U.S. Sticks to Plan for Interoperable Nuclear Warheads, Despite Criticism

An unarmed Minuteman II intercontinental ballistic missile test-launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The United States plans to develop interoperable nuclear warheads for use on both land-based and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
An unarmed Minuteman II intercontinental ballistic missile test-launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The United States plans to develop interoperable nuclear warheads for use on both land-based and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. (USAF/Getty Images)

The Obama administration is sticking to a plan to develop controversial new warheads for the U.S. nuclear arsenal, but opponents of the project are holding out hope that officials could still change course.

When it rolled out its fiscal 2014 budget request last year, the administration included a 25-year plan that it said could ultimately reduce the number of warheads in the stockpile by creating weapons suited for multiple tasks.

The first such warhead, to be called the "IW-1," would replace both the existing W-78 warhead currently fitted on Air Force ground-based missiles, as well as the W-88 warhead currently used on Navy submarine-based missiles.       

The proposal prompted concerns from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, in part due to a dramatic projected cost surge starting around the year 2018, and continuing through 2024 and perhaps beyond. At its peak in the early 2020s, this spending "bubble" would reach a level of nearly $3 billion per year -- more than double what the United States currently spends on warhead life-extension programs.

The dramatic increase largely would have been the result of the number of warhead-refurbishment projects going on simultaneously during that time period. But by sliding the IW-1 project back by five years as part of a revised plan the administration issued with its fiscal 2015 budget request this year, the uptick in projected spending between now and the early 2020s is far less steep.

It remains to be seen, however, whether a similar spending surge would occur later in the 2020s or early 2030s, notes Stephen Young, a senior analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"The bottom line is that they certainly have made the next 10 years appear to be far more sustainable, but … it certainly looks that when they have [multiple] warheads in production, they'll have a bump in [spending] again," said Young.

As an opponent of the plan to build interoperable warheads, Young said he has concerns that extend beyond cost alone. On the technical side, he worries that the creation of interoperable warheads could create safety risks.

One of the National Nuclear Security Administration's goals is for the IW-1 warhead to use insensitive high explosives, which are believed to be safer than conventional high explosives used for setting off a nuclear-warhead implosion, Young notes. In order to do this, officials will have to mix and match parts from the two existing weapons the IW-1 is meant to replace, a move that he fears could create its own unforeseeable risks.

Along with some other nuclear watchdogs, Young would prefer that the administration stick with known quantities, and simply refurbish the existing W-78 and W-88 warheads as they are.

The administration, however, argues that the plan to transition to interoperable warheads fits within its goal of reducing the overall number of warheads in the U.S. arsenal as it works toward complying with the New START arms-control deal with Russia.

"One of the main reasons that we are moving to interoperable warheads is so that we can actually reduce the size of the hedge," Acting NNSA Administrator Bruce Held said last week, referring to extra warheads the United States holds in reserve.

"The [interoperable warhead] strategy allows us to maintain a safe, secure and reliable deterrent based on a smaller" arsenal, said Held, speaking at a hearing of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces.

During a separate hearing before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces last week, Held warned that additional budget cuts in future years would "break" the current life-extension strategy and "put the nation in a very difficult position," with "implications for our nuclear deterrent and … our ability to reduce the size of the stockpile."

Previously, the Obama administration had strongly opposed cuts to the interoperable program that Congress implemented for fiscal 2014, along with a requirement that it more thoroughly study alternatives to the strategy before fully committing to the plan. It was able to salvage the overall strategy -- which calls for the development of a total of three interoperable warheads -- by pushing the IW-1 plan back by five years, however.

Now, the revised stockpile stewardship and management plan is "really pretty rock bottom" and can no longer survive additional cuts, Held said.

In particular, he raised concerns about the safety of aging facilities where weapons work is completed and potential delays to plans to replace them.

"An area of increasing concern for me is nuclear safety," Held said. "Our infrastructure for enriched uranium in Oak Ridge [Tennessee] is 70 years old -- we can't wait until the year 2038 to get new facilities."

Young and other critics have argued, however, that the United States might be able to save money -- and thus give itself some more ability to cope with future budget constraints -- if it simply refurbished the existing warheads.

One Capitol Hill aide noted last June that while NNSA estimates put the cost of the IW-1 project at roughly $14 billion over 10 years, refurbishment of the Navy's other nuclear warhead, the W-76, is costing "only about $3 or $4 billion."

In addition, Young says he isn't convinced the interoperable warhead strategy would necessarily lead to overall stockpile reductions. In any case, he argues, any such cuts would be a long way off.

Young points to language in the fiscal 2014 stockpile stewardship and management plan that originally rolled out the interoperable warhead strategy. It says that "when fully implemented" the strategy will offer "the potential to consider" reductions to the stockpile hedge. The revised fiscal 2015 version of the document does not offer any additional insight regarding the timing of potential reductions, Young said.

"That would be roughly in the 2045 timeline before they finish" building all the interoperable warheads, he said. "So we're talking about maybe in 30 years we can think about cutting the hedge. … It's just ridiculous."

In a response provided to Global Security Newswire by NNSA Deputy Press Secretary Derrick Robinson, the agency acknowledged that it can't "guarantee" the reduction in the hedge.

"What we can do is execute, in coordination with the [Nuclear Weapons Council], the 3+2 strategy for stockpile modernization which will provide greater flexibility in hedging the active stockpile," the agency says.  Under the strategy, the future U.S. arsenal would comprise three warhead designs, one of which would be interoperable on ballistic missiles, another on bombs and the third on cruise missiles.

Any decision to move forward with a hedge reduction "would be made by the president in consultation with" the Defense and Energy departments "and any other appropriate government agency," according to the NNSA statement.

While critics argue the United States might be able to modernize its nuclear forces with less money, some Republicans in Congress continue to argue the administration is not requesting enough funds for the project.

Senator David Vitter (R-La.) and others during budget hearings last week hauled out oversized charts depicting how the United States has so far spent less per year on nuclear-weapons modernization than the Obama administration projected during political negotiations over New START ratification in 2010.

Not all pro-nuclear advocates are necessarily wedded to the interoperable strategy, though.

Sherman McCorkle, leader of the new Strategic Deterrent Coalition that aims to convince Americans of the importance of maintaining the stockpile at a time of fiscal difficulty, told GSN in February that the group is not opposed to studying the interoperable strategy in more detail before deciding whether to commit to the plan.

"That decision is not yet ripe," McCorkle said.

April 16, 2014

The fiscal 2015 budget proposal delays -- but does not abandon -- plans for the new Navy and Air Force warheads.