Senate’s Good Work on Nuclear Weapons All for Naught?

August 11, 2014 | 11:22 am
Stephen Young
Senior Washington Representative

As has happened far too often in recent years, the appropriations process in Congress is a shambles. There is no chance that any of the thirteen annual bills that fund the U.S. government will be signed into law by the end of the fiscal year on September 30th. Instead, there will be a Continuing Resolution (CR) that funds the government at the same level as the current fiscal year. The only question is how long a time period the CR will cover.

Among the many reasons that this is unfortunate are the sound decisions on nuclear weapons programs that populate the Senate version of the Fiscal Year 2015 Energy and Water Development appropriations act and its accompanying report, including well-considered funding levels, that may never become law.

It’s worth a quick review of some of the findings in the bill, particularly its criticisms of the troubled National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the agency responsible for maintaining the U.S. nuclear stockpile.

Those criticisms start off early, in the opening paragraph of the NNSA section, where the committee’s report notes that it:

remains concerned about NNSA’s ability to execute multiple, highly complex life extension projects and construction projects concurrently under ambitious schedules. The Committee has not seen sufficient progress in improving project management so NNSA can complete projects on time and on budget.

It is a worrying but not surprising statement, one backed up by the litany of delays and cost overruns that have troubled essentially every single major NNSA-led project in recent years. There have been some signs of progress, like the “red team” analysis that proposed a quicker and cheaper alternative for producing uranium components, but clearly more needs to be done.

Taking Care of the Basics

While the NNSA has had trouble completing major projects that may (or may not) be needed—like the proposed uranium facility—an even more worrying issue is the continuing challenges the agency and the weapons labs have had with completing the relatively simple task of monitoring the health of the nuclear stockpile. The committee notes:

With the United States maintaining the oldest nuclear weapons stockpile in the Nation’s history, with an average age of 27 years for nuclear warheads and bombs, the Committee believes NNSA should complete all scheduled tests necessary to detect potential aging issues.

We covered this issue in detail in our report on the nuclear weapons complex, reviewing the almost two-decade-long string of reports by the Government Accountability Office that found, again and again, that the NNSA had not completed all the surveillance tests it was supposed to undertake. It is worse than ironic when the NNSA uses the aging of the U.S. stockpile as a reason to request significant funding to update those weapons, but does not do the basic work to understand how the existing arsenal is actually performing.

Reluctant Support for the B61 Update

Last year in its bill, the Senate Energy and Water appropriations committee cut funding for the aggressive, high-priced B61 life extension program. However, the final appropriation ended up matching the administration’s request. This year, noting essentially that it has no choice but to fund it, the committee continued to express real concerns about the program and the implications of its high cost:

The Committee believes lower cost options were available that met military requirements. The Committee remains concerned about the affordability of this program. . . The schedule for manufacturing the first production unit . . . has slipped again by 6 months . . . Given the highly integrated nature of the current B61 Mod 12 design, NNSA has no alternatives to the current design option . . . that would allow it to recuperate lost time and stay within the current budget estimate of $8,200,000,000. The only choice NNSA has is delaying the first production unit and incurring more costs. The Committee is concerned that increasing costs for the B61 Mod 12 will come at the expense of other nuclear modernization priorities, such as modernizing aging infrastructure, and critical nonproliferation activities to combat nuclear terrorism.

As a recent damning report by Harvard’s Belfer Center shows, the Obama administration made a clear choice to invest in U.S. nuclear weapons, rather than in efforts to reduce the risk of terrorists obtaining nuclear material or a bomb. The B61 is the poster child for this decision.

No Funds for a New Cruise Missile

The Air Force and NNSA have a plan to produce a new, nuclear-armed cruise missile using an updated warhead. Both the House and Senate defense appropriations committees made cuts in the small amount requested for the missile itself (with the House cut being the most surprising), but the Senate energy and water appropriators eliminated funding for the warhead program entirely:

The Committee recommends no funding for a cruise missile warhead life extension study. NNSA has not provided sufficient justification for a life extension study on a warhead that is not facing any aging, performance, or reliability issues. The Committee is also concerned that NNSA’s design and engineering schedule is not properly aligned with the Department of Defense’s cruise missile warhead design and development efforts. The Committee is reluctant to provide funding for a new cruise missile warhead when the Air Force cannot identify sufficient funding in its budget planning documents to design and procure a cruise missile to deliver a refurbished warhead.

In other words, the W80 warhead on the current cruise missile is just fine, thank you very much, so there is no reason for the NNSA to update it. Moreover, the committee would like the Air Force and the NNSA to get their act together on the timing of the program. This isn’t the only instance of this type of cart before the horse problem; see immediately below.

Abandoning Plans, Wasting Money

The committee has some harsh words for the NNSA on the proposed “integrated warhead.” The idea is to create one warhead that could, with a few changes, be used on either submarine- or land-based ballistic missiles. After citing a Government Accountability Office report that noted that the Navy was barely participating in the proposal (something that would be, shall we say, helpful in the case of sub-based weapons), the committee added:

NNSA spent $91,000,000 on studies and design work for an integrated warhead concept before terminating this program. The majority of the design work cannot be used in the future because non-nuclear components and other technologies currently available will be obsolete and new designs must be considered.

In other words, some $91 million went down the drain on this idea. The committee sets out a sensible directive to the NNSA telling it to work with the Nuclear Weapons Council and the military services to align their programs and establish military requirements before undertaking similar “joint-service” work in the future.

Money for Dismantling Nuclear Weapons

The Senate committee provided $40 million to dismantle nuclear warheads, $10 million more than the administration asked for. The increase was due to the committee’s concern:

that the administration’s proposed funding reduction would not be sufficient for NNSA to continue to meet its yearly dismantlement targets to achieve its goal of dismantling all weapons retired prior to fiscal year 2009 by the end of fiscal year 2022 and reducing the backlog of weapons components that must be dispositioned.

But even more worrying is that the NNSA seems to have no plans in place to dismantle the weapons that have been or will be retired after 2009:

The Committee is also concerned by a recent finding by the Government Accountability Office in an April 2014 report that NNSA has not scheduled for dismantlement any weapons to be removed from the stockpile resulting from implementation of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. GAO found that these weapons are not expected to be retired until the late 2020s or early 2030s and the deferred retirement of these weapons could result in a significant dismantlement workload gap in the mid-2020s that could impact future dismantlement activities. The Committee does not believe delaying the 2022 dismantlement goal is a viable option to address this gap. Instead, the Committee directs NNSA to submit a report within 120 days of enactment of this act on the options available to avoid a dismantlement workload gap in the mid-2020s while still meeting the 2022 dismantlement goal.

One would think that, with the emphasis President Obama has placed on reducing the numbers and roles of nuclear weapons, the NNSA would place some priority on dismantling warheads that have been retired from the stockpile. Sadly, that does not seem to be the case.

The final unhappy truth is that, unless the committee’s bill ends up included in some type of omnibus appropriations act (which could happen in early 2015) none of these directions have the force of law. Given the wisdom and clear thinking that runs throughout the report, that would be an unfortunate outcome.