Updating Nuclear Weapons Arsenal Requires Renewed Focus, Steady Funding
The United States went on a two-decade “procurement holiday” when it came to updating its nuclear weapons arsenal and its delivery systems, but now the bill is coming due, the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration said Oct. 29.
“There are many issues associated with management of the nuclear security enterprise in both [the Department of Energy] and the [Defense Department] that, quite frankly, we have to fix,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Frank G. Klotz, the Energy Department’s undersecretary for nuclear security and administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration.
An interim report by the congressional advisory panel on the governance of the nuclear security enterprise released in April said the nation’s ability to have a nuclear deterrent is at risk over the long term.
The report said the NNSA “is on a trajectory towards crisis unless strong leadership arrests the current course and reorients its governance to better focus on mission priorities and deliverables.” The root of the problem is the complacency that took hold after the end of the Cold War.
Klotz, who became the agency head at about the time the report was released, agreed.
“Nuclear deterrence and its forces were at center stage during the Cold War. At the end of the Cold War it was almost as if we had all heaved a sigh of collective relief" that we didn't have to worry about it anymore, he said.
At the same time, the national security apparatus shifted toward conflicts in the Balkans and the Middle East, and combating terrorism. “As a result of that, I think the attention, the focus and the resources that were given to our nuclear deterrent forces were not what they were in the past. And quite frankly, we lost focus.”
Klotz referred to Air Force scandals, when an armed nuclear weapon was flown on a B-52 bomber over the United States, sensitive parts were accidentally shipped to Taiwan, and missile silo officers were found to be sleeping on the job and cheating on tests.
As for his own agency — charged with developing, maintaining and integrating nuclear warheads onto Defense Department platforms — steps are already being taken to address some of the report’s concerns, he said.
“At the end of the Cold War we entered into a sort of procurement holiday as far as our strategic nuclear forces were concerned, and we were able to do that because they were extraordinarily capable systems, but now after a couple of decades of doing that, the bill is coming due.”
NNSA has to address its poor track record of completing large construction projects, he said. It has formed an acquisition program management organization, and brought in experts.
“It is important to bring that kind of expertise in to ensure you are doing the types of things that enable you to deliver projects on time and under budget,” he said.
It is also standing up an office of cost estimation and program evaluation.
“One of the challenges NNSA and DoD have had is accurately estimating the cost of projects and then making sure that the projects fit the cost profiles that were laid out,” he said.
The advisory panel’s final report is expected in mid-November. Klotz said he has not seen it yet.
“The situation we find ourselves in 20 years later is making sure we reinstitute that focus and that we step up to making the types of resources investments we need to make in order to continue to ensure that this part of our national security policy — that still remains important — is able to function the way it is expected to,” Klotz said.
The NNSA is in a decade-long process to modernize and replace its nuclear warheads.
The B61-12 bomb, which is delivered by aircraft, is one of the key life-extension programs that the NNSA has responsibility for over the next decade, he said. It is currently in the engineering and design phase. It will replace four existing variants of the B61 gravity bomb with a single one. He pointed to recent success testing the bomb’s fit into two aircraft, the F-15 and F-16, during wind tunnel tests.
The W76-1, which is employed on Navy sea-launched ballistic missiles, is well into the production phase, and Klotz recently visited the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas, to mark the program’s halfway point.
As for another gravity bomb, the B83, the NNSA will continue to monitor and do the work necessary to ensure its safety, security and effectiveness for as long as it remains in the stockpile, he said.
“We have phased these in such a way that we balance the workload across several years,” he said.
It is “extraordinarily important” that funding be consistent to execute these modernization programs, he said.
“If you are expecting a certain level of funding for a particular type of activity and it does not come in, it’s delayed, or it’s withheld, or it's less than you anticipated, then you have to take actions in terms of how much workforce you can have, how much work they can do, and this tends to ripple through programs that may extend for a decade,” he said.