Faulty $5 part causing nearly $1 billion nuclear arms overrun

Issue highlights risks to highly classified weapons programs that increasingly use components from commercial marketplace

An Air Force F-16C carries an inert B61-12 bomb during a development flight test by the 422nd Flight Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nellis AFB, Nev., on March 14, 2017. The test is part of a life-extension program for the bomb to improve its safety, security and reliability. (Staff Sgt. Brandi Hansen/U.S. Air Force file photo)

A flawed electrical component used on two types of new nuclear weapons — a part valued at only about $5 — will require at least $725 million in fixes, lawmakers and Trump administration officials said Wednesday.

Tests in April revealed a glitch in the inexpensive capacitor used in both the B61-12 gravity bomb program and another initiative to build modified versions of W88 submarine-launched warheads.

Officials had disclosed the technical problem earlier this year, but the cheapness of the part at fault — and the costliness of the effort to undo its damage — have not been previously reported.

The issue highlights the risks to highly classified weapons programs that increasingly use components from the commercial marketplace, officials said. Lawmakers are worried that the problem caused by the capacitor could be repeated on other programs, and government officials are focused on preventing that.

A problem with a small, simple part in a highly complex atomic weapon can trigger a cascade of effects that require changes, an Energy Department official said. “It’s not like changing a spark plug,” the official said.

Solving the capacitor-induced problem will cost $600 million to $700 million in the B61-12 program and $125 million to $150 million on the W88 program, said Charles Verdon, deputy administrator for defense programs at the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration, at a House Armed Services panel hearing.

The $5 part has been replaced with one that costs $75, Verdon said.

“In rough figures, due to the effect of a failure in a component that costs less than $100, taxpayers will face charges on the order of close to $1 billion,” said Tennessee Democrat Jim Cooper, chairman of the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, at the hearing.

Redoing the weapons will lead to a delay of 18 to 20 months in the first production units of the two weapons, Verdon said. Officials had previously predicted a delay of one year to 18 months.

The B61-12 is intended to replace four different types of nuclear bombs now in the inventory. The W88 Alteration 370 upgrade is supposed to replace a subsystem that helps detonate the weapon.

Together, the two programs cost roughly $12 billion, experts said.

Verdon said he hopes his agency will be able to divert money from other programs in future years in order to fix the problems caused by the faulty part.

Commercial components now account for some 70 percent of the contents of U.S. atomic weapons, whereas in the Cold War just 30 percent of the components were made outside the government’s facilities, Verdon said.

The Senate Appropriations Committee is worried about the effects of flawed parts on the broader set of U.S. atomic arms.

“The Committee is concerned that a recent technical challenge demonstrates a lack of systems engineering and highlights a lack of coordination and leadership focus, which in turn jeopardizes successful program execution,” said a report accompanying the committee’s $48.9 billion Energy-Water spending bill for fiscal 2020.

The appropriators are worried about fundamental oversight shortcomings that may cause ripple effects in other nuclear initiatives, from keeping nuclear weapons out of terrorists’ hands to updating warship reactors to modernizing facilities.

They said they want the nuclear weapons agency to make sure that the extent of the problem of flawed small parts contaminating larger systems “is not more widespread than currently reported.”

The agency must “ensure any technical challenges or production issues, particularly in the electronic components, are discovered quickly and mitigated to minimize impacts” on the programs at issue and the department’s other priorities.

Cooper told the Energy Department officials Wednesday that the nuclear programs are vitally important but added, “There are no sacred cows.”

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