The Case of the Missing Numbers

June 15, 2017 | 12:23 pm
Stephen Young
Senior Washington Representative

Good performance requires good long-term planning. For federal agencies like the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), one of its important functions is preparing its part of the federal government’s annual budget request, which normally includes information on projected budget requirements for future years. This year, not so much.

This is important because the Congress, which has final say on what the government funds, needs to know which programs will require increased funding in the following years. Those numbers give Congress and the public a sense of priorities and long-term planning that informs the annual federal budget process.

For the NNSA, those long-term budget numbers are called the Future-Years Nuclear Security Program, or FYNSP (commonly pronounced  “fin-sip”), and they are so important that they are, in fact, required by Congress.  In a typical budget request, the budget numbers are simply listed as “Outyears” and they are provided both by location—each NNSA facility, including the three nuclear weapons labs—and for each program area and project.

I assume this isn’t why the budget numbers are missing . . .

However, for almost the entire FY 2018 request, the NNSA budget does not provide future year numbers. In particular, for the Weapons Activities programs (as we discussed in The Bad, the FY 2018 requests were substantially more than the Obama administration projected in their FYNSP) there are no such projections at all in this budget. For example, we don’t know how much the NNSA thinks the B61 life extension program will cost in FY 2019-FY2022. That is information that the Congress should have.

(To be fair to the NNSA, the Department of Defense, where the budgets are far, far larger, also did not include outyear budget projections.)

The NNSA FY2018 budget offers an explanation for why there are no outyear budget figures:

Estimates for the FY 2019 – FY 2023 base budget topline for the National Nuclear Security Administration reflect FY 2018 levels inflated by 2.1 percent annually. This outyear topline does not reflect a policy judgement. Instead, the Administration will make a policy judgement on amounts for the National Nuclear Security Administrations’ FY 2019 – FY 2023 topline in the FY 2019 Budget, in accordance with the National Security Strategy and Nuclear Posture Review that are currently under development.

So, the budget doesn’t have projections because the NNSA is awaiting the results of the Pentagon-led Nuclear Posture Review and the Congressionally-mandated National Security Strategy that the Trump administration is conducting.

Frankly, that explanation is not satisfactory. There is almost no chance that the Nuclear Posture Review will decide to abandon most of the programs designed to maintain and improve the weapons in the US nuclear arsenal. And significant changes to the programs that are already underway (updates to the B61, W88, and W76) are highly unlikely because such modifications would inevitably lead to delays that the Pentagon and the NNSA would not support. For example, as mentioned in “The Bad,” NNSA officials have said any delays would affect certification requirements for the B61.

The only exception is the life extension program for the W80, which is intended for use on the proposed new nuclear-armed cruise missile, the Long-Range Standoff weapon, or LRSO. Secretary of Defense Mattis has testified that he is not yet convinced of the case for the LRSO, so there is a possibility that the program could be cancelled. (And it should be.) But even so, the NNSA should be planning as if it will not be, as the adverse impact of cancellation is significantly less than the consequences of undertaking required budget work on a weapon that is later cancelled.

Obama’s First NNSA Budget

For comparison, the Obama administration faced a similar situation when it came to office in 2009. Like the Trump administration, the first budget request, for FY2010, was delivered to Congress later than normal, in May rather than February. The Obama administration was also, like the Trump administration, doing a Nuclear Posture Review and a National Security Strategy. There was also a change in the political party of the President, so one might expect more substantive changes in nuclear weapons policy than if there was continuity in the White House.

Despite those similarities, the Obama administration delivered a FY2010 budget request that included projections for future years. To be fair, the Obama budget also stated that the projections for Weapons Activities were “only a continuation of current capabilities, pending upcoming strategic nuclear policy decisions.” But the budget actually included additional money for a study of the B61 life extension program, along with further increases in later years.

Moreover, the status of Weapons Activities was dramatically different in 2010 than it is now. In 2010, the W76 was the only active life extension program, and it was already in full production. The B61 was still in study phase, and there was no other active work being done on weapons in the stockpile.

Now, in 2017, the NNSA is involved in four major warhead projects simultaneously, three of which are ramping up substantially. The idea that the NNSA is putting the planning efforts for future work on these programs essentially on hold for a year is troubling.

I suspect one important factor leading to the missing future year budgets is the lack of people in place to do the planning. The man in charge of the NNSA is Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz (Air Force, retired), who by all accounts has done an able job running the agency. He is a holdover from the Obama era, and he was not asked by the Trump team to stay on until the very last day of the Obama administration (which he dutifully did). But no other officials have been nominated for any slots, leaving key positions like the deputy administrator empty while other slots have officials serving only in an acting capacity.

Playing with numbers

One small thing flagged but not described in The Good is the level of increases the Trump administration claims for its NNSA budgets compared to the Obama team’s budgets. The Trump budget claims an 11% increase for the NNSA overall, and even higher increases in Weapons Activities—around 15%–where the work on nuclear weapons is funded.

But those increases are in comparison to the final FY2016 budget, not the FY2017 budget. Notably, the FY2018 request only lists the FY2017 numbers that were in place under the Continuing Resolution (CR) that operated for a good portion of the year.

But in fact Congress did pass a final appropriations bill, albeit very far into the 2017 fiscal year, and for the NNSA those numbers were significantly higher than under the CR. If you compare the Trump budget to those figures, the NNSA budget receives an increase of 7%, not 11%, and the budget increase for  Weapons Activities is 11%, not 15%.

Make no mistake, those are still substantial increases (though as mentioned in The Good they are not dramatically more than increases the Obama administration requested and got Congress to support).

But it’s worth noting that the Trump budget was presented in a way that makes it look like it has increased NNSA funding more than it actually has.