Jeffrey LewisGAO on the B61 LEP

The General Accounting Office has a released a report, Nuclear Weapons: DOD and NNSA Need to Better Manage Scope of Future Refurbishments and Risks to Maintaining U.S. Commitments to NATO,  on the B61 Lifetime Extension Program.  Among the many, many amazing details is a very easy-to-read schedule of planned LEPs (see above).

But the report also has an policy implication, too. The B61 LEP looks like good candidate for serious delays that might result in a capabilities gap.

Can you say Skybolt?

(The Skybolt Affair, by the way, is how the UK came to build an Anglicized version of the B61, but I digress.)

The B61 LEP looks like it might be headed for trouble, although it is still very early in the process. GAO found that the the “broad scope” of the lifetime extension study “has complicated the effort, given the time available to begin producing refurbished bombs.”  In this case, the “broad scope” refers both to the rather complex military requirements that arise from consolidating four tactical and strategic designs (Mods 3, 4, 7 and 10) as well as what GAO calls “many” safety, security and other enhancements and design changes.

Although DOD and NNSA argued that “it was premature to assess whether the study’s broad scope put the life extension program at risk,” GAO warned that “avoiding an operational capability gap over the long term may prove challenging, as previous nuclear weapons life extension programs have experienced schedule delays for a variety of reasons.”

GAO recommended that DOD and NNSA develop a “plan to mitigate the long-term operational risks to these commitments, should the program be delayed.” Which of course raises the natural question: Are there any operational risks if the B61 LEP is delayed? Page Van Der Linden has already wondered just why the B61 LEP is so urgent.  I looked through the comments to see if any chucklehead had a good one-liner.  No luck.

The short answer, of course, is because the Nuclear Posture Review concluded that the B61 LEP, along with the program to make the F-35 capable of carrying it, was necessary for extended deterrence. Or, as the GAO report notes, reducing the requirement for NATO nuclear weapons “could be unsettling to allies.”

Now, I happen to agree that NATO allies would be unsettled if the United States screwed up a lifetime extension badly enough that we had to admit there weren’t enough bombs to go around.  Even if the bombs are obsolete, that would make the President look like an idiot.

There are really two interesting questions about how Barack Obama might come to find himself thumbing through Richard Neustadt’s The Skybolt Crisis In Perspective.

First, why did the Nuclear Weapons Council insist on a broad-scope (ie high-risk) LEP for the B61?  GAO notes that “the Nuclear Weapons Council instructed the joint Air Force and NNSA project officers group that it should pursue not only the complete refurbishment of the bomb, but also opportunities to improve other characteristics affecting the bomb’s safety, security, and performance, as well as investigate alternative design concepts untried during prior life extension programs.”

If the purpose of maintaining a small stockpile of nuclear weapons in Europe is to make our NATO allies feel better, what possible rationale is there for undertaking a high-risk LEP?  Isn’t this just asking for a programmatic delay that results in the temporary removal of B61s for refurbishment, which then never make it back?  Regular readers know that I support the immediate consolidation of US nuclear weapons to two US airbases in Europe and would be open to their eventual removal (provided this wasn’t like the Baltimore Colts leaving town), but a high-risk LEP that fails and forces their removal is a scenario no one wants. Nuclear Weapons Council is a real entity, but it is also a euphemism for the senior leadership at OSD, NNSA, JCS and STRATCOM.  Who is the genius who came up with this idea?

Second, would someone please explain to me why this is not a cautionary tale about relying on hardware as a symbol of political commitment? Let’s face it, we are life-extending an obsolete warhead with little or no operational utility.  I’ve had senior NATO officials say as much to me.  To hear NNSA officials talk about it, life-extending old warheads is always fraught with risk.  (Not that this deterred them from an ambitious LEP, but whatever.)  If you make these archaic things the symbol of the alliance, you are sort of counting on the LEP to come through, aren’t you?

