Nuclear Weapons Modernization a Major Focus of Six Recent Hearings

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Publication date: 
March 4, 2016

In recent hearings, congressional and agency leaders highlighted their consensus on the need to modernize the aging U.S. nuclear arsenal and discussed concerns about the impending costs, including private concerns expressed by Energy Secretary Moniz that projected funding levels for future fiscal years are not sufficient to support needed improvements to National Nuclear Security Administration infrastructure.

With the means, costs, and justifications for modernizing the aging U.S. nuclear arsenal coming under increased public scrutiny, nuclear weapons modernization has become a growing topic of discussion in recent congressional hearings.

These include three hearings on the president’s fiscal year 2017 budget request for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) held by the House and Senate Armed Services Committees (HASC and SASC) and the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee on Feb. 11,  Feb. 23, and Mar. 1, respectively, as well as three hearings by the armed services committees on the Department of Defense’s nuclear forces and doctrine on Feb. 9, Feb. 24, and March 2.

Bipartisan support for modernization but concerns about costs

At the outset of the Feb. 11 hearing, HASC subcommittee chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL) endeavored to “put to rest the notion that our nuclear deterrent is unaffordable” by quoting from a 2015 report by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments: “The issue is not affordability - rather, it is a matter of prioritization. Should nuclear forces, and by extension their modernization programs, be given a higher priority in the budget than other forces?”

“We have an answer to this question,” Rogers claimed, citing statements from senior Defense Department officials which express that the U.S. nuclear deterrent is “the nation’s highest priority mission.”

Similarly, HASC ranking member Jim Cooper (D-TN) expressed the sentiment, later echoed by SASC chairman Pete Sessions (R-AL), that there is bipartisan consensus on NNSA’s direction:

It’s rare in the modern Congress to have essentially a good news hearing, but I think this is one of those hearings. … Here we have a highly contentious Congress that is agreeing on what is our number one defense priority.

In a related vein, Sessions began his opening statement for the Feb. 23 hearing by noting that the budget request is consistent with the commitment to nuclear modernization that President Obama made in 2010 in order to secure Senate support for the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia.

However, Sessions added that there is “reason for some concern” about future budgets for nuclear weapons modernization. He then quoted from a private letter—excerpted in a Wall Street Journal editorial—sent in Dec. 2015 from Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to the director of the Office of Management and Budget:

It would not be responsible to submit a budget with such obvious programmatic gaps. [Without an additional $5.2 billion for out-years 2018 to 2021, the budget will] lack credibility with Congress and stakeholders…Failure to address these requirements in the near term will put the NNSA budget in an untenable position [by fiscal year 2018].

Klotz declined to comment directly on the letter, citing its private nature. Instead, he responded by saying that although NNSA is “very satisfied” with the fiscal year 2017 request, the budget projections for 2018 to 2021 included in the request are subject to the sequester caps set by the Budget Control Act of 2011, thus forcing the administration to make hard choices about what to prioritize.

Klotz also highlighted that reducing the $3.7 billion in deferred maintenance of NNSA’s facilities, some of which date to the World War II area, is a high priority of both NNSA and Secretary Moniz.

Moniz warns of 'steady decline' in performance of weapons codes

Later during the Feb. 23 hearing, Sen. Angus King (I-ME) commented that not being able to conduct explosive tests of warheads in the stockpile complicates NNSA’s ability to modernize the weapons and still certify that they will work. Klotz assured him that “we can do a pretty good job now” via the Stockpile Stewardship Program. This program leverages the Department of Energy’s high-performance computing capabilities, archived data from explosive tests, and new data from non-explosive experiments conducted at the national laboratories to ensure the warheads will function as expected if called upon.

However, another excerpt from Moniz’s letter included in the editorial warns of declining performance of the simulations relied upon to certify the stockpile:

'There has been a steady decline in the performance of the nuclear weapons codes needed to ensure the safety, security, and reliability of the nuclear stockpile,’ Mr. Moniz wrote, but the current budget seeks less than a third of what’s needed, despite an executive order on ‘strategic computing’ issued six months ago.

Although Sessions did not quote the above statement, at the Feb. 9 hearing he asked Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Arthur Hopkins whether “out-year funding for the life-extension programs for nuclear warheads and bombs, and the new facilities, is inadequate, as suggested by Secretary Moniz?”  Hopkins replied, “I think that the funding for the warhead modernization is adequate, but I believe Secretary Moniz was referring to infrastructure … Plutonium, uranium, high-performance computing, that sort of thing.”

If it has been accurately characterized by the Wall Street Journal, the above statements by Moniz perhaps cast some doubt on the long-term effectiveness of the Stockpile Stewardship Program absent additional investments in NNSA infrastructure.

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