B61-12 Nuclear Warhead Delay Drives Up Price Tag

National Nuclear Security Administration Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs Charles Verdon speaks at the Nuclear Deterrence Summit on Feb. 13, 2019. NNSA photo via Twitter.

A top National Nuclear Security Administration official said Sept. 25 the agency expects B61-12 warhead refurbishment delays could cost the multibillion-dollar program an extra $600 million to $700 million.

The B61-12 warhead effort, run by NNSA, is refurbishing and consolidating four legacy bomb variants into one weapon. A related tailkit program, run by the Air Force, will provide a new digital guidance system for the nuclear gravity bomb so it can also hit programmed coordinates when dropped from US and foreign fighters and bombers.

Commercially made capacitor problems with its B61-12 program may delay the first unit’s production by up to 18 months, NNSA said earlier this month. NNSA Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs Charles Verdon’s written testimony to the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee noted that the first production unit is now due out in the first quarter of fiscal 2022. Until recently, it was expected in early 2020.

The Department of Energy reported in July the B61-12 life-extension program is expected to cost $8.3 billion overall. The Air Force’s tailkit is also slated to cost about $1.1 billion, the Pentagon said in August.

In May, an NNSA spokesman told Air Force Magazine that “the technical issue relates to the qualification testing of electrical components used in non-nuclear assemblies over the full, multi-decade lifecycle.”

The original capacitors cost $5 per part, and are being replaced by modern capacitors that each cost about $75 because they are built to new standards, Verdon told lawmakers. The government is considering the possibility of making more non-nuclear parts in-house and wants to make sure vendors understand federal requirements.

NNSA does not plan to request more money to cover the program’s growing price tag. Instead, it wants to move funds around within its nuclear modernization portfolio.

“As part of our lessons learned from this activity, we’ve already undertaken design simplifications on the [W80-4 life-extension program] and the W87-1 [modification] that will allow us to, in the outyears, move money that was originally allocated for those activities to the B61-12 and the W88 Alt 370,” Verdon said.

Respectively, the W80-4 and W87-1 programs are updating warheads for use on the Air Force’s Long-Range Standoff Weapon and Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, the future air-launched and land-based nuclear weapons that will replace current missiles.

Lt. Gen. Richard Clark, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, is confident the capacitor issue can be resolved.

“The Air Force will continue synchronizing efforts with the Navy, NNSA, [Office of the Secretary of Defense], and [US Strategic Command], working in lockstep with them through the Nuclear Weapons Council to understand and mitigate associated costs, near-term impacts to deployment, and any follow-on implications due to the delay,” Clark told lawmakers.

In written testimony, Clark said the 1960s-era warhead refurbishment, which will keep it viable for at least another 20 years, won’t affect the Air Force’s tailkit work. The Air Force’s F-15E, F-16, F-35, and B-2 are slated to carry the completed weapons.

“Program delays are unfortunately a potential reality for any acquisition program,” Clark said. “The Air Force is coordinating with stakeholders and partners to modify original deployment plans to meet combatant commander requirements and reduce risk with aging components.”

Subcommittee Ranking Member Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) indicated further conversations are happening behind the scenes about the program’s next steps as part of the 2020 defense policy bill process.