The consolidation — as well as the improved accuracy that a new tail would provide — would allow the United States to deploy fewer bombs, with lower explosive energy, in places such as Europe, says Donald Cook, who heads the weapons program at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semi-autonomous agency within the energy department. He adds that it would not necessarily be cheaper to simply maintain existing weapons indefinitely.
But observers say the B61 program is much more expensive than it needs to be. An early analysis by the NNSA showed that a relatively simple refurbishment would have cost around $1 billion, whereas the current program is expected to cost about $10 billion over the length of the project. “Rather than doing the minimum required, they are going for the best possible warheads,” says Stephen Young, who tracks nuclear-weapons issues for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group based in Washington DC that is pushing for nuclear disarmament.
Few doubt the administration’s commitment to non-proliferation programs, which received a boost of more than $1.1 billion, or 73%, between 2008 and 2012. Much of that extra money was used to secure nuclear materials and reactors in other countries. But Obama’s latest budget request would cut non-proliferation programs by more than $400 million dollars to pay for weapons activities.
A new start
Some of the spending helped to nail down the 2010 agreement with Russia to limit the number of strategic weapons deployed by each country to 1,550 — a reduction of 30% from levels agreed in a 2002 treaty. To get the latest agreement ratified by the Senate, the administration laid out a plan to spend more than $50 billion on weapons programs between 2012 and 2017. Many Republican lawmakers now contend that, even with the recent budget boosts for the labs, the president is not keeping his promise.
Senator Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, which is home to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the nearby Y-12 National Security Complex, says that Obama’s budget requests have come in hundreds of millions of dollars below the amount promised in 2010 and have delayed the new multibillion-dollar plutonium-research facility at Los Alamos. “If the Senate believed we would be in this position today, it is unlikely to have approved the treaty in 2010,” Corker and Senator James Inhofe (Republican, Oklahoma) wrote last month in Foreign Policy magazine.
Other lawmakers think that the requests are excessive. During a budget hearing on 24 April, Senator Diane Feinstein (Democrat, California) pointed out that the amount requested for weapons activities in 2014 would be the same, in real terms, as what was spent in 1985 — when the United States kept 25,000 nuclear weapons and was conducting underground tests and designing new weapons. “None of that is happening today,” she said, calling the scope of the NNSA’s weapons activities “unsustainable and unrealistic”.
Worries about initiatives such as the new B61 bomb extend beyond costs. Nuclear watchdogs say that these projects transgress the spirit, if not the letter, of US commitments to disarmament under the 1968 Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, as well as Obama’s promise not to develop new nuclear warheads. A more accurate, lower-yield B61 would constitute a new capability for small nuclear strikes and could be tempting for a president to use, says Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, a nuclear watchdog group in Washington DC.
A follow-up program to modify W78 and W88 warheads would edge even closer to creating ‘new’ weapons than would the B61 project. One option for the program, which is currently funded only at the conceptual stage, would combine the primary fission starter bomb from one warhead with the secondary fusion device from another. This ensemble would then be encapsulated in a new shell to create a system that would work in ballistic missiles fired from land or sea. “We are moving into completely new territory,” Kristensen says. “This will challenge the core promise by the Obama administration that the United States will not build a new warhead.” The US Navy has objected to the proposal, saying that it does not want a new warhead, but that has not dissuaded the nuclear labs.
Cook says that trying to merge parts from several weapons into one is a legitimate effort to simplify the arsenal while maintaining robust capabilities. “I wouldn’t consider that new,” he says of the effort to modify the W78 and W88 warheads. Most importantly, he says, that program, like the B61 effort, would allow the consolidation of weapons and open the way to further reductions in the arsenal.