The National Nuclear Security Agency (NNSA) has a new plan for the future make-up of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Dubbed “3+2,” it is a 25-year plan to consolidate the seven existing types of U.S. nuclear weapons down to five—three interoperable ballistic missile warheads that could be used on either intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) or submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs); and two air-delivered weapons, a bomb and a cruise missile. It is also projected to cost over $60 billion. And that is just a starting figure.
The 3+2 Plan
The basic framework was laid out in a January 2013 memo by the Nuclear Weapons Council (NWC)—a joint DOD-DOE body that provides policy guidance and oversight of the nuclear weapons stockpile management process.
The current active U.S. arsenal includes a total of seven weapon types: four ballistic missile warheads, two for ICBMs (the W78 and W87) and two for SLBMs (the W76 and W88); two bombs (the B61, which has multiple versions, and the B83), and one cruise missile (the W80).
The 3+2 plan would develop three new interoperable warheads to be used on both ICBMs and SLBMs, while undertaking a life extension program (LEP) for the B61 bomb and developing a new warhead to replace the W80 air-launched cruise missile. The new stockpile would thus consist of a total of 5 warheads: 3 interoperable warheads for ballistic missiles (ICBMs and SLBMs) and 2 air-delivered weapons (bombs and cruise missiles).
“Interoperable” warheads, according to the NNSA, “are warheads with a common NEP [nuclear explosive package] integrated with non‐nuclear systems that maximize the use of common and adaptable components” and that can be deployed on multiple delivery platforms. In the cases under consideration, the same NEP would be delivered by an ICBM and SLBM. The first such interoperable warhead, designated the IW-1, would be in lieu of life extension programs for the W78 and W88-1 warheads, and would be designed to be delivered using both the Mk21 (ICBM) and Mk5 (SLBM) reentry vehicles. Production is slated to begin in FY25. Two more interoperable warheads, the IW-2 and IW-3, would follow. These would be in lieu of the W87 and W76-1 life extension programs, respectively.
The FY14 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan (SSMP), says that the 3+2 stockpile has “a number of advantages such as being simpler to maintain and improving overall safety and security.” The NNSA claims that 3+2 would also allow the United States to reduce the number of hedge warheads it maintains, would provide a steadier, more predictable workload for NNSA production sites, and would help maintain needed expertise in the nuclear complex workforce. (Hedge warheads are not deployed but could be put back into service relatively quickly.)
A stockpile based on a small number of warhead types, with many parts in common, might be easier to maintain. It could reduce the variety of components that the NNSA would need to produce and might lower production costs since fewer production lines or suppliers would need to be maintained.
However, even those in favor of the program admit that it is not clear yet whether there would be real cost savings. In a recent talk, John R. Harvey, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs, notes that although the sustainment/lifecycle costs for the 3+2 plan at the NNSA might be lower, these savings might be offset if more spending is needed at DOD for things like additional flight tests to make sure that the new warheads work with DOD systems.
Harvey also says that NNSA costs could be reduced if development of one interoperable warhead could take the place of life extension programs for two existing warheads. This assumes, however, that if 3+2 were not adopted, all existing warhead types would be maintained. Given President Obama’s recent speech in Berlin seeking further reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, this may not be a good assumption.
Uncertainties about the future of the U. S. arsenal and the viability of the 3+2 plan undercut the NNSA’s argument that it would allow the United States to reduce the number of hedge warheads that it maintains. The United States maintains this hedge in part to allow it to rapidly increase its deployed arsenal if there is “an unforeseen reversal of the geopolitical situation” and in part so that if it discovers a problem that affects all warheads of a particular type, it will have back-ups available.
The NNSA argues that with a total of just 5 different types of warheads in a 3+2 scenario (vs. 9 today), fewer hedge warheads would be needed, because a single interoperable warhead could act as a reserve for two different delivery systems. At the same time, every delivery system would have two possible warheads associated with it, ensuring a back-up in the event of any technical contingency.
This end state, however, is still several decades away, and is subject to much uncertainty. Right now, the United States maintains about 2,650 hedge warheads, bringing its total stockpile to nearly 5,000. This is far more than needed to deal with any contingency, and the United States could—and should—significantly reduce the hedge immediately without jeopardizing national security in any way.
As for the safety and security rationale, improving overall safety (reducing the risk of accidental detonation or dispersal of plutonium) and security (reducing the risk of unauthorized access or use) by adding new features to the warhead itself can lead to reduced confidence in the reliability of the weapon—which in turn could lead to calls for a resumption of nuclear testing.
One of the major changes the NNSA wants to make to improve safety is to use insensitive high explosive (IHE) in all weapons in the future U.S. arsenal. Three of the four existing weapons —the W76, W78, and W88—that would be replaced by the new interoperable warheads use conventional high explosive (CHE). (The W87 already has IHE.)
IHE is much more difficult to detonate in the event of accidental impact, fire, or explosion than conventional high explosive, meaning that it is less likely that an accident involving an IHE weapon would lead to dispersal of radioactive material, or even potentially a nuclear yield. However, upgrading a weapon to use IHE is not a simple substitution. IHE has a lower energy density than CHE, so more IHE must be used to achieve the same amount of explosive force. Increasing the amount of high explosive in a weapon would require making changes to the primary. This would constitute a major alteration and could decrease confidence in a weapon’s reliability. There is disagreement among experts over whether such changes could be made in the absence of nuclear testing.
There are analogous concerns about many of the other safety features that might be added to warheads—only so much can be done before the changes raise questions about reliability, and whether the warhead can be certified. Changes that affect the primary, like incorporating IHE or fire resistant pits, are particularly difficult. Reusing primaries from warheads that already incorporate these features, like the W87, is one way to minimize some of these problems, and the interoperable warheads will likely use this approach. However, this could entail mixing and matching primaries and secondaries from different weapons designs, which itself introduces uncertainties.
