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Budget battles threaten U.S. nuclear modernization

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

WASHINGTON – Leaders of America’s nuclear weapons complex told Congress on Tuesday that B61 bombs maintained by Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories are critical to the nation’s nuclear deterrent but threatened by ongoing budget battles in Washington.

Tuesday’s hearing of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces convened officials from Sandia, the National Nuclear Security Administration and the Department of Defense who were unanimous in their support of the B61’s controversial Life Extension Program.

“Over the long term, it is the right course of action to cost-effectively extend the life of our weapons, modernize our infrastructure and preserve our deterrent capability,” said C. Robert Kehler, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command.

Critics of the program, most notably Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat who wields immense power to craft nuclear weapons budgets, contend the program is too expensive and possibly even unnecessary. Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., said he was concerned about the cost and repeatedly asked why the B61 is so critical when cheaper alternatives, such as extending the life of the B83 bomb, exist.

“I’m concerned about the cost and complexity of the current plan and whether they (the B61 bombs) are needed long term,” Garamendi said

The versatile B61 bomb is carried aboard Air Force planes for a variety of missions. The bomb is most noteworthy for its presence in a European nuclear stockpile as part of NATO’s strategic counter to Russian nuclear and conventional forces. NNSA officials say the bombs, built in the 1960s and ’70s, need refurbishing to extend their useful life. The B61 life-extension work is one of the largest programs at Sandia and Los Alamos labs. The NNSA estimates the cost of the Life Extension Program at $8 billion over 12 years.

Paul Hommert, director of Sandia National Laboratories, told the Journal on Tuesday that uncertainty about fiscal 2014 funding levels, coupled with the ongoing budget cuts as a result of the still-in-place sequester, could delay the life-extension program by six months or more. However, he stressed that NNSA officials are still working to determine program funding levels.

“Based on what we know … our estimate is that with the CR (continuing resolution) and sequestration there could be a potentially significant scheduling impact,” Hommert said. “Without question, it is the largest concern we have.”

Earlier this year, Obama asked Congress to increase the budget for the B61 from $369 million in fiscal 2013 to $537 million in 2014, with a big chunk of that money headed to Sandia National Laboratories. But under the continuing resolution that will fund the government until mid-January, the NNSA cannot spend beyond 2013 levels.

The sequester resulted in a $30 million cut to the life-extension program in fiscal 2013, causing the schedule to slip. NNSA officials said Tuesday that, as a result, they have moved an additional $244 million in the B61’s management reserve budget to offset potential extra costs down the road.

Jay Coghlan, director of Nuclear Watch of New Mexico, a government watchdog group, said Tuesday that the potential spending spike illustrates his contention that nuclear budgets – including that of the B61 – are out of control.

“Only in government can you cut tens of millions and end up adding hundreds of millions,” Coghlan said.

Donald L. Cook, NNSA’s deputy administrator for defense programs, said the B61 Life Extension Program is the only option for meeting U.S. military strategic and tactical goals with respect to nuclear weapons. Those objectives can’t be met by extending the B83 or other cheaper alternatives, he said.

“There is not a minimum (cost) option that is going to fulfill all of the military’s requirements,” Cook said.

That statement is at odds with a report from the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee in June that voiced worry about the program’s cost compared with alternatives.

“The committee is concerned that NNSA’s proposed scope of work for extending the life of the B61 bomb is not the lowest cost, lowest risk option that meets military requirements and replaces aging components before they affect weapon performance,” the report said.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has fought for increased budgets for the Life Extension Program.

The U.S. House in July rejected an attempt to scale back spending on B61 bombs, setting up a possible spending showdown with the U.S. Senate. At the time, Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., introduced an amendment that would have cut $23.7 million from the proposed $551 million B61 Life Extension Program in the House Energy and Water Appropriations budget.

The measure was defeated, with all three of New Mexico’s U.S. House members voting against the spending cut.

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