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Senate Bill Cuts Warhead Funding

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

A technician performs maintenance on a U.S. W-76 nuclear warhead. House appropriators have moved to increase funding for U.S. nuclear warhead updates, even amid congressional efforts to seek less costly alternatives to these projects (U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration photo). A technician performs maintenance on a U.S. W-76 nuclear warhead. House appropriators have moved to increase funding for U.S. nuclear warhead updates, even amid congressional efforts to seek less costly alternatives to these projects (U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration photo).
WASHINGTON -- Senate appropriators are looking to cut funding for efforts to refurbish a U.S. nuclear warhead and are pushing the administration to limit the scope of the controversial project.
 
The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday approved an energy and water appropriations bill for fiscal 2014 that provides $369 million for efforts to refurbish the B-61 bomb -- $168 million less than the Obama administration had requested. In its legislative report, the panel says the funds will allow the administration to upgrade essential components that are aging in the bombs but encourages it to limit other upgrades that might not be necessary.
 
"The committee is concerned that the [National Nuclear Security Administration's] proposed scope of work for extending the life of the B-61 bomb is not the lowest cost, lowest risk option that meets military requirements and replaces aging components before they affect weapon performance," the report says, noting that the cost estimate for the program "has doubled in the past two years as work scope has increased."
 
The panel "encourages NNSA to reconsider the option it selected for the B-61 life extension program and develop a scope of work that can be successfully executed within known budget constraints and replaces critical non-nuclear components as soon as possible to address end-of-life issues."
 
Nuclear watchdog groups praised the Senate move on Thursday.
 
“If the past teaches us anything, it teaches us that the NNSA will not meet the schedule and cost estimates for the B-61," Stephen Young, senior analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement to Global Security Newswire.  "The Senate appropriations committee recognized that fact and is calling for a more affordable approach that will also make it more likely the United States can meet its security commitments to NATO -- this is good government at work.”
 
House appropriators are looking to boost funds for the B-61, even though they are also raising concerns about the scope of the project. The House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday approved $560 million for the effort -- $23 million more than what the Obama administration has requested. The full committee says in its report on the bill that while the National Nuclear Security Administration completes a required report on potential alternatives, “refurbishment work must move forward expeditiously to meet U.S. commitments to NATO.”
 
The bill is alluding to roughly 200 B-61 nuclear gravity bombs deployed at six air bases in five NATO nations: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. Some West European leaders have suggested these weapons be pulled back to the United States, but a number of East European NATO nations have balked at the idea.
 
“An investigation by the [Government Accountability Office] completed in 2011 concluded that NNSA could not ensure it would be able to maintain U.S. capability to support its NATO commitments if the B-61 program were further delayed,” the committee report states. “Not meeting those commitments could cast doubts on the U.S. resolve to maintain a nuclear umbrella for its allies, potentially unraveling decades of nonproliferation efforts. In light of current events including the growing missile threat from North Korea, sending such a message would be dangerous and irresponsible.”
 
Some committee Democrats criticized the proposed funding increase during a markup session on Wednesday. Representative Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) said that former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright said in a report that the B-61 bomb had a “military utility value of practically nil.”
 
House appropriators are also looking to boost funding for certain aspects of the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, which seeks to secure vulnerable nuclear materials inside the United States and around the world. Even so, the panel noted that President Obama’s four-year initiative on this issue is drawing to a close and that a new agreement with Moscow makes it unclear to what extent this type of work can continue within Russian borders.
 
For GTRI international efforts, House appropriators propose $208 million, which is $20 million above the administration’s request. Panelists noted the Obama team’s proposed figure would have been a cut below current spending levels.
 
For domestic GTRI activities, the committee recommends $38 million, a $35 million drop below the administration’s request. It argues that domestic nuclear materials “do not pose the same threat to national security” and “are already regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.” NRC regulation of domestic materials has been criticized by the Government Accountability Office as inadequate, however.

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