GAO reveals challenges ahead for U.S. commitments to NATO’s nuclear deployments

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has warned that the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and the Department of Defense (DOD) could be in danger of failing to meet B61 Life Extension Program (LEP) goals and leave the United States unable to support its tactical nuclear deployments that are assigned to NATO.

The warning was contained in an unclassified version of a report released this week. The 50+ page report recommends that the NNSA and DOD ensure that they incorporate long-term risk planning into their programs if they are to meet U.S. commitments to NATO to maintain B61 warheads in Europe. Time is apparently running short because, “key components of the B61 bombs need to be replaced or they will begin reaching the end of their service life” (Highlights). DOD is requiring that NNSA have ready refurbished B61s in 2017 for delivery to NATO bases by 2018, and the task appears to be a heavy burden on the NNSA, one that could impact on its ability to work on the strategic force.

B61 LEP plans have aimed to move four warhead versions into one (designed generally with a lower yield, and around the current B61-4 version) that can be deployed on both tactical and strategic aircraft, including investigating previously untried design options. (The B61-11 was not part of the B61 LEP scope.) The GAO report reviews four key hurdles for the B61 LEP:
• “challenges in manufacturing critical materials and components”;
• “difficulties in meeting production requirements”;
• “problems with the quality of finished weapons”; and
• “coordinating the production of bomb components between NNSA and the Air Force” (pp. 29-30).

DOD and NNSA are currently conducting a life extension study of the B61, which they are to complete by September 2011, yet not all of the full design requirements had been provided as of the time the GAO classified report was completed, in December 2010. NNSA officials have acknowledged that the “B61 life extension is the most complex life extension effort undertaken by NNSA to date” (p. 27). The NNSA estimates that it will cost billion through 2022. How much of this could be saved if the LEP was to produce only a strategic variant is unclear. As a stop-gap measure, while the B61 LEP is underway, the Air Force plans to extend by a few years the lives of bombs assigned to NATO by replacing “key components—neutron generators and power supplies—with newer components removed from bombs that are no longer in the active stockpile” (p. 25). But it is unclear how feasible this process is.

The report also surveys the requirements for the B61 LEP:

“In April 2010, DOD and the NATO allies reached agreement on key military characteristics of the bomb, including the yield, that it be capable of freefall (rather than parachute-retarded) delivery, its accuracy requirements when used on modern aircraft and that it employ a guided tailkit section, and that it have both midair and ground detonation options. They further agreed that the weapon should be capable of being carried by both existing and modernized fighter aircraft, including the F-35, and be compatible with current weapon storage vaults abroad. Subsequently, after U.S. Strategic Command expressed a requirement for a different yield, U.S. European Command and SHAPE agreed to the proposal” (p.13).

The GAO puts forward three scenarios on how the United States could cope if the B61 LEP falls behind schedule. One option is to switch the current delivery schedule so that bases assigned to the tactical mission for NATO receive the refurbished warheads first, instead of the United States’ strategic bases, as is planned now. The time difference is about 6 months. A second option is simply to accept reduced reliability until the refurbished B61s arrive, but Defense officials have said this option is not acceptable.

The third option is temporarily reducing the number of B61s assigned to NATO. The GAO points out that this could be “unsettling to allies” and could reduce the opportunities for allies to participate in the NATO nuclear mission, which would come at a time when the system itself is under question.

Among other suggested scenarios to fill the gaps and extend the operational life of the B61s for several years, officials said they have considered a “more limited refurbishment, involving the bomb’s nonnuclear components and communications systems.” But apparently the bombs will still “require continued patchwork maintenance to ensure the bomb’s performance, safety, and security, even after NNSA completed the more limited refurbishment” and “would be unable to address the enhanced safety and security goals established for the program without making more extensive changes to the weapon’s design than the limited refurbishment would allow.” According to the report, this scenario would also require another LEP starting in the 2020s and having two such phases would cost about billion extra. Proceeding in this manner could also further burden the NNSA’s production capacity (p. 31).

Both DOD and NNSA officials accepted the GAO’s advice that they should develop long term risk management plans and prepare for the possibility that the B61 LEP will slip, and still have ways to meet NATO commitments.

The report ends with a warning from an Air Force official, who told the GAO that, “unless DOD and NNSA prepare plans to mitigate operational risks as they plan and execute future life extension programs, the programs could end up adversely affecting other nuclear weapons maintenance and sustainment actions as resources are reprioritized to meet operational requirements on an emergency basis” (p. 33-34).
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