US Mass Producing More Nuclear Bombs (Daniel 7)
Aaron Mehta, Defense News
In a 2008 file photo, members of the NNSA work on a B61 nuclear warhead. less
WASHINGTON — The National Nuclear Security Administration has authorized the B61–12 warhead life-extension program to enter the production-engineering phase.
The decision marks the final development phase prior to actual production. The NNSA says the first production unit of the weapon is planned for fiscal year 2020.
“Reaching this next phase of the B61–12 LEP is a major achievement for NNSA and the exceptionally talented scientists and engineers whose work underpins this vital national security mission,” NNSA head retired Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz said in a statement. “Currently, the B61 contains the oldest components in the US arsenal. This LEP will add at least an additional 20 years to the life of the system.”
The announcement marks another major step in the Obama administration’s overarching plan to modernize the nuclear force, which Pentagon officials have warned could cost $350-$450 billion over the next decade.
On July 29, the Air Force released requests for proposals for the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD), which replaces the 1960s-era Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles, and the Long Range Standoff (LRSO) weapon, which will replace the AGM-86B Air Launched Cruise Missile.
It also comes at a time when members of Congress have begun raising serious questions about the modernization plan, in particular over the need for the LRSO.
While the Defense Department manages the delivery systems of the nuclear force, including ships, planes and missiles, the NNSA — a semi-autonomous department within the Department of Energy — has oversight over the development, maintenance and disposal of nuclear warheads.
Those delivery systems tend to receive more focus than the warhead modernization. For example, a July 14 hearing of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces featured only one passing mention of the B61 program. But the life extension program is a vital part of the overall modernization strategy.
The NNSA is perusing a modernization plan known as the “3+2 Strategy,” under which the agency is consolidating the American arsenal of warheads into five variants. Five bomb and cruise missile warhead types are being consolidated into two replacement-warhead designs, the W80–4 and the B61–12. Meanwhile, the five ballistic missile warheads now in service are being consolidated into three new interoperable warheads known as the IW-1, IW-2, and IW-3.
The B61–12 will replace the existing B61–3, -4, -7, and -10 bomb designs. The program includes Boeing-designed tail-kits, provided by the Air Force.
Nonproliferation experts have questioned if the plan is still the best way forward, given growing concern about the cost of modernizing the US nuclear arsenal.
If the 3+2 strategy was shifted, it could potentially save money that could instead be plowed into NNSA infrastructure needs. In a February hearing, Klotz warned that the administration has a $3.7 billion bill in deferred maintenance to facilities, with some buildings dating back to the days of the Manhattan Project.