunderstood their security requirements or been lobbied by nuclear cold warriors to support continued deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe need to be debriefed – or asked to pay their share. That would certainly end the deployment quickly.

Whatever the best way forward, the U.S. should phase out its remaining non-strategic nuclear weapons, delay and redesign the B61 LEP, and focus its resources on maintaining the strategic nuclear weapons and conventional forces that are actually needed for U.S. and allied security in the foreseeable future.

This publication was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.