GAO: Higher nuke budgets won’t add much capability

Trump wants 25 percent hike for nuclear weapons, but that would mostly just cover rising costs on existing programs

An Air Force flight test squadron monitors an operational test launch of an unarmed Minuteman III missile at Vandenberg Air Force Base.  (Michael Peterson/U.S. Air Force photo)
An Air Force flight test squadron monitors an operational test launch of an unarmed Minuteman III missile at Vandenberg Air Force Base. (Michael Peterson/U.S. Air Force photo)
Posted July 30, 2020 at 11:19am

President Donald Trump wants to spend 25 percent more on nuclear weapons in the coming fiscal year than in this one — but the raise would mostly just cover rising costs, not add capabilities or field them faster, the Government Accountability Office said in a report made public Thursday morning.

The administration is asking Congress for a record budget for the coming fiscal year for the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration, which builds atomic warheads and bombs.

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Thursday’s GAO report concluded that most of the proposed increase was requested because officials determined they needed more funding for essentially the same level of activity.

“According to our analysis of NNSA documents and interviews with NNSA officials, a reevaluation of the funding needed to meet existing requirements, rather than costs associated with new requirements, was the main factor contributing to the large increase in proposed funding in DOE’s fiscal year 2021 budget justification,” the GAO said.

The finding confirms a March disclosure by CQ Roll Call of internal Trump administration memos revealing that the proposed budget hike was required mostly to cover cost growth and avert additional delays on four of the NNSA’s six top weapons projects.

Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, the NNSA administrator, argued inside the administration in January that without $2 billion more than the Energy budget had penciled in for NNSA at that point for fiscal 2021, the Savannah River plutonium production facility would be delayed five years, which would set back a new warhead for Air Force ballistic missiles. A warhead for an Air Force air-launched missile would be delayed by up to two years, she wrote.

Only a minor share of the NNSA budget hike would go to planned new capabilities such as the administration’s proposed W93 submarine-launched warhead program.

By contrast, Gordon-Hagerty testified to a House appropriations panel in March that the agency is “on time and on budget with all of our work.”

House votes this week

The House is voting this week on a package of six spending bills, including an Energy-Water bill that would provide $18 billion for NNSA’s overall budget, a reduction to a $20 billion request but still $1.3 billion above the current level.

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The president had sought $15.6 billion of that total just for nuclear weapons — as opposed to nonproliferation and other programs — but the House bill would allocate $13.7 billion for that purpose, still also more than $1 billion above the current level.

Appropriators in the GOP-controlled Senate have yet to mark up their companion spending bill and they may be more inclined to support Trump’s request than the House is.

The GAO report was requested by two Senate Democrats: Dianne Feinstein of California, who is the ranking member of the Energy-Water Appropriations Subcommittee, and Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, a critic of nuclear weapons who serves on the Foreign Relations Committee.

"We already have more than enough weapons to destroy the world many times over, and at a time of economic crisis, the administration must consider delaying or terminating some of our nuclear weapons programs in order to keep the potentially crushing costs under control,” Feinstein said in a statement Thursday.

'A more precise understanding'

The GAO does not use the terms "cost growth," "overrun" or "delays" to describe the reason for the increases. Rather, the report said, NNSA officials contended they just took an unusually “concerted” and thorough look at their costs this year and found a “more precise understanding” of their expenses.

An NNSA spokesman described the process similarly to CQ Roll Call in March.

Some critics said cost growth is just that — an appreciation that costs were understated.

“The major cost increases in the FY21 nuclear weapons budget request are not the result of major new Trump programs, but simply typical outcomes at NNSA, where everything costs far more than initial estimates and takes far longer than originally planned,” said Stephen Young, an atomic arms expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, in a statement to CQ Roll Call.

What’s more, the fiscal 2021 budget boost is an outsized example of a recurring pattern.

Fiscal 2021 marks the fourth year in a row that NNSA budget requests, and enacted levels, were higher than what the agency had projected in assessments issued the previous year.

NNSA officials found they needed more money at a time when Trump was inclined to spend more on nuclear weapons.

The 25 percent budget boost was secured after Trump, at the urging of conservative lawmakers in a January meeting, overruled Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette and added more than $2 billion to the NNSA’s total budget request.

Future problem

The GAO report found that the NNSA is planning to sustain its higher spending level over the next five years. As a result, the five-year cost of its programs is $81 billion, which is 45 percent higher than the agency projected four years ago.

The Congressional Budget Office reported in 2017 that the cost of updating the U.S. nuclear arsenal would be $1.2 trillion. But the ever-higher costs projected by NNSA could bring the next CBO estimate of American atomic arms spending higher still.

Young of the Union of Concerned Scientists said the core of the problem is too many NNSA initiatives. Multiple warhead programs are predicated on producing 80 new plutonium pits by 2030, a goal he called unattainable, and failing to meet it will delay those programs and the Defense Department missiles that they would go with, he said.

“The good news is those warheads — and the new pits they require — are not needed for U.S. security,” Young said. “The existing US nuclear arsenal, already far larger than required, can serve as an effective deterrent without making any new warheads, an outcome that will also save billions and billions of dollars.”