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A trillion reasons to scrutinize the US plan for more than $1.5 trillion spend on nuclear weapons

500,000,000,000 reasons to scrutinize the US plan for nuclear weapons. Bulletin of the Atomic ScientistsBy Kingston ReifMandy Smithberger | May 21, 2021 The public debate about the future of the US nuclear arsenal is largely a controversy about strategy. But the outcome also has major implications for dollars and cents. The United States plans to spend more than $1.5 trillion over the next several decades to sustain and upgrade its nuclear delivery systems, associated warheads, and supporting infrastructure. The biggest bills for this effort, which are slated to hit over the next 10 to 15 years, pose a growing threat to other military and security priorities amid what most experts believe will be flat defense budgets,

The cost of ongoing programs to buy new fleets of ballistic missile submarines, long-range bombers, and intercontinental ballistic missiles has generated the most attention.

Meanwhile, the exploding price tag of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s long-term plan to sustain and modernize the nuclear warheads and production facilities—now an exorbitant $505 billion—flies under the radar.

Now more than ever it’s important to scrutinize the National Nuclear Security Administration, which is a semiautonomous agency of the Energy Department. Most of the agency’s budget goes to contractors, though their contract mismanagement has repeatedly landed them on the Government Accountability Office’s high-risk list. Some projects have significantly exceeded initial cost estimates—in one case nearly eight times more than the initial price tag. While cost breaches of this magnitude at the Defense Department would have triggered a review that might have cancelled the programs, the National Nuclear Security Administration was able to waste billions with no threat of closure.

The agency’s past failures to complete major projects on time and on budget raise questions about its ability to execute a workload that has grown to unprecedented post-Cold War heights. Since the end of the Obama administration, the National Nuclear Security Administration weapon-activity spending has grown by roughly 70 percent. Last year, the agency requested a multibillion-dollar boost while sitting on $8 billion in unspent funds from past years.

Against this backdrop, nuclear-weapon hawks in Congress successfully pushed through a consequential change last year that gave the Pentagon much greater influence over the development of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s budget. This power grab will not only make it harder to rein in increasingly out-of-control agency spending but put other Energy Department national security programs at greater risk. As Congress moves to write annual defense authorization and appropriations legislation this summer, lawmakers should take steps to undo the Pentagon’s expanded authority and institute reforms in an attempt to reign in wasteful spending at the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Recent budget history of the National Nuclear Security Administration. This story begins in February 2020 when the Trump administration prepared its fiscal year 2021 budget request for the National Nuclear Security Administration. It requested $15.6 billion for the nuclear-weapon activities account, a staggering increase of $3.1 billion, or 25 percent, from the fiscal year 2020 appropriations and $2.8 billion more than planned a year earlier. The dramatic increase was propelled in part by cost overruns in programs inherited by the Trump administration and the cost of the additional capabilities the administration proposed………….

If executed as written, the new law effectively makes the Nuclear Weapons Council the decision authority for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s budget. As a result, the energy secretary and the Office of Management and Budget will have reduced leverage in the development of the budget. It will also make it difficult for the president to overrule the council without getting into a messy public spat with congressional nuclear hawks about why they are going against the advice of the Pentagon.

Contrary to Inhofe’s conspiratorial claims, the main problem in need of a solution isn’t that the Defense Department is being cut out of the development of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s nuclear modernization budget or that better coordination is needed. The central problem is that the agency’s nuclear modernization budget is skyrocketing.

The growth of the agency’s weapon-activity budget almost defies belief. Projected spending on nuclear-weapon activities has risen to $505 billion, according to the agency’s 25-year plan published last December. That represents a staggering increase of $113 billion from the 2020 version of the plan.

$113 billion. In one year.

This kind of stunning growth illustrates what critics of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s excessive plans have been warning about for years: low-balled cost estimates, an inexecutable program, damaging opportunity costs, and a significant agency credibility deficit. The mounting price tag and impracticality of the scope of and scheduled goals for many of the agency’s nuclear warhead and infrastructure replacement efforts merit far greater scrutiny than Congress has provided to date.

Needed now: National Nuclear Security Administration budget reform and oversight. The Nuclear Weapons Council does not need expanded authority. Quite the opposite in fact. 

……………… If Congress allows Pentagon leaders to add their own spending priorities to other agencies’ budgets without any requirement to propose offsets, spending on nuclear weapons will likely go in only one direction: up.

Instead of giving the Pentagon more free rein, Congress should roll back the Nuclear Weapons Council’s expanded powers and seek greater oversight of how the body generates requirements for the arsenal and for the National Nuclear Security Administration.

………. The National Nuclear Security Administration has a long history of mismanaging its significant resources. In response, Congress should offer reform and oversight, not a blank check to steal resources from other national security priorities.

May 22, 2021 - Posted by | USA, weapons and war

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