Nuclear Weapons Stewardship a Victim of Mission Creep

Stockpile Stewardship is the name of the U.S. program in which it maintains its nuclear program without conducting nuclear tests. According to this fiscal year’s management plan, write Nickolas Roth, Hans M. Kristensen and Stephen Young at the FAS Strategic Security Blog, “from 2011 to 2031, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) plans to spend almost $16 billion on Life Extension Programs (LEPs) to extend the service life and significantly modify almost every warhead in the enduring stockpile.”

This includes between $1.7 billion and $3.9 billion for each of the five individual bomb models. But the “figures do not include almost $11 billion in additional NNSA expenses simply to maintain the stockpile, outside of the LEP programs. This brings total spending on nuclear warheads over the next twenty years to $27 billion.”

In tandem with the words “significantly modify,” the authors have noticed an innovation in cataloging the bombs that indicates mission creep on the part of the NNSA away from just maintaining the stockpile.

For each weapon type, different variants are designated by a … “Mod” number … e.g., B61-7 is the “B61 Mod 7.” Only significant changes would result in a new Mod number. … This seems to indicate that all LEPs will now produce warheads with new Mod numbers, apparently in anticipation of significant modifications. [Emphasis added -- RW.]

Where does the White House stand on this?

Up to a point, this effort enjoys widespread congressional and White House support. … However, NNSA’s enthusiasm for extensively modifying all warheads may be going beyond what Congress and the Obama administration as a whole will support. … In an example of rising concerns, [a GAO] report on the B61 LEP raised red flags about the NNSA’s proposed changes to the bomb. The report [noted that the B61 LEP] was the first ever that sought to simultaneously refurbish multiple components, enhance safety and surety, and make other design changes. . . [Expressing its concern, a] Senate appropriations committee. … report notes that “NNSA plans to incorporate untried technologies and design features to improve the safety and security of the nuclear stockpile” (emphasis added [by authors]).

“While some enhancements may be warranted,” write the authors, “the justification for all these new features appears to be based on an open-ended development of new technologies for the incorporation of enhanced surety features into warheads independent of any threat scenario. This pursuit of a wide range of surety improvements,” in turn, “justifies the need for substantial warhead modifications and additional production and simulation capabilities.” In fact, “warhead modification is now a central goal of the stockpile stewardship management program.”

In other words, “Modification—not just maintenance—of the enduring stockpile has become a core objective.” The authors conclude:

One gets the sense that, since Congress stopped the Reliable Replacement Warhead, NNSA has seized on safety and security as the sure-fire cause to allow major warhead modifications and win significant funding.