While the B83 nuclear gravity bomb could accomplish the same tasks as the B61, the B61 is the better investment for future United States nuclear deterrence, the head of the Defense Department’s strategic forces said yesterday.

U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) chief Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler told a House panel yesterday the B83 has drawbacks including a “high yield.” Kehler said the Pentagon is trying to pursue weapons that would have less collateral effect if the president ever had to decide to use one.

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

“We’ve come to the conclusion that both from a military standpoint and from a standpoint of future safety, security and surety of the stockpile that the B61 is the best of the choices going forward,” Kehler told the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee.

Kehler, along with Assistant Defense Secretary for Global Strategic Affairs Madelyn Creedon, National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs Donald Cook and Sandia National Laboratories Director Paul Hommert largely defended DoD’s choice of the B61 for a life extension program (LEP). The B61 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 in June 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 withstood critical testimony from Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), who appeared skeptical that the B83 could not accomplish the same tasks as the B61. Kehler said while the B83 could be deployed from the B-2 stealth bomber and accomplish the same technical agenda, at the end of the day, the B61 is more worthy of life extension funds.

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 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 (Defense Daily, July 25).

Adm. Cecil Haney is scheduled to take over as the head of STRATCOM at a November date to be determined, according to a STRATCOM spokeswoman.