In this case, the desire to keep a capability for NATO on the cheap resulted in a common lifetime extension for both tactical and strategic mods of the B61.  And while I am little surprised combining them made a significant difference, it apparently did.  (It didn’t help that the requirements entailed an aircraft that is “yet-to-be fielded” — the F-35.)  Isn’t this precisely what happens when we rely on something old and outmoded as a symbol of our commitment?  That it acts like something old and outmoded, which then threatens that commitment?

As I have noted elsewhere, I think this is an inherent cost of relying on hardware as a proxy for commitment.  When the Secretary of Defense talks about how important a system is as a symbol, he saddles his successors with that system long past its shelf-life.  In this case, the political requirement to maintain the “tactical” B61s in NATO resulted in a clusterf*ck of competing military requirements.  I accept the NATO nuclear-sharing enabled the consultations and burden-sharing in very important ways during the Cold War.  I believe that consultation and burden-sharing remain important to the alliance, which, I hasten to add, ought to maintain a nuclear character.

It is probably time to start thinking about life after the B61, even if we life-extend it and everything turns out hunky-dory.  In particular, it is probably time for a careful study of how we might use the capabilities in the strategic triad to extend deterrence.  I made the argument at a PONI meeting that we ought to think about how to sustain consultation and burden-sharing on the basis of the strategic triad, but I didn’t seem to make a lot of headway.  Still, I have my doubts about the viability of both the B61 LEP and the plan to make the F-35 nuclear-capable. Some future Administration is going to have to explain that the 2010 NPR didn’t really mean what it said about forward-deployed nuclear weapons on tactical aircraft.  When that time comes, we might have at least thought about how visits by SSBNs (or SSGNs) or hosting exchange officers at STRATCOM demonstrates just as well our commitment to maintaining a nuclear element to extended deterrence.

Random Stuff

As I mentioned in the introduction, the report has a whole bunch of cool detail about the LEP process.  Here are the things that struck me:

* As I noted in the introduction, the report contains a schedule of planned LEPs.  (I had tried to put together a similar chart in a December 2008 article for Arms Control Today.)

* Also, in that same Arms Control Today piece, I speculated that “one option [for the B61 LEP] might be to make use of the 200 or so W84 pits that remain in the strategic reserve.”  Sure enough, the report notes that “the group investigated reusing components from the W84 ground-launched cruise missile warhead.” They apparently ruled it out in April 2009, shortly after my piece came out, apparently because they didn’t have enough W84 pits.

* There is also a discussion of the scope of previous LEPs, which is pretty eye opening about what changes were — and were not — introduced into the stockpile. (Did you know that the W87 LEP did not include refurbishment of aging components? Or that the W80 would have gotten a safety and security enhancement?)

* Have you ever seen an unclassified description of the sort of requirements that comprise the military requirements for a nuclear weapon?  Me neither.  Although there are no surprises about the type of requirements (yield and accuracy, for example), the discussion is noteworthy for its common-sense transparency.

* One of those requirements, by the way, is a guided tailkit. Could be inertial, but I wonder whether they are considering satellite-guidance.  That would be a cultural change, wouldn’t it?




  1. Stephen Schwartz (History)

    Here’s a capsule history of Skybolt, from Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940:

  2. Allen Thomson (History)

    > One of those requirements, by the way, is a guided tailkit. Could be inertial, but I wonder whether they are considering satellite-guidance.

    Probably both together. The current JDAM is best described as GPS-aided inertial: It can operate on inertial-only with somewhat degraded accuracy if the satellite signals aren’t available on the way down.

  3. anon (History)

    Two thoughts:

    First, regarding the LEP requirements, I actually feel for what NNSA and DOD are trying to do. Reducing fissile material in the stockpile, consolidating types of weapons from 4 to 1 (thereby reducing the quantity required in the stockpile, perhaps?), and improving the safety and security of the weapons all seem to me to be laudible goals towards reducing the role of nuclear weapons. And the opportunities to do two LEPS — something quick now, something more extensive later — doesn’t seem to make sense from a cost and security perspective. And–based on the chart you pulled to lead this blog post–the “do two LEP” option seems impractical, as DOD and NNSA would have to either make choices about the 78 and 88 LEPS or expand the capacity to do more than 1 LEP at a time. Bottom line is that the timing is rough–not clear why DOD and NNSA waited so long to begin this ambitious effort–but it is what it is.