Who Wants 3+2?
The desire to make weapons in the U.S. stockpile “better” has been around for a while now, and has raised similar problems before. Proponents of the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) project, which was canceled in 2009, also argued that the United States should transition to a simplified stockpile made up of one or two “reliable” warheads that also incorporated more modern safety and security features.
The goals of the RRW program included many that are very similar to the current goals for 3+2—increase ease of manufacture and certification, reduce life cycle cost, increase weapon safety and use control, and reduce environmental burden. The project was canceled, however, because the extent of changes that needed to be made to meet these goals would effectively have meant building new warheads (something the Obama administration had said it would not do), and also potentially reduced confidence that the warheads would work as intended if they were needed.
Congress saw the RRW, which started out seeking modest improvements, as growing overly ambitious in scope and much more expensive than anticipated, and after a couple of years of investigation, refused to continue funding it. The Obama administration decided to end the program altogether in FY10.
Given the administration’s cancellation of the RRW, it is surprising that it is now proposing to develop and deploy three new warheads.
However, Congress is raising questions about the new 3+2 plan. The Senate Armed Services Committee, in its report on the FY14 budget, expressed concern about the cost of the IW-1, saying that “[t]he total cost profile is not all clear nor is the balance of this cost profile with the risk of such a system…The Navy’s W-88 warhead is in relatively good condition and over $1.0 billion is being spent on a new fuse system for the warhead. Certain common-sense questions must be asked why this W-88 is being replaced by the interoperable system that is proposed.”
The House Armed Services Committee expressed similar skepticism, saying that it “will not support dedicating significant funding for new stockpile transformation concepts unless the Administration can more clearly lay out its rationale and the NNSA can prove that it is taking a conservative approach that accounts for all costs, is executable in the timeframes needed, is technically feasible, and has demonstrable benefits that justify such a large investment.” It included a provision in its version of the bill requiring that the NNSA prepare an analysis of alternatives for all major warhead refurbishment programs, and directed the NNSA to work with the JASON technical advisory group to produce a report on the need for and technical risks associated with the changes proposed for future LEPs. In addition, House appropriators cut about $20 million in requested funding from the W78/W88 (IW-1) program, and restricted use of the remaining $50 million to a study of a LEP for the W78, with consideration of an interoperable warhead permitted as only one part of an analysis of alternatives.
Among the services that will use the weapons, there is also little enthusiasm. In a reaction that should raise red flags about the plans, the Navy sent a memo to the NNSA in September 2012 clearly stating that it did not want an interoperable warhead, at least until after the 2020s. The Air Force has also expressed some hesitancy about the project. As a result of the Navy’s objections, the Nuclear Weapons Council declared that the on-going study of the W78/W88 would explicitly include an option for undertaking a LEP for the W88 based on the current design. In other words, that would be a straightforward extension of the existing warhead, not a new, interoperable approach.
The $60 Billion Dollar Question
In addition to the potential technical complications is the issue of the high cost of the 3+2 plan, which adds up to more than $60 billion in funding for LEPs over the next 25 years, an average of $2.4 billion per year. Keep in mind, of course, that this still does not count the costs associated with integrating these new warheads with their delivery systems.
The FY14 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan sets out the timeline and budget for each of the NNSA’s three planned interoperable warheads (see table). For the period covered by the SSMP—FY14 to FY38—the total projected cost for the three interoperable warheads is just over $40 billion. And this is the initial estimate. Based on experience with previous NNSA programs, the final cost will be somewhere from double to many times this projection. Worse, these estimates are derived from models based on the costs of the W76 LEP, a much less complicated program.
NNSA is notorious for its inability to accurately predict cost or schedules for its major projects. Several—most notably the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement- Nuclear Facility and the Pit Disassembly and Conversion Facility, and now possibly the Mixed Oxide (MOX) project as well—have been canceled after the NNSA spent years and hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on them only to decide, based on further consideration, that they were unnecessary. Its current LEP, for the W76, is much simpler than any of those planned for the future, but is still behind schedule and over cost. Cost projections for the next LEP—the B61—have doubled, while predictions for when it will begin production have already slipped two years and may slip further. The ambitious scale of the latest LEP plans make significant delays and large cost increases nearly inevitable as they proceed.
Warheads in a 3+2 Stockpile
Warhead Based on Use Scheduled FPU Projected Cost, FY14-38
IW-1 W78, W88-1 ICBM, SLBM No earlier than FY2025 $14.5 billion
IW-2 W87, W88 ICBM, SLBM No earlier than FY2031 $14 billion
IW-3 W76-1 ICBM, SLBM No earlier than FY2037 $12 billion
B61-12 B61-3, -4, -7, -10 Bombers and fighters FY2019* $8 billion*
W80 Air-launched cruise missile No earlier than FY2024 $12 billion
Total $60.5 billion
*DOD estimates FY2022 for FPU and $10.4 billion for cost
Sometimes Less is More
The story about NASA’s expensive quest to develop a ballpoint pen that would write in space while the Soviet space program simply gave their cosmonauts pencils may be an urban legend, but is still a good illustration of the NNSA’s inefficient approach to problem-solving. The NNSA seems reluctant to learn from its past mistakes and curb its tendencies to always push for the biggest, most complex program, rather than stepping back to see whether there is a simpler approach that would meet its needs. Congress, however, seems to be catching on to the dangers of accepting the NNSA’s proposals without thoroughly investigating possible alternatives. This is a good sign. Congress should continue pressing the NNSA to clearly explain why a more conservative approach to maintaining the stockpile is not preferable.