The Department of Energy will probably deliver the first nuclear warhead for the next U.S. air-launched cruise missile in 2026: a year later than the department’s official forecast, according to an internal agency report.
The DoE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is “highly unlikely” to complete the Long Range Standoff Weapon’s W80-4 warhead — a refurbished version of the W80 used on current air-launched cruise missiles— by the agency’s official target date of fiscal year 2025, NNSA’s nominally independent Cost Estimating and Program Evaluation (CEPE) office wrote in an eight-page memo dated January 2019.
A 2026 first production unit is “more likely” for W80-4, and starting delivery then would still allow NNSA to deliver the first of the warheads in time to meet the Air Force’s goal of developing a war-ready Long Range Standoff Weapon by 2030, according to the CEPE memo.
CEPE said the NNSA is overly optimistic about how long it will take to manufacture certain non-nuclear W80-4 components, given that it took the agency years longer to churn out similar parts for the B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb that is now nearing the end of a planned 20-year life extension program.
According to CEPE, NNSA thinks it will take about six years to finish the W80-4’s firing set assembly and warhead control unit, which is respectively two years and one year longer than it took the agency’s Honeywell [HON]-managed Kansas City National Security Complex to finish similar components for the B61-12.
Meeting the accelerated schedule for W80-4 would require “a rate of program execution that has not historically been demonstrated by the complex and is therefore highly unlikely,” the CEPE office wrote in the memo, a copy of which the NNSA provided to Defense Daily. The non-nuclear components described in the report are different from the balky, commercial-off-the-shelf components that have delayed B61-12’s first production unit beyond fiscal year 2020.
The W80-4 CEPE memo compares a summary of the office’s cost-and-schedule report for the weapon with a summary of the W80-4 program office’s official Weapons Design and Cost Report.
The classified Weapons Design and Cost Report report is the basis for the agency’s official estimate, approved in February, to develop and build W80-4: $11.2 billion over the roughly 12 years running 2019 through 2031.
The CEPE office also threw a red flag about the official W80-4 cost estimate, writing in the January memo that it could total more than $14 billion.
An NNSA spokesperson said the agency stands by its plan to produce the first war-ready W80-4 by fiscal year 2025. An Air Force spokesperson declined to comment about whether delivering the first W80-4 in fiscal 2026 would meet the service’s goals for the Long Range Standoff Weapon.
NNSA’s pledge to deliver the first war-ready W80-4 by 2025 dates to around the time in 2014 that the joint DoE-Pentagon Nuclear Weapons Council selected W80 as the Long Range Standoff Weapon’s warhead. Though it has increased since an early, informal estimate published in 2015 as part of the the agency’s annual Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, the NNSA’s total cost estimate for W80-4 development and production has been steady for several years now.
However, after the W80-4 program office finished its Weapons Design and Cost Report during fiscal year 2019, the W80-4 program’s cost curve shifted significantly. NNSA piled more money into the early years of the program, compared with the notional cost curves published previously. The agency has not said how, exactly, it will spend the money.
Congress has mostly nodded along to that plan, including this year during debate of the annual National Defense Authorization Act. After only minimal debate over W80-4 in the House, both chambers wound up authorizing nearly $900 million for W80-4 in fiscal year 2020. The House has even passed an appropriations bill that would, if signed, provide that level of funding. The Senate had yet to write any 2020 appropriations bills, at deadline for Defense Daily.