Building new atomic bombs to replace the oldest such weapons in the U.S. arsenal will cost 35 percent more than the Energy Department has budgeted for the effort, and production will start two years late, according to an internal department estimate cited in a new congressional audit.
Critics have assailed the rising cost of the B61-12 bomb program for several years. The new internal estimate is likely to add to the scrutiny, at a time when modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal is fast becoming one of the biggest federal budget challenges of the next two decades.
The estimate for the B61-12 program has not been reported in the press. The projection was produced last fall by the Energy Department’s Office of Cost Estimating and Program Evaluation, and it was cited deep inside a report issued this week by the Government Accountability Office.
Developing and producing up to 500 B61-12 bombs will cost $10 billion through fiscal 2026, according to the new estimate. By comparison, the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Agency projected in its fiscal 2017 budget that the program’s cost would be $7.4 billion. A few months later, the department updated the estimate to $7.6 billion, but officials there have still not agreed to alter their coming fiscal 2018 budget plan to reflect the cost-analysis office’s higher projection, according to GAO.
Four years ago, the Pentagon’s cost-estimating office predicted the new bombs would cost $10 billion and would be delayed. At the time, the Energy Department said that estimate was not accurate.
By contrast to the higher new estimate, the program was initially projected to cost $4 billion, while production was to have begun this year.
Two Year Delay?
The B61-12 program aims to replace four different types of B61 bombs with one upgraded model that guides bombs to their targets via a satellite-guidance kit on their tails. The tails will cost at least $1 billion in additional funds, by all estimates.
Production of the first of the upgraded bombs, which is officially set to start in fiscal 2020, will more than likely occur two years later, the department’s cost estimators said.
But the official Energy Department and Pentagon schedule projections have by all indications not changed.
Earlier this month, in fact, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, chief of U.S. Strategic Command, told Senate Armed Services in prepared testimony that the B61-12 program was on schedule for a 2020 production start. He added that it “must deliver on schedule to avoid any strategic or extended deterrence capability gaps.”
An Air Force F-16 dropped a mock, inert version of the B61-12 bomb in the Nevada desert last month, according to news reports. It was the first test of the bomb’s non-nuclear functions, officials told reporters at the time.
A leading expert on nuclear weapons who has closely tracked the cost projections says the new report bodes ill for atomic arms budgets.
“The GAO report reveals that despite NNSA’s assurances that the B61 life extension program is proceeding without any hiccups, the program could face a major disruption for which the agency is ill-prepared,” said Kingston Reif, an expert with the Arms Control Association.
The apparently likely shortfalls in the coming budgets for the B61-12 are part of a larger problem, according to the GAO report.
The Energy Department has a pattern of under-funding programs on the assumption that more money will become available in future years. From fiscal 2022-2026, each of the department’s annual budgets will average $11.1 billion, according to the latest plan. But the budget for each of those years may actually need to be an average $1.7 billion — or more than 15 percent — higher just to execute the programs as intended, the GAO said, citing the Energy Department’s own estimates.
“The potential under-funding of the B61 would further exacerbate a major execution challenge already facing NNSA’s weapons program highlighted by GAO: a multi-billion dollar mismatch between NNSA’s plans and budget projections over the next decade,” Reif said.