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Recent debates on nuclear modernization have focused on hot-button issues like nuclear testing and low-yield nuclear weapons. But one issue flying under the radar is the role the Nuclear Weapons Council (NWC) plays in developing the annual budget for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

Recent debates on nuclear modernization have focused on hot-button issues like nuclear testing and low-yield nuclear weapons. But one issue flying under the radar is the role the Nuclear Weapons Council (NWC) plays in developing the annual budget for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

Recent legislative proposals would change both the council’s structure and its role in ways that could jeopardize the functionality of America’s nuclear enterprise and diminish the nuclear deterrent in the future. The United States is already late in embarking on a nuclear modernization effort. It does not have margin for delay. Congress should act to enhance, rather than impinge on, the council’s ability to function effectively and perform its intended role. 

The Nuclear Weapons Council’s Important Role

Both the National Nuclear Security Administration and the Defense Department oversee the U.S. nuclear enterprise. The Pentagon designs, develops, and deploys the delivery systems – whether intercontinental-range or sea-launched ballistic missiles, bombers, or air-launched cruise missiles. The NNSA, a semi-autonomous agency within the Department of Energy, maintains the stockpile of nuclear warheads, making sure it meets military requirements such as quantity of weapons or yield. For this reason, the Defense Department is often described as the “customer” of the agency.

Congress established the joint Defense Department/Energy Department Nuclear Weapons Council in 1986 as a senior-level body to coordinate nuclear warhead development, production, and support activities between the two departments. It is tasked with developing stockpile weapons options and overseeing management of the nuclear stockpile to ensure its safety and reliability. The Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, currently the Hon. Ellen Lord, chairs the council, which also includes four other senior Pentagon officials plus the National Nuclear Security Administrator, currently the Hon. Lisa Gordon-Hagerty.

The council’s role takes on heightened importance now, as the United States undergoes an urgently-needed effort to modernize its nuclear force and facilities. After decades of deferment, all three legs of the nuclear triad, the hardened communications networks on which they rely, the warheads in the stockpile, and their supporting infrastructure must be recapitalized. These systems have already been extended far beyond their original design lives, and officials have repeatedly stated that any additional delay in the modernization effort risks seeing the nation’s nuclear capabilities age out before their replacements are ready.

As part of the modernization drive, the NNSA and the Pentagon are pursuing a number of programs in parallel. For instance, the NNSA is currently developing the W87-1 warhead that will be deployed on the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (the replacement to the Minuteman III missile) being developed by the Air Force. It’s also working on the W80-4 warhead that will be deployed on the Pentagon’s proposed Long Range Standoff weapon (the successor to the Air Launched Cruise Missile). In both cases, the NNSA and the Defense Department must synchronize the development of delivery systems with the warheads they will carry.

Coordination on budget formulations is also critical to the success of the joint effort. Spending levels proposed by the NNSA for its various warhead programs will directly impact the timing and quantity of available warheads. For this reason, the Nuclear Weapons Council is required by law to certify annually that the NNSA’s budget is adequate to meet nuclear stockpile requirements.

The report accompanying the law even specifies that the council must “take an active role in shaping and reviewing the NNSA budget as it is prepared for submission to Congress and negotiated with the Office of Management and Budget during the budget review process.” This makes intuitive sense. Delay in the development of a missile or its associated warhead will mean the desired capability will not be available when needed. Missiles without warheads have no deterrent value—and vice versa. It is vital that both agencies submit budgets that support the same work schedules and the same delivery dates.

Congressional Debate over the Nuclear Weapons Council

Concerns about coordination between the Pentagon and the NNSA emerged publicly this year in the council’s annual certification letter to Congress. The council informed lawmakers that it was unable to certify the NNSA’s budget because it had not received detailed budget information needed to support certification in advance of the budget release. This revelation came shortly after reports of controversy over the NNSA budget topline, where the Office of Management and Budget apparently proposed cutting about $2.5 billion from the level sought by Gordon-Hagerty.

In a Senate Armed Services Committee budget hearing in March, Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), who chairs the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, highlighted this failure to enable the council to do its work. Responding to her questioning, Defense Secretary Mark Esper reiterated the importance of letting the council look at the NNSA budget early on, and said that he wants “to make sure that we are prioritizing the right things so that we have a capable strategic deterrent.”

Legislative responses to this issue went in wildly different directions. The Senate Armed Services Committee, in its version of the Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, proposed a number of changes to the NNSA’s budget process. Most of those changes were discarded when the bill went to the Senate floor. A provision relating to the council’s role in the budget process was retained, but this largely amounts to a more specific expression of what current law already requires the council to do.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, the Fiscal Year 2021 Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill passed by the full House would prohibit funds for being used “in furtherance of working through the Nuclear Weapons Council to guide, advise, assist, develop, or execute a budget for the National Nuclear Security Administration,” effectively prohibiting any coordination between the two on budgetary matters. Without explanation in its accompanying committee report, it’s difficult to understand the reasoning behind forbidding the council’s involvement in NNSA budgeting.

It’s possible this provision was intended as negotiating tactic – staking out an extreme position with an eye toward negotiating a more reasonable one at later stages of the legislative process in exchange for concessions elsewhere. Other commentators have portrayed it as an effort to limit Pentagon influence in the development of nuclear weapons capabilities, suggesting that the Defense Department, through the council, is encroaching on the NNSA’s budget and inserting undue military control over a civilian agency.

In any event, such a blanket prohibition defies basic logic and runs completely counter to the intent of Congress when it established the Nuclear Weapons Council for the very purpose of ensuring coordination between the Defense Department and the NNSA. As discussed earlier, this coordination is absolutely vital to the success of the nuclear modernization effort. Prohibiting it invites delay, mismanagement, unnecessary costs, and could put at risk the nation’s ability to field an effective nuclear deterrent in the future.

Lucas Polakowski, the nominee to be assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological programs, put it well when he testified that, as the possible future staff director of the Nuclear Weapons Council, being prevented from seeing the NNSA budget before submission to Congress “would severely impair not only our existing triad but our modernization efforts going forward in the future and in fact could potentially jeopardize our national defense.”

Separately, the House proposed an additional change in its version of the defense authorization bill, inserting an amendment that would establish the Secretaries of Defense and Energy as co-chairs of the Nuclear Weapons Council. Unlike the House appropriations’ provision, this change ostensibly has a noble goal, to provide “Cabinet-level visibility and accountability of our nuclear deterrent.”

However, this structural change introduces two problems detrimental to management of the nuclear enterprise. First is the addition of the Secretary of Energy as a co-chair. This change would put the Energy Secretary in a position to veto decisions that relate exclusively to Defense Department capabilities. As the NNSA’s “customer” and the party ultimately responsible for fielding an effective nuclear deterrent, the Defense Department should continue to lead the council, as it does in close coordination with the NNSA Administrator.

Second are the practical effects that accompany such a change. In general, elevating a particular responsibility means adding an additional layer of bureaucracy which, in turn, slows decision-making and reduces effectiveness. Splitting decision-making authority can have similar effects. For these reasons, both Congress and the Defense Department have consistently emphasized establishing clear lines of authority and divesting authority down the chain of command to build a more agile Pentagon in order to address our eroding technological advantage vis-à-vis Russia and China.

While it may be seductive to assume that moving decisions up the chain of command will elevate the importance and prestige of nuclear weapons activities, this idea does not stand up to any scrutiny against the backdrop of lessons learned about effective bureaucratic reform. Nor is prestige-enhancement a sound basis for bureaucratic change. Instead, it is far more prudent and realistic to vest decision-making authority in those who have the expertise and time to give the nuclear enterprise the leadership and direct attention it deserves. Secretary Lord, working closely with Administrator Gordon-Hagerty, has proven herself to be that leader.

Furthermore, Congress should be mindful of the disruptive effect inherent in bureaucratic change—especially as our modernization effort can afford no margin for error. Legislative solutions and structural changes, though often tempting, should be options of last resort. Instead, Congress should use its oversight role to ensure cooperation and coordination throughout the nuclear weapons modernization process.

In this case, the House’s proposal to restructure the National Weapons Council could risk plunging a functioning organization into a bureaucratic mare’s nest at a time when effectiveness and agility are desperately needed. It should be rejected.

Conclusion

The National Defense Strategy’s top priority—to defend the homeland—rests on strong nuclear deterrence, for which effective and timely nuclear modernization is critical. Throughout the modernization process, the NNSA and Defense Department must be in lock step to align their joint efforts. Limiting the National Weapons Council’s involvement in the NNSA budget development process would only exacerbate a disconnect between the latter and its customer.

To guarantee that the NNSA can maintain a nuclear stockpile capable of providing a credible nuclear deterrent requires Defense Department input, which is provided through the council. While making the Secretaries of Defense and Energy co-chairs of the council might meet this goal on paper, this change in reality will hinder effective management of the nuclear enterprise. For the sake of the U.S. nuclear deterrent, Congress must ensure that the National Weapons Council keeps its existing structure and can perform its required oversight work on the National Nuclear Security Administration’s budget.


Patty-Jane Geller is the policy analyst for nuclear deterrence and missile defense in The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense. Prior to joining Heritage, she worked on the Senate Armed Services Committee as a staff assistant for the Strategic Forces and Cybersecurity Subcommittees.

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