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U.S. Warhead Upkeep to Get Top Priority if Deeper Budget Cuts are Imposed

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

Workers handle a U.S. W-76 nuclear warhead. The federal atomic security agency would preserve ongoing efforts to monitor the nation’s fielded nuclear warheads if automatic funding cuts affect military programs in 2013, its leader said on Thursday (U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration photo). Workers handle a U.S. W-76 nuclear warhead. The federal atomic security agency would preserve ongoing efforts to monitor the nation’s fielded nuclear warheads if automatic funding cuts affect military programs in 2013, its leader said on Thursday (U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration photo).

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration would give highest priority to maintaining warheads fielded on the nation’s arsenal of ICBMs, ballistic missile submarines and bomber aircraft if automatic budget cuts affect the agency next year, the top NNSA official said on Thursday (see GSN, Feb. 17).

“If there is a reduction in this area, the thing we are going to focus on first and foremost is doing the surveillance work … on our existing stockpile [and ensuring] that today’s deterrent is taken care of,” said Thomas D’Agostino, the agency administrator.  “Then we will work with the Defense Department to understand their priorities.”

The 2011 Budget Control Act mandates a roughly $450 billion cut in defense spending over the next decade, and that amount could more than double if lawmakers do not by 2013 reverse the legislation’s call for $1.2 trillion in additional government-wide reductions. 

Whether the more drastic budget “sequester” would affect NNSA programs is uncertain, D’Agostino said. 

However, given how much work the agency performs on behalf of the Pentagon, NNSA officials are planning now for the possibility that their programs will be affected by any new round of significant federal budget cuts.  A portion of the agency’s annual spending also comes directly from Defense Department coffers, according to the White House.

The nuclear security organization -- a semiautonomous arm of the Energy Department -- is working on three major projects to extend the service lives of U.S. nuclear warheads: The W-76, used on Navy Trident D-5 submarine-based ballistic missiles; the B-61, fielded on Air Force gravity bombs; and an effort to combine updates of the W-78, carried by Minuteman 3 ICBMs, and the W-88, a second weapon for Navy Trident missiles.

Under the service life extension programs, NNSA officials work with their Defense Department counterparts to refurbish or replace aging components of decades-old nuclear arms.  The effort is aimed at keeping the U.S. stockpile safe and effective without nuclear explosive testing, which Washington has by policy set aside in a moratorium dating to the early 1990s. 

Along with major overhauls for different weapon types, the nuclear agency also regularly checks deployed warheads to assure that they remain in working order.

A bipartisan panel of House and Senate lawmakers late last year failed to agree on a package of possible spending cuts and tax hikes that could have averted the Budget Control Act’s requirement for an automatic sequester, beginning in 2013.  Congress continues to debate potential actions that might be taken to avoid the deeper military cuts, which Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has warned could have a "devastating" effect on weapons acquisition programs, defense personnel and military operations (see GSN, Nov. 15, 2011).

If a budget sequester triggers “a dramatic change in [military] force structure, it could impact what systems we work on,” D’Agostino told reporters at a Defense Writers Group question-and-answer session.

Under a scenario in which the nuclear agency budget is reduced, D’Agostino said he would have to weigh possible delays in the three major warhead-overhaul efforts.

“We will work with the Defense Department to understand their priorities … to figure out which of these three priority projects can we defer [or] push back the date on, and [decide] what’s more important,” he said.

At this time, “I don’t want to tell you what gets cut because I don’t know what” programs might be affected, D’Agostino said.  “I don’t want to make any speculation that we’re going to take a $500 million cut and therefore the last $500 million is such-and-such.  I don’t know that we would take any cut at all, frankly, in sequestration.”

The NNSA budget request for fiscal 2013 calls for $11.5 billion in funding, of which $7.6 billion would be used to “maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent.”  The nuclear deterrent funds constitute a 5 percent hike from current spending levels but $372 million less than the administration had projected in 2010. The next budget year begins on Oct. 1.

The NNSA administrator said lawmakers have not yet weighed in on their priorities for his agency should a budget sequester materialize.  However, he made clear that he could not accept any change in what he believes to be his most important national security responsibilities.

“We feel very strongly that the No. 1 priority is taking care of today’s stockpile,” D’Agostino said.     “I would not be an advocate of saying I would rather do a life-extension on a system that isn’t going to be done until 2019 or 2020, over working to make sure … the stockpile that the Defense Department is carrying around in their submarines, in missiles and maybe in depot facilities around the country” remains sound, he said.

“That’s No. 1 because that’s the material … that’s out there with the Defense Department,” D’Agostino added.  “So safety of that stockpile is paramount.  And the only way we’re assured safety of it is to constantly surveil it and watch it.”

It would take “a pretty significant reduction,” though, before his agency would have to grapple with cutbacks or delays for warhead maintenance and modernization efforts, the NNSA leader said.

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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