    Second point – There are no good options for mitigating the risk to the political commitments to the NATO allies. Jeffrey picks up on one that the GAO identifies — reposturing the B61. NATO is beginning a deterrence review to assess its nuclear and conventional deterrence commitments, which could conceivably get out ahead of the potential challenges that the GAO identifies and make the point moot. I’m not smart enough to think of the potential options in front of NATO — Jeffrey, your proposal is well stated — or their downsides. Any thoughts, anyone?

  4. George William Herbert (History)

    I suspect that the driver for the guidance kit was the reduced yield model selected, and I hypothesize that the driver for the reduced yield model (-4) being selected is that that submodel contains too little HEU to assemble an implosion uranium bomb out of, should one capture B61 in non-intact configuration (say, one is dropped on an opponent and it fails to fire to high yield, or if someone steals one from a storage location but lacks the ability to break the surety controls and disassembles it for fissile materiel).

    But that’s only a hypothesis.

  5. Stephen Young (History)

    Jeffrey, I think you missed the most important point, and, George, you underestimate the reasons for choosing to base the new B61-12 on the -4 model.

    With this LEP, the B-61 will become the fantasy weapon for the folks who wrote the Bush NPR. A low-yield weapon (the -4, as George hints, has the lowest yield of any of the B61 models) with – thanks to its new tailkit – hard target kill capability. The Bush NPR ached longingly for a precision, low-yield weapon – something they argued countries would be more likely to believe we might actually USE without causing lots of collateral damage – and here it is.

    This is a problem. While the administration talks about wanting to reduce the role of nuclear weapons – and I would argue it is sincerely trying to do and has done so in some case – here the Nuclear Weapons Council (in work that began under Bush but was signed off on under Obama) has decided to field what essentially is a new, more threatening, capability.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      My sense is that the Bush Administration ached longingly for a high-yield nuclear weapon to crush bunkers. RNEP was either going to be a modified B61 or B83, with the latter being up to a megaton.

      The RNEP proposal, if memory serves, also included a new tail kit for improved accuracy. But RNEP also included a new penetrator case and complete redesign of non-nuclear components (which might have required an UGT) to survive rapid deceleration. That was what bothered me. I looked very closely at the discussion of alternative bomb shapes, but I don’t even get a hint of this.

      If the B61 Mod 12 includes similar requirements, then I agree with you. But not if it is just a matter of a more accurate tail-kit. After all, I didn’t complain about the new fuse for the W76, even though that gave the 76 a brand-new hard-target kill capability.

    • anon. (History)

      Not sure Steve has that quite right. Consolidation @ a lower yield, accompanied by a guided tailkit, is a consequence of removing the parachute. Parachute removal is important, because it opens up space within the bomb case to redesign the weapon for safety and security enhancements. Any additional capabilities/enhanced effects on target brought about by the redesign, were unconsequentiala and in any event unintended.

      To say nothing of the fact that the “low yield” mod-4 would still be a bad day for those on the receiving end. Lots of collateral damage to be expected, I’d imagine. I don’t think we’re approaching the conventional-nuclear threshold, if that’s what Steve’s driving at.

      Another point of interest, however: apart from the 61-12’s that are to replace the strategic mod-7’s, what effects are required? No targets for the NATO bombs, right? Then what, exactly, was NATO’s dog in this fight?

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I believe the principal NATO military requirement is that the nuclear weapon not detonate when Belgian hippies seize one and then attempt to remove the physics package so they can make the bomb casing into a bong.

    • anon. (History)

      Jeffrey – That requirement must have been deleted from the classified version of the GAO report. Probably not written in the “capabilities-based” terminology you provided, either.

  6. Peter Hayes (History)

    Personally, I liked the GAO’s phrase “just-in-time maintenance” of nuclear weapons; reminds one of Hondas made in the United States, to be avoided.

    On other ways to think about signalling to allies, the The Future of Theater Nuclear Forces in the New Triad 2003 report is still pretty on the mark.

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