The head of the Defense Department’s nuclear enterprise defended the B61 nuclear gravity bomb life extension program (LEP), which is under fire as too expensive and wasteful in an era of budget cutting and further nuclear weapons reductions.  

U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) chief Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler yesterday said modernization of the nuclear enterprise is essential as virtually all of the weapons are over 20 years old, and in some cases, substantially over 20 years old. Kehler also said modernization of critical nuclear weapon components like platforms and the command and control (C2) systems have also been deferred for over a decade. Kehler even brought up DoD’s 2010 nuclear posture review, which he said cited the need to invest in nuclear arms.

U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) chief Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler. Photo: Air Force.

“The president, in his (Berlin) speech, made it very clear that we will continue to have a credible deterrent force, not only a strategic deterrent force, but a deterrent force that has a feature of extended deterrence to our allies and partners,” Kehler said at a Defense Writers Group breakfast in Washington. “The B61 is an essential piece.”

The B61 life extension program (LEP) is under scrutiny for its escalating cost at a time of fiscal belt-tightening and President Barack Obama’s declaration of further nuclear arms reductions. Kingston Reif, director of nuclear non-proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, estimated yesterday that DoD wants to produce 400 refurbished B61 “mod 12s” at a total price of $10 billion, which comes out to $25 million per weapon.

Kehler said two different approaches to the B61 LEP have been kicked around with replacing essential electronic components as opposed to a full LEP as one approach. Kehler said a potential compromise is replacing the critical electrical components while at the same time performing a minimal LEP.

“If you separate those in time, you’re going to increase the cost,” Kehler said.

The House approved approximately $581 million for the B61 LEP in its version of the fiscal year 2014 defense authorization bill, nearly 8.2 percent more than the $537 million President Obama’s administration requested in its proposed budget. The House Appropriations energy and water subcommittee in its report said it recommended nearly $561 million, or $23.7 million more than requested.

But the Senate Appropriations energy and water subcommittee said in its FY ’14 report it recommended $369 million, a decrease of $168 million from the Pentagon’s request. The subcommittee said this would allow the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to design, engineer and test critical non-nuclear components, such as the radar, neutron generator, power source and gas transfer system, that are reaching the end of their lives.

Differences between each respective appropriations bill will have to be hashed out in conference.

The Senate Appropriations energy and water subcommittee said in its report it is concerned that NNSA’s proposed scope of work for the B61 LEP is not the lowest cost, lowest risk option that meets military requirements and replaces aging components before they affect weapon performance. NNSA’s cost estimate for the B61 LEP has doubled in the past two years as work scope has increased, from $4.5 billion to $8.2 billion, according to the subcommittee.

In addition to cost increases, the Senate Appropriations energy and water subcommittee said the schedule for manufacturing the first production unit, or refurbished bomb, has already slipped two years, from FY ’17 to FY ’19. The subcommittee also expected additional delays as NNSA applies sequester cuts to its major programs.

Obama, in his June 19 speech in Berlin, said the United States can maintain a strong nuclear deterrence while reducing its deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third. Kehler, asked to justify spending money on weapons that could be eventually retired, said converging multiple B61 variants into one would help bring the numbers in line with projected cuts.

“That in and of itself, will allow us to reduce the numbers,” Kehler said. “Once you’ve started on the life extension, if, in fact, something dramatic changes, then you can always stop.”

Obama recently nominated the commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, Navy Adm. Cecil Haney, as Kehler’s successor as head of STRATCOM. Haney was previously STRATCOM’s deputy commander before assuming his current post in January 2012.