Defense Department officials testified on Capitol Hill Oct. 29 about the program to modernize one of the oldest weapons in the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Madelyn R. Creedon, the assistant secretary of defense for global strategic affairs, and Air Force Gen. C. Robert Kehler, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, spoke at a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces subcommittee.
The B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb has the oldest warhead design in the U.S. nuclear stockpile, Creedon said, noting that some of the warhead’s components date back to the 1960s.
“Only through extraordinary measures has this aging family of weapons remained safe, secure and effective far beyond its originally planned operational life,” Kehler told the House panel. No full-scope nuclear modernization programs have taken place since production of new warheads was suspended in the 1990s, Creedon added.
The B61-12 modernization program is intended to address several components that are affected by age-related issues, Creedon said, and will give the B61-12 an extended lifespan while making sustainment more cost-effective.
The nation’s nuclear forces perform three key functions, Kehler told the subcommittee. They deter potential adversaries, assure allies and partners of the United States’ extended deterrence commitments to them, and “in the unlikely event deterrence fails, [they employ] nuclear weapons when directed by the president to achieve U.S. and allied objectives,” he said.
Effectively performing those missions, the general said, requires modernized nuclear delivery systems and programs that can repair and replace aging components.
A multi-decade effort to revitalize the nuclear deterrent force and its supporting infrastructure is just beginning, Kehler told the panel. The B61-12 life extension program is just one aspect of that effort, he said, which includes upgrades to the land-based ballistic missile capability, replacement of Ohio-class submarines, development of a new long-range penetrating bomber and upgrades to the existing B-52H Stratofortress and B-2A Spirit bomber force.
In addition, the nuclear enterprise’s baseline modernization program, called the “3-plus-2 strategy,” will consolidate 12 unique warhead types into three interoperable variants deliverable from land-based platforms and submarines, with two additional variants for aerial platforms, Creedon said. This would set the stage for a reduction in the total number of stockpiled nuclear weapons, she noted.
A key component of the life extension program is the replacement of an expensive parachute system with a newly designed tail assembly, which Creedon noted will increase the B61-12’s accuracy. And with increased accuracy comes the ability to decrease the weapon’s yield without reducing its capabilities, the assistant secretary added.
The new tail kit plays a critical role in integrating the B61-12 with the F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter, Creedon said. Without it, the F-35 will not be able to use the weapon, she explained, preventing the aircraft from fulfilling its intended role as the only dual-capable fighter in the U.S. inventory.
The life extension program is estimated to cost about $8.1 billion through 2024, Creedon said, and the Defense Department continues to examine the program for potential savings. Despite these efforts, she said, the program remains threatened by sequestration.
Cuts to other programs have stressed the baseline modernization program, the assistant secretary said, and are contributing to unplanned cost increases in the B61-12 life extension program by lengthening development and production periods.
“The commitment we make to refurbish this nuclear weapon system will serve as a concrete signal to the world of our commitment to the nation’s security and our position as a guarantor of nuclear deterrence and assurance to our allies and partners,” Creedon told the House panel.
The B61-12 is an important component of this commitment, she added, and to the department’s commitment to the revitalization of the nation’s nuclear deterrent.