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September 17, 2020

ICYMI: Witnesses Describe Importance of Coordination Between DOD, NNSA at SASC Hearing

This morning at a committee hearing on budget matters relating to the National Nuclear Security Administration, U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, questioned witnesses, who described the adverse impacts on national security if the NNSA, Department of Defense and Nuclear Weapons Council do not coordinate on NNSA budget development, as House of Representatives legislation has proposed.

Witnesses included: the Honorable Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, Administrator, National Nuclear Security Administration; the Honorable Ellen Lord, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment; and Admiral Charles Richard, Commander, U.S. Strategic Command.


Inhofe: I will begin. The first question I have would be for Secretary Lord. Any decent coordination requires that DOD and NNSA share budget data well before it’s developed and presented. Can you tell me what changes you made to the NWC process for reviewing the NNSA budget after last year’s fiasco? Are there further steps you are considering for improving the process? Is there anything that we can do to make that easier for you?

Lord: Yes, thank you. In May, I signed out planning guidance for the NWC to compel NNSA to share their budget details by September 1 of each year so the Nuclear Weapons Council could review it and understand how it pairs with DOD’s proposed budget. We did this year in early September receive that budget, and in fact, we just yesterday had a Nuclear Weapons Council meeting in which we reviewed details of that. What we have done additionally is come up with a construct for a working group to do a budget deep dive. We actually have an outline here that we put forth that talks about a September 22nd date for stockpile management, a 29th date for infrastructure and operations, October 6th for stockpile RT&E, and October 13th production modernization, with the goal of coming back to the Nuclear Weapons Council and understanding in depth the assumptions behind what is submitted to Congress. What we plan to do is update our guidance, our planning guidance, this year, with a generic form of this to again help guide the process so that we are well-aligned. I think it’s worth pointing out that this working group has not only NNSA representation and a variety of DOD representation, but OMB as well, so in this way we will synchronize efforts and align.

Inhofe: Thank you. Let me just ask a little bit further. Do you believe that your policy and the Senate’s NDAA language both aim to improve transparency and accountability on the NNSA budget and ensure the Nuclear Weapons council is not surprised the way it was the first year?

Lord: Yes.

Inhofe: That’s good. Administrator Gordon-Hagerty, do you believe that DOD and NNSA coordination would improve if each better understood the internal workings of the other?

Gordon-Hagerty: Mr. Chairman, I believe that the system that we have in place right now and with the improvements that we’ve made throughout the NWC with the signing of the materials in May will improve greatly the transparency of the NNSA budget within the NWC. It’s critical that we continue to operate as we have been over the last couple of years under Under Secretary Lord’s leadership and with the great partnership that we have throughout the NWC.

Inhofe: Very good. Now, on the other hand, recent legislation in the House would prohibit NNSA from working with DOD in the Nuclear Weapons Council and put the Secretary of Energy on the Nuclear Weapons Council. Secretary Lord, how would this legislation affect coordination between DOD and NNSA?  Would this extra layer of bureaucracy make it more or less efficient?

Lord: It would make it far less efficient, and I’m afraid might destroy the relationship right now that we have between DOD as well as NNSA. There’s also very problematical cuts to the budget, $2 billion in NNSA, that would directly impair our ability to deliver B61-12, which we’re on record with a first production unit in 2021, as well as the W80-4 warhead. There were also other cuts called out: in W93, it was zeroed out; LRSO, $170 million; GBSD, $60 million; and essentially a lot of the language removes the semiautonomous nature of NNSA. It also elevates the Nuclear Weapons Council to two cabinet-level positions, which I think is absolutely unfeasible, particularly as we do have a cadence of monthly meetings that focus on specific programs. We generate a lot of very specific reports and do a lot of in-depth program reviews.

Inhofe: Excellent. Administrator Gordon-Hagerty, what damage would be done to the DOD and NNSA relationship if you were not allowed to work through the Nuclear Weapons Council?

Gordon-Hagerty: The Secretary of