WASHINGTON — If Congress does not ease budget caps for the coming fiscal year, it will be almost impossible to keep a quintet of vital nuclear warhead modernization program on track, warns the head of the National Nuclear Security Agency (NNSA).
"If the relief we got through the Bipartisan Budget Act, which eased, modestly, the caps for fiscal year '16 and '17, are not reincarnated in some form for FY18, 19 and beyond, all bets are off. I'll say that again: all bets are off. And god forbid if sequestration rears its ugly head again, they're doubly off," NNSA head Frank Klotz told an audience gathered at the Minot21 Conference on Capitol Hill Sept. 22.
Concerns from arms of the military about the impact of sequestration are not new, but the NNSA is in a particularly precarious position, as they are laying the groundwork for a major re-working of the weapons that provide the core of America's nuclear arsenal, while also facing major deferred infrastructure bills that have left some facilities literally crumbling around workers.
The NNSA is a semi-autonomous department within the Department of Energy. While the Defense Department manages the delivery systems of the nuclear force — ships, planes and missiles — NNSA has oversight over the development, maintenance and disposal of nuclear warheads.
The agency is perusing a modernization plan known as the "3+2 Strategy," under which the NNSA is consolidating the American arsenal of warheads into five variants. Five bomb and cruise missile warhead types are being consolidated into two replacement warhead designs, the W80-4 and the B61-12. Meanwhile, the five ballistic missile warheads now in service are being consolidated into three new interoperable warheads known as the IW-1, IW-2, and IW-3.
During a Sept. 27 visit from reporters to the Sandia laboratory complex at Kirtland AFB, Brad Boswell, senior manager for Sandia’s Weapon Systems Engineering group, said the fact the B61-12 design replaces the B61-3, -4, -7 and -10 variants will lead to a number of cost-saving benefits.
"It actually reduces complexity form a military maintainer standpoint," Boswell said. "it reduces the cost of the maintenance of the stockpile, because less variants result in a simple logistics train we have to follow."
And, Boswell noted, the weapons simply need to be updated as they get older.
"We have some known aging degradations within the B61 family today," he warned. "The design continues to meet all its requirements and its expected to throughout the remainder of it stockpile life… but as we understand where the aging degradations are, we’re making sure we replace those with the designs."
The B61-12 recently entered the production engineering phase, with the first production unit of the weapon is planned for fiscal year 2020. (Klotz said an updated cost estimate for that program is still being developed and declined to offer a preview of dollar figure.) Improvements on the W-88, a key part of the W80-4 development, will enter the production engineering phase in February of 2017, Klotz added.
But keeping those programs on track is unlikely to happen under a more constrained budget environment, he warned.
"The first thing that happens" under lowered budget caps, "is you cancel programs, whether it’s a weapons program or construction program or some other program, you cancel it because you don’t have the money to pay for it" Klotz said.
"The other thing you do is peanut butter spreading, move things to the right, and everybody here knows if you move thing to the right, schedule slips, the customer doesn’t get what he or she needs when he or she needs it, and costs go up inevitably," he continued. "The third thing that will come back is they’ll blame DoE and NNSA for that. So I’m here to tell you that we have to stay on budget, so that’s what we’ll be advocating, at least as long as I’m around to continue advocating that."
Boswell acknowledged that if the budget situation changes, a "harder conversation that gets above my paygrade" has to be held about prioritizing funding. But for now, he says the program "has the resources it needs" to complete on schedule.
"From a B61-12 perspective, the nation has been very supportive through the congressional levels to get us what we needed, and as a result we’ve been able to, at least through this point in the program, fulfill our level of commitment," he said.