The National Nuclear Security Administration should either delay by a year its promised delivery-date for the proof-of-concept unit of the next-generation nuclear cruise-missile warhead, or justify why it won’t, the Government Accountability Office said recently.

Citing congressional requirements and Pentagon schedule demands, the semiautonomous Department of Energy nuclear weapons agency promised to deliver the first production unit of the W80-4 in 2025 — even after the agency’s own schedule risk analysis for the program pointed to a 2026 delivery.

Therefore, GAO said in

the report, the NNSA should “adopt a W80-4 program [first production unit] delivery date based on the program’s schedule risk analysis, or document its justification for not doing so.”

A first production unit is the initial copy of a weapon made on the assembly line intended to mass produce it. NNSA personnel take the hardware apart and study it to prove both the design and the process are ready for mass production.

In its reply to GAO, the NNSA disagreed with office’s recommendations, citing what agency Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty called “a fundamental difference in philosophy regarding the use of risk analysis.”

Essentially, Gordon-Hagerty wrote in her reply to the report, the risk analysis GAO studied is out of date, and contains a lot of necessary guesswork about when W80-4 would be ready.

“While the initial risk analysis clearly defines certain inherent risk areas to be managed, the probabilities are still highly speculative and not informed by mitigation strategies to be developed as part of on-going program planning,” Gordon-Hagerty wrote.

Among other things, the NNSA has said it can use additive manufacturing — sometimes called 3D-printing — to manufacture W80-4 components more quickly 

So, with the wonky, broad-brush steadfastness that have marked her two-plus years leading the DoE branch, the administrator repeated that the joint Pentagon-DoE Nuclear Weapons Council — the interagency nuclear-weapons acquisition group — wants the warhead ready in fiscal 2025.

Gordon-Hagerty did say that the “NNSA is committed to transparency” about the W80-4’s development cycle, and will update GAO about the warhead’s cost and schedule in a baseline cost report due “early” in fiscal year 2022, which begins Oct. 1, 2021.

W80-4, the intended tip of the planned Long Range Standoff Weapon cruise missile slated for deployment around 2030 or so, is one of the near-term bill-payers for cost overruns on the NNSA’s W88 Alt-370 submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead, and its B61-12 gravity bomb programs. 

The submarine warhead and the gravity bomb are ahead of W80-4 in NNSA’s production queue and need new custom capacitors to replace commercial capacitors the agency had stockpiled for use in the weapons. In 2019, NNSA acknowledged that the commercial capacitors could not survive the warhead’s planned decades-long deployment cycle.

The W87-1 intercontinental ballistic missile warhead will also lose some near-term budget to pay for the new customer capacitors. That weapon will tip Ground Based Strategic Deterrent missiles scheduled to deploy at the beginning of the next decade. To shift money out of the program, W87-1 will lose what a senior NNSA official in December characterized as some of its nice-to-have features.

Whether W80-4 would get the same treatment, the NNSA has not said.

In 2019, the NNSA’s program-independent Cost Estimating and Program Evaluation office also said, in an eight-page memo, that NNSA was “highly unlikely” to deliver W80-4’s first production unit in 2025

Based on its classified Weapons Design and Cost Report report, the NNSA estimates it will cost about $11.2 billion over the roughly 12 years running 2019 through 2031 to build all the W80-4 warheads needed for the Long Range Standoff Weapon program. The Air Force plans to buy about 1,000 of the missiles, the non-profit Federation of American Scientists estimates. The Pentagon this year picked Raytheon [RTN] to manufacture the missiles, following a three-year competitive design program in which the company bested Lockheed Martin [LMT].

The new cruise missile is slated to replace the AGM-86b cruise missiles manufactured by Boeing [BA].