Biden’s nuclear arms budget ‘minimally sufficient,’ officials say

Republicans on the Armed Services committees are pushing for a budget increase greater than inflation

Mike D. Rogers of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, wants to increase funding on nuclear weapons more than President Joe Biden. (CQ Roll Call file photo)
Mike D. Rogers of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, wants to increase funding on nuclear weapons more than President Joe Biden. (CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 27, 2021 at 3:30pm

Corrected 5:38 p.m. | President Joe Biden’s request for Energy Department nuclear weapons spending in fiscal 2022 is adequate to address current requirements, but future spending must grow at a stronger clip, top military and civilian officials who oversee U.S. atomic programs told Congress this week. 

The president’s $15.5 billion request for weapons program at the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA, “meets requirements” and is a “minimally sufficient” amount of funding, said the Nuclear Weapons Council in a July 23 letter to lawmakers. The council is an expert advisory body established by Congress and the letter is an annual certification that is now required by law.

The NWC, as it is called, is chaired by the Pentagon’s acquisition undersecretary and also includes the department’s undersecretaries for research and engineering and for policy, as well as the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command and the NNSA director.

The NNSA develops and builds atomic warheads and bombs, while the Pentagon is responsible for acquiring the aircraft, missiles and submarines that would deliver them.

The July 23 letter was signed by Stacy Cummings, who is performing the duties of Pentagon acquisition chief.

Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma and Rep. Mike D. Rogers of Alabama, the ranking Republicans on the Armed Services panels, issued a joint statement on Tuesday depicting the council’s letter as describing an “insufficient” budget request.

“The letter we received yesterday from the Nuclear Weapons Council highlights what we’ve been saying for months: National security spending that does not keep up with inflation is insufficient to safeguard this nation,” Inhofe and Rogers said. 

‘Minimally sufficient’

The council’s letter in fact said the president’s budget was enough for fiscal 2022 — but just barely, the officials seemed to suggest.

“All NWC members believe that — for FY 2022 only — the DOE/NNSA budget request for Weapons Activities meets nuclear stockpile and stockpile stewardship requirements and contains minimally sufficient immediate investment to ensure a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent,” the letter said. “However, NWC members also believe that this budget injects risk into the longer term schedule required to ensure modernization of the U.S. nuclear deterrent.”

The council said it is only commenting on the fiscal 2022 budget, because the future years plan is still under development as the administration works on a new Nuclear Posture Review, an assessment of strategy and funding. 

The council said future budgets should rise by at least 2 percent per year to stay ahead of inflation. If they don’t, their letter suggests, it could affect America’s nuclear deterrent. 

“NWC members express unanimous and grave concern that accepting increased programmatic risk within DOE/NNSA’s nuclear weapons activities will further increase operational risk at a time when both Departments are executing the nuclear modernization program of record,” the letter said. The modernization program at issue refers to the Pentagon's efforts to replace aging land-based missiles, submarines, bombers and command-and-control networks. 

New process

Inhofe and Rogers were leaders of a conservative cohort in Congress last year that swayed President Donald Trump to beef up the NNSA budget request for fiscal 2021 by $2.1 billion and who later won inclusion in the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act a requirement that the council have formal input into the creation of the Energy Department's nuclear weapons budget request prior to submission to Congress.

Creating the process, Inhofe has said, was meant to put public light on any concerns among national security officials about shortfalls in nuclear spending at the NNSA — or, as critics might say, a way to publicly pressure the Energy secretary and the president to spend more on nuclear weapons.

Dan Brouillette, who was Energy secretary in the previous administration, strenuously objected to bolstering the Pentagon’s role in overseeing his budget, more than half of which goes to the NNSA. 

Energy Secretary Jennifer M. Granholm did not immediately reply to a request for comment on the council’s letter.

‘Overloaded’ budget

The $15.5 billion request for NNSA weapons activities is part of a $19.7 billion total request for the NNSA, which also is responsible for nonproliferation and nuclear reactor programs.

The House’s Energy-Water appropriations bill would provide the full $15.5 billion.

This year’s NNSA weapons request comes in less than 1 percent higher than the fiscal 2021 level, which would be essentially flat funding before considering inflation’s effects.

However, the request is 67 percent higher than the funding level at the end of the Obama administration and $2.5 billion more than the agency projected two years ago that it would be spending in fiscal 2022, said Kingston Reif, a nuclear arms expert with the Arms Control Association.

Hawks who say the NNSA budget is inadequate have a point in a way, Reif suggested, because the agency regularly plans for more work than it can afford and cost growth repeatedly eats away at its buying power.

“The reality is that the scope of the NNSA nuclear weapons modernization effort has been overloaded to such a degree that it cannot be executed in the absence of sustained significant growth above inflation over the next several years,” Reif said in an email. “And even then, such increases might not be enough to meet the aggressive schedule goals for many of the agency’s nuclear warhead and infrastructure replacement efforts.”

This report has been corrected to accurately describe a 2020 law's provision on the Nuclear Weapons Council's role in formulating the National Nuclear Security Administration's budget.