Nuclear Weapons:

Action Needed to Address the W80-4 Warhead Program's Schedule Constraints

GAO-20-409: Published: Jul 24, 2020. Publicly Released: Jul 24, 2020.

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Allison B. Bawden
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The National Nuclear Security Administration is working to modernize and extend the life of the W80, a type of nuclear warhead carried on air-launched cruise missiles. NNSA estimated that this program will cost $11.2 billion and last until 2031.

According to the NNSA, it will deliver the first W80-4 nuclear warhead by September 2025. However, we found this date is more than a year earlier than the program’s own analysis says is reasonable.

We recommended that NNSA use the program’s schedule risk analysis to establish a date for the first warhead delivery and other key program milestones.

Artist’s rendering of a W80-4 Warhead

warhead

warhead

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Allison B. Bawden
(202) 512-3841
bawdena@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a separately organized agency within the Department of Energy (DOE), has identified a range of risks facing the W80-4 nuclear warhead life extension program (LEP)—including risks related to developing new technologies and manufacturing processes as well as reestablishing dormant production capabilities. NNSA is managing these risks using a variety of processes and tools, such as a classified risk database. However, NNSA has introduced potential risk to the program by adopting a date (September 2025) for the delivery of the program's first production unit (FPU) that is more than 1 year earlier than the date projected by the program's own schedule risk analysis process (see figure). NNSA and Department of Defense (DOD) officials said that they adopted the September 2025 date partly because the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2015 specifies that NNSA must deliver the first warhead unit by the end of fiscal year 2025, as well as to free up resources for future LEPs. However, the statute allows DOE to obtain an extension, and, according to best practices identified in GAO's prior work, program schedules should avoid date constraints that do not reflect program realities. Adopting an FPU date more consistent with the date range identified as realistic in the W80-4 program's schedule risk analysis, or justifying an alternative date based on other factors, would allow NNSA to better inform decision makers and improve alignment between schedules for the W80-4 program and DOD's long-range standoff missile (LRSO) program.

W80-4 Life Extension Program Phases and Milestone Dates

W80-4 Life Extension Program Phases and Milestone Dates

NNSA substantially incorporated best practices in developing the preliminary lifecycle cost estimate for the W80-4 LEP, as reflected in the LEP's weapon design and cost report. GAO assessed the W80-4 program's cost estimate of $11.2 billion against the four characteristics of a high quality, reliable cost estimate: comprehensive, well-documented, accurate, and credible. To develop a comprehensive cost estimate, NNSA instituted processes to help ensure consistency across the program. The program also provided detailed documentation to substantiate its estimate and assumptions. To help ensure accuracy, the cost estimate drew on historic data from prior LEPs. Finally, to support a credible estimate, NNSA reconciled the program estimate with an independent cost estimate. GAO considers a cost estimate to be reliable if the overall assessment ratings for each of the four characteristics are substantially or fully met—as was the case with the W80-4 program's cost estimate in its weapon design and cost report, which substantially met each characteristic.

Why GAO Did This Study

To maintain and modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal, NNSA and DOD conduct LEPs. In 2014, they began an LEP to produce a warhead, the W80-4, to be carried on the LRSO missile. In February 2019, NNSA adopted an FPU delivery date of fiscal year 2025 for the W80-4 LEP, at an estimated cost of about $11.2 billion over the life of the program.

The explanatory statement accompanying the 2018 appropriation included a provision for GAO to review the W80-4 LEP. This report examines, among other objectives, (1) the risks NNSA has identified for the W80-4 LEP, and processes it has established to manage them, and (2) the extent to which NNSA's lifecycle cost estimate for the LEP aligned with best practices. GAO reviewed NNSA's risk management database and other program information; visited four NNSA sites; interviewed NNSA and DOD officials; and assessed the program's cost estimate using best practices established in prior GAO work.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making two recommendations, including that NNSA adopt a W80-4 program FPU delivery date based on the program's schedule risk analysis, or document its justification for not doing so. NNSA generally disagreed with GAO's recommendations. GAO continues to believe that its recommendations are valid, as discussed in the report.

For more information, contact Allison B. Bawden at (202) 512-3841 or bawdena@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The NNSA Administrator should require the W80-4 program, when it issues its baseline cost report prior to entry into phase 6.4, to adopt a date for the delivery of a first production unit, and dates for other key program milestones, based on the program's current schedule risk analysis, or document its justification for adopting alternative schedules and milestones based on other factors. If necessary, the Administrator should alert the Secretary of Energy to the need to engage in the extension or notification processes identified in statute for adopting a first production unit delivery date after September 2025. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: National Nuclear Security Administration

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The NNSA Administrator should revise the Program Execution Instruction or other related directives to require future LEPs and nuclear weapon modernization programs of similar complexity, when they issue a WDCR or baseline cost report, to establish program schedules and key milestone dates (including the FPU delivery date) on the basis of a formal schedule risk analysis that aligns with best practices, or document the justification for any decision to adopt alternative schedules and milestones based on other factors. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: National Nuclear Security Administration

 

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