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Compromise Bill Could Make Nuclear Warhead Cost Study ‘Less Painful’

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

An Everglades National Park, Fla., site coordinator in 2010 opens the doors to one of three facilities used decades ago to store and potentially launch both conventional and nuclear-tipped Nike missiles in reaction to any Russian attack. The U.S. Congress has scaled back earlier demands for costing out alternatives to an Obama administration plan for using a single update package for two different nuclear warheads in today's stockpile (Joe Raedle/Getty Images). An Everglades National Park, Fla., site coordinator in 2010 opens the doors to one of three facilities used decades ago to store and potentially launch both conventional and nuclear-tipped Nike missiles in reaction to any Russian attack. The U.S. Congress has scaled back earlier demands for costing out alternatives to an Obama administration plan for using a single update package for two different nuclear warheads in today's stockpile (Joe Raedle/Getty Images).

A legislative compromise should make it "less painful" for Washington to study the cost of modernizing its nuclear arsenal, one congressional source says.

At issue is an Energy Department plan to create interoperable nuclear warheads capable of multiple tasks. The first such weapon that Energy contractors would develop would be called the IW-1, envisioned as having the ability to replace both the Air Force W-78 warhead -- currently fitted on ground-based ballistic missiles -- and the Navy W-88 warhead, used on submarine-based missiles.

In Congress, the plan has prompted concerns from both sides of the aisle, with lawmakers suggesting that the Obama administration should first compare its cost to that of an alternative plan under which it would simply refurbish the existing two warheads.

The Navy has also raised objections to the plan based on cost and timing concerns. Meantime, congressional sources have suggested that the administration might put off the project for approximately five years due to increasing budget constraints.

In light of these issues, both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees proposed earlier this year to require a cost comparison as part of the defense authorization bill for fiscal 2014. The White House has protested both proposals, claiming the studies themselves would cause new problems.

A "Statement of Administration Policy" that the White House released in November said it "strongly objects" to the study initially proposed by the original Senate bill, arguing it would "significantly delay completion" of an ongoing modernization-feasibility assessment and increase its costs.

Lawmakers nonetheless included a cost-comparison requirement in compromise legislation brokered between House Republicans and Senate Democrats. However, the language in the conference bill is different and requires a less rigorous cost analysis than either House Republicans or Senate Democrats initially proposed, the congressional source said.

The Capitol Hill aide lacked permission to speak publicly about the matter and requested anonymity for this article.

The intent of the new language "was to make it less painful" for the administration to conduct the studies, while at the same time demanding analyses detailed enough to show which option is the most cost effective, according to the source.

Under the House-Senate conference report, the Nuclear Weapons Council -- a joint panel of the Energy and Defense departments -- must perform a "comparative analysis" that looks at the cost of refurbishing both the W-78 and W-88 warheads separately, versus replacing them both with the IW-1.

The original Senate version of the legislation would have required a more detailed comparison by the Defense Department's director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation. The original House measure would have required an even more rigorous analysis of feasibility, design definition and cost estimation to be conducted by the Energy and Defense Department's through the Nuclear Weapons Council.

"The House provision would have given 100 percent, the [Senate] provision would have given 80 percent," the congressional source said. "This gives 70 percent -- which is enough. If you're in this business you can usually get a pretty quick read early on -- at 60 or 70 percent -- which way things are going."

The legislative compromise has prompted a mixed reaction from arms control advocates.

Marylia Kelley, executive director of the Livermore, Calif.-based watchdog group Tri-Valley CAREs, said she was disappointed that language expressly involving the Defense Department's director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, nicknamed the “CAPE,” did not make it into the final bill.

However, Kelley said she was "cautiously optimistic" that the analysis required by the compromise bill would provide enough information to show which modernization plan is the most cost effective.

"The potentially fatal loophole I see in the final language is not in whether the Nuclear Weapons Council conducts the analysis versus the CAPE, it is rather the key question of what features are to be considered as part of the refurbishment of the W-78 and W-88," Kelley said.

Kelley referred to a December 2012 memo by the Nuclear Weapons Council suggesting that "surety enhancements" would be included in a study on how much it would cost to refurbish the W-88 warhead, rather than replacing it with the IW-1.

"The danger is that the analysis will incorporate a false choice between a redesigned or substantially new-design individual warheads and the interoperable warhead, with neither being a more simple and straightforward refurbishment of the existing weapons in order to maintain their existing safety and reliability," according to Kelley.

Stephen Young, a senior analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the legislation showed "that Congress will rightly insist on fairly detailed cost estimates for more straightforward approaches to these programs.

"If this one isn't good enough, I'm sure they will push back again," Young said.

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