Strategic Command Head Presses for B61 Refurbishment

By Valerie Insinna

Now is the time to get moving on a life extension of the B61 nuclear bomb, the head of U.S. Strategic Command said July 24.

Some in the arms control community have criticized the costs of refurbishing the B61, which have more than doubled since the National Nuclear Security Administration’s estimated that it would cost $3.9 billion in 2010. A 2012 Pentagon review estimated life extension efforts could total $10.4 billion.

How many B61s the country will need may change depending on policy decisions, but the weapon, which is carried by the B2 bomber, will be in use for the foreseeable future, said STRATCOM Commander Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler. It will continue to arm not only the B2  and dual capable aircraft that are forward deployed in Europe, but will also be one of the weapons used by the Air Force’s planned long range strike aircraft.

"Our intent is to take the multiple variants of the B61 [and] consolidate all of them into one variant,” he told reporters. “We'll use as the basis the variant that is forward deployed because that has the most safety and security features associated with it.”

Initial studies indicated that only the replacement of essential electronic components would be necessary to upgrade the B61, Kehler said.

“Today the labs will tell you that's not enough; that will not cover the essential issues” and a full life extension program is needed, he continued. Trying to defer some of the work will only increase costs in the long run and delay work on some of the military’s other nuclear modernization programs, he said.

The House and Senate are at odds on how much funding to give the program. The House has approved a $551 million budget request. The Senate Appropriations Committee has approved $369 million, with an extra $168 million contingent on meeting cost and schedule requirements.

The Arm Control Association, which advocates for the reduction of nuclear warheads, said that the Air Force could find some savings by delaying the program until the mid 2020s or decreasing the number of bombs to be upgraded.

“The tactical bombs may no longer be deployed in Europe by the time the program is completed a decade from now,” the association stated. “There is time to review the … plan and choose a more modest course, which could save an estimated $5 billion or more.”

The B61 is not the only part of the U.S. nuclear arsenal in need of being refurbished.

Most of the nuclear delivery platforms and warheads are more than 20 years old, and work on many of these systems has already been deferred, Kehler said. “Life extensions are due on the weapons, modernization is due on the platforms, [and] modernization is due on the nuclear command-and-control system.”

Throughout his comments, Kehler maintained the United States would remain committed to a nuclear triad of intercontinental ballistic missiles, bombers, and nuclear-capable submarines.

Provided that the nation continues investing in modernization and life extension of its nuclear program, the country will be able to maintain a nuclear triad even after reductions made under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, Kehler said.

“I think as numbers come down, we will continue to assess where there might be pressure points on the triad, but again, our task would be to maintain the triad," he said.

It’s too early to say whether the United States could afford a mobile version of intercontinental  ballistic missiles that could replace the country’s stockpile of Minuteman IIIs, Kehler said. Those missiles will be in use until at least 2030.

“As we go forward, we will sort out what they cost and then what we can afford,” he said. “My view is that mobility is one of the things that we have to consider. I think using the existing silos is something we have to consider.”

The Air Force is currently conducting an analysis of alternatives to determine what kind of a system could replace the Minuteman. It is scheduled to be completed in 2014. The service has also reached out to industry for white papers on whether a new fixed, mobile, or tunnel-based ICBM system could be a feasible replacement.  

Read more about controversies surrounding the nuclear triad in theAugust issue of National Defense Magazine.

Topics: Bomb and Warhead, Defense Department, DOD Budget

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