Morning Briefing - February 12, 2020
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February 12, 2020

After Schedule Slips, Refurbished Nukes Coming Starting Next Year

By ExchangeMonitor

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — After delays attributed to unsuitable electrical components, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) now plans to manufacture the first refurbished B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb and W88 Alt-370 submarine-launched ballistic-missile warhead in 2022 and 2021, respectively, a senior agency official said here Tuesday.

That would mean a one- to two-year delay for both the B61-12 first production unit, which the Department of Energy nuclear weapons agency believes it will finish in the first quarter of 2022, and the W88 Alt-370, Charles Verdon, NNSA deputy director for defense programs, said here in a question-and-answer session at the ExchageMonitor’s annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit.

In 2019, the NNSA acknowledged it could not use commercial off-the-shelf capacitors planned for both B61 and W88 Alt-370, because the components would not last as long as the Pentagon required. Capacitors store electrical charges and can be used in weapon firing systems.

The NNSA is refurbishing both B61-12 and W88 Alt-370 for decades more service in the Pentagon’s bomber and submarine fleets, respectively. B61-12 is a homogenzied version of four previous iterations of the gravity bomb, including one with moderate earth-penetrating capability. It will fly aboard the B2 bomber and, later, on the planned B21 Raider bombber being developed by Northrop Grumman.

W88 is the largest of the Navy’s two submarine-launched, ballistic-missile warheads. The Alt-370 will refurbish the weapon’s conventional high explosives, which trigger its nuclear detonation, and refresh other components of its detonation system.

Verdon said, knocking on wood as he did, that the agency’s plan to replace the unsuitable capacitors — design its own capacitors from scratch at the Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., then build them at the Kansas City National Security Campus in Missouri — is on schedule.

It will cost more than $850 million, total, to replace the capacitors needed for B61-12 and W88 Alt-370, Verdon said last year. 

The White House on Monday issued its budget plan for fiscal 2021. 

The NNSA had yet to release its detailed spending plan at deadline Wednesday for Weapons Complex Morning Briefing, but the agency is seeking a substantial year-over-year increase — $19.8 billion, or almost 20% more than the 2020 appropriation of more than $16.5 billion. The Weapons Activities segment would get more than $15.5 billion, 25% above the 2020 appropriation and nearly all of the proposed increase.

Before the delays, and including the NNSA’s $8 billion share of the bill, the B61-12 is estimated to cost about $12 billion in civilian and Petagon funding over 20 years. The NNSA and the Pentagon estimate the W88 Alt-370 will cost about $4 billion over roughly 10 years, including up to $3 billion in NNSA expenses.

The NNSA plans to build some 480 B61-12 bombs and has roughly 350 W88 warheads, the nongovernmental Federation of American Scientists estimates.

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