National Security

The Fissile Cliff

The bomb that could save the Pentagon.

Fiscal reality is catching up with the Pentagon. On Wednesday, the White House Office of Management and Budget directed the Defense Department to start planning for life after the fiscal cliff. Specifically, defense planners must now come up with $500 billion in spending cuts over the next decade.

A good place to start is the U.S. nuclear weapons budget, which at roughly $31 billion per year supports a nuclear stockpile of 5,000 weapons. We don't need that many, according to the Pentagon, and the White House is preparing new guidance on how low we can go. But even before that decision gets made, there is one glaring example of a project that is ripe for pruning: the B61 bomb.

The B61 is mainly based in Europe -- a so-called "tactical" nuclear weapon designed to be used against invading conventional forces -- and the Pentagon and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) want to extend its service life until 2040 or so. This may sound simple, but it's an expensive proposition. NNSA estimates that the program will cost about $7 billion and produce its first rebuilt bomb in fiscal year 2019. But in July, a Defense Department review projected that the program would cost $10.4 billion and would not produce the first rebuilt bomb until fiscal year 2022. With 400 bombs reportedly planned for upgrades, each B61 would cost roughly $25 million.

When this was first revealed in July, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that controls NNSA funding, said the new price tag requires the NNSA to find billions of additional dollars "at a time when budgets are shrinking."

But cost is far from the B61s only challenge. The B61 life extension program, or LEP, has become an unaffordable solution to a problem that does not appear to exist.

The United States currently keeps about 180 B61s in Europe to assure allies of the U.S. commitment to NATO. However, U.S. and NATO military leaders acknowledge that it is U.S. strategic forces -- that is, the larger nuclear weapons based in the United States and on American submarines -- that provide the ultimate guarantee of NATO security, not the tactical versions of the B61 bomb stored in bunkers on European air bases.

Some NATO members, such as Germany, have called for the B61 to be removed from Europe. It is also possible that a future agreement between Russia and the United States to account for and reduce tactical nuclear bombs would require that the United States remove B61s from NATO. This raises the awkward possibility that most B61 bombs might not be needed a decade from now, when the proposed rebuilding program would be complete.

That issue aside, it is not clear why the bombs need a full-scale life extension now. The Pentagon and NNSA have asserted that B61 bomb parts need to be replaced soon or the bombs would no longer meet operational requirements, such as the ability to produce a specific explosive yield. NNSA had planned to complete the program by 2022, but the Pentagon review suggests this deadline would be missed by a few years.

The B61, like all modern nuclear weapons, has two components that have a limited lifespan and are replaced on a regular basis (neutron generators and gas transfer systems). However, NNSA's plans for the B61 go well beyond these limited-life components and involve replacing thousands of other non-nuclear parts, such as switches, foams, and cables, as well as the bomb's uranium secondary. The bomb's plutonium "pit" would not be changed.

These parts are continually assessed by the stockpile surveillance program, run by Sandia National Lab, which inspects 11 warheads of each type in the U.S. arsenal each year to look for problems. Yes, the warhead parts are getting older, but there is no evidence that they are about to fail. B61s have no moving parts and components do not "wear out." Besides the limited-life parts, it is not clear why the B61 LEP must be completed by 2022.

Bob Peurifoy, a former director of weapons development at Sandia, said in a Nov. 15 interview that, aside from the limited-life parts, the B61 "should be left alone until the stockpile surveillance process finds a problem."

In addition to extending the service life of the B61, NNSA and the Pentagon considered many new concepts to increase the weapon's safety against accidental detonation and security against unauthorized access and use, known together as "surety." But after conducting cost-benefit analyses, major surety upgrades were found to be not worth the price. For example, the rebuilt B61 bomb would not have multi-point safety, a fire-resistant pit, or an optical initiator. The B61 already has many of the most modern surety features, including insensitive high explosives, and the LEP would not add major new ones.

Tactical versions of the B61 stored in Europe, which can be delivered on U.S. and NATO fighter jets, are potentially more vulnerable to theft than the strategic B61 bombs based in the United States. NNSA has proposed to address this concern, in part, by folding four of the B61 versions into a new one, the B61-12, whose design would be based on that of the B61-4. The B61-4 has the lowest maximum yield of the B61 series, meaning it has the smallest amount of fissile material.

The planned B61-12 would be used as both a tactical and strategic bomb, and it would have to meet the military specifications of the higher-yield B61-7 strategic bomb. To do that, the Pentagon proposes to make the B61-12 more accurate than the B61-4 by replacing the parachute with an $800 million guided tail kit for ground detonation.

But rather than pursue this complicated and expensive consolidation, the physical security of forward-deployed B61s could be addressed in other ways, such as by providing more secure storage in Europe, or by stationing these bombs in the United States.

The Pentagon has time to explore alternatives to a $10 billion B61 life extension. One option would be to scale-back the program by replacing only the parts that are known to be at the end of their lives and only for the weapons that are likely to still be deployed a decade from now. For example, NNSA could only upgrade the strategic B61-7, of which there are an estimated 120 in service, and replace only the limited-life parts and possibly the radar (which is an old model that still uses vacuum tubes). The B61-7 already had significant upgrades in 2009. As for the roughly 180 tactical bombs based in Europe, such limited upgrades could be made only for the number planned to be deployed ten years from now.

This scaled-back approach to the B61 LEP would save billions of dollars. If the Pentagon does not go for it, Congress could require a public, independent program review to explore viable alternatives before it makes a $500 million down payment on the program next year.

Wikicommons

Argument

India's Ocean

Could New Delhi's growing naval force change the balance of power in the Pacific? 

Is the Indian Navy about to start mixing it up with China on the high seas? For years, as the Chinese have modernized their naval fleet, Indian strategists have worried about what that might mean for India's political and economic interests. A recent book by C. Raja Mohan, one of India's most influential strategic thinkers, explores the prospect of Sino-Indian competition spilling from the Himalayas to the Indian and Pacific Oceans, risking a struggle for maritime influence in the region among the United States, China, and India.

So it was all the more interesting, when, at a press conference Monday, India's top admiral appeared to suggest that his navy would defend Indo-Vietnamese oil exploration efforts in the South China Sea against Chinese aggression. An Indian state-owned oil company, ONGC Videsh, has been involved in deepwater explorations with Vietnam in the South China Sea since 2006, despite Chinese claims of sovereignty over that area.

But the reality of Admiral D.K. Joshi's statement was far less sensational. Rather than signalling a deployment, he merely reinforced the longstanding Indian position that China's naval modernization concerned India, and that like other maritime powers, India was preparing for worst-case scenarios. It wasn't even a signal to clear the decks, let alone a shot across the bow.

Nonetheless, India is far more likely to become a regular naval presence in the Pacific than many previously imagined, due to its rapidly expanding economy, improving military technologies, and growing energy interests. The Indian Navy has historically been the smallest and most poorly-resourced of India's three military services, in keeping with the country's security preoccupations at home and its unresolved land border disputes with Pakistan and China. It has just 60,000 active personnel and a $7 billion annual budget, roughly a quarter of the strength and resources of China's People's Liberation Army Navy. Its long-range capabilities come from a single aircraft carrier, a second-hand amphibious transport dock, 14 German- or Russian-designed diesel-powered submarines, and about 20 destroyers and frigates.

But power is relative, and this seemingly small flotilla today constitutes the largest naval presence in the Indian Ocean after the U.S. Navy. Beyond the United States and China, only Japan, South Korea, and perhaps Taiwan boast even comparable capacities for the region, although their navies are more narrowly focused. But India's navy dwarfs those of other countries embroiled in territorial disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea. The two strongest rival claimants to China, Vietnam and the Philippines, boast just three active frigates between them. The temporary presence of even a small Indian squadron in the Pacific could make a meaningful difference to the region's balance of power.

India's growing interests, resources, and technological capabilities will likely lead it to increased naval activity east of the Strait of Malacca, the critical junction of the Pacific and Indian Oceans through which 40 percent of the world's trade and most of East Asia's oil imports flow. India is conducting sea trials of an indigenously-designed nuclear-powered submarine, which will significantly increase its navy's operational range. In the next two years, India will induct a second aircraft carrier and modern French submarines into active service, to upgrade its aging fleet. The navy's share of the defense budget has steadily grown from less than 15 percent of India's annual military expenditure in 2000 to 19 percent in 2012, outpacing India's overall defense spending. And the 2009 agreement to purchase P-8 aircraft from the United States, capable of interdicting ships and tracking submarines, signals India's technological ambitions in the high seas.

Perhaps more importantly, India is able to work with other regional navies. Beginning with basic exercises in the early 2000s, the Indian Navy's collaboration with the U.S. Pacific Command has evolved into complex war games. In 2004, India tested its ability to respond to regional crises in coordination with the United States, Japan, and Australia by performing humanitarian relief operations in Southeast Asia following the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami. And the Malabar series of naval exercises between India and the United States, which have also involved Japan, Australia, and Singapore, has strengthened the Indian Navy's ability to work closely with partners far from its shores. Contrast this to China: Beyond dustups with Southeast Asian countries, and with Japan over disputed islands -- which only generate further suspicion of Chinese military intentions -- Beijing is also quick to break off military ties, like it did after Washington sold weapons to Taiwan in 2010.

None of this means that India is looking to pick a fight with China in the South China Sea, particularly as India has no territorial stakes there. Other facets of the Sino-Indian relationship -- the fragile boundary talks over disputed Himalayan territory and bilateral trade of more than $70 billion and growing -- are of far greater importance to New Delhi. At the same time, renouncing claims to its assets in Vietnam in response to perceived Chinese pressure could embarrass the Indian government, both domestically and internationally. When confronted with pressure from Beijing -- as during the Dalai Lama's 2009 visit to the disputed border town of Tawang or periods when China has refused to issue visas in some Indian passports -- New Delhi's response has generally been to stick to its guns.

India evidently needs to do a better job of managing its message. Its National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon, who was in Beijing for border negotiations when Joshi made his statement, countered that the Indian media had "manufactured" the story. For its part, China needs to appreciate that its aggressive pursuit of maritime territory compels India to cooperate more closely with Vietnam and the Philippines. Beijing's issuing of passports this November featuring a map showing the fullest extent of its territorial claims was a remarkably clumsy gesture, provoking simultaneous outrage in India, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan. China may have only itself to blame if these states find greater common cause with one another, and with other regional maritime powers.

India's steadily growing naval capabilities and its deepening commercial engagements in the Pacific Rim means that it now has the ability to provide security in the region to ensure open and secure sea lines of communication. For many countries invested in the region -- not least the United States -- that is welcome. For China too, this presents another opportunity for improving cooperation with New Delhi, but that would require it to accept India's ability to play the role of a Pacific power.

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