In a victory for fiscal sanity, Senate appropriators today cut the budget for the B61 gravity bomb, a $10 billion program to upgrade a weapon that President Obama said last week he wants to reduce. Given the high cost of this effort, the declining military justification, and the fact that less expensive alternatives exist, Senate appropriators made the right call.
The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) plans to extend the service life of 400 B61 bombs for an estimated cost of $10 billion, or $25 million per bomb. NNSA is requesting $537 million for the program in fiscal year 2014, a 45 percent increase over the 2013 appropriation.
But today, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to cut funding for the B61 by $168 million, or 30 percent below the request, to $369 million. In its report, the committee wrote that it is "concerned that NNSA's proposed scope of work for extending the life of the B61 bomb is not the lowest cost, lowest risk option that meets military requirements and replaces aging components before they affect weapon performance."
Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chair of the Energy and Water subcommittee, said in April that NNSA had studied another option for the B61 life extension that would cost billions less. This option would replace only the key bomb parts that are said to be nearing the end of their useful lives in the next ten years.
The Senate Appropriators' budget cut would force NNSA to choose a more cost-effective path. The committee wrote that the reduced funding "will allow NNSA to continue design, engineering, and testing of critical non-nuclear components, such as the radar, neutron generator, power source, and gas transfer system, that are reaching the end of their lives and would affect the long-term reliability of this weapon system."
However, according to the Senate committee's formula, the NNSA would not be able to pursue it's current $10 billion plan, which would go well beyond these four components and involves replacing hundreds of other parts, such as switches, foams, cables, and the bomb's uranium secondary. These parts can wait until we have a better idea of how many B61 bombs are needed for the future. In all likelihood, NNSA will be able to reduce the number of bombs to be upgraded, and save money.
The committee wrote that it "encourages NNSA to reconsider the option it selected for the B61 life extension program and develop a scope of work that can be successfully executed within known budget constraints and replaces critical non-nuclear components as soon as possible to address end-of-life issues."
Given the current fiscal climate, Senate appropriators understand that NNSA's spending plans are not realistic. For example, if sequestration remains in place, which seems likely, defense spending will have to be reduced by $52 billion in FY2014.
Moreover, NNSA's plans do not reflect the reality that U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals are declining in size. President Obama announced just last week in Berlin that deployed strategic nuclear weapons can be reduced by one-third below New START treaty levels while ensuring a strong strategic deterrent. President Obama also said that he will "work with our NATO allies to seek bold reductions in U.S. and Russian tactical weapons in Europe." The B61 is the only U.S. nuclear weapon in Europe, with about 180 stored in five NATO countries. It would be a waste of scarce resources to upgrade B61 tactical (or short range) bombs that may soon be retired.
In addition to the tactical bombs, another 200 B61s are carried by strategic (or long range) B2 bombers based in the United States, and while they may be reduced in the future, most are likely to remain in service. But even in this case, NNSA's gold-plated life extension plan can be downsized.
Spending $10 billion on upgrading 400 B61 bombs would be a tremendous waste of taxpayer dollars. Instead, we should be able to scale back the effort significantly. The Senate's actions today are an excellent start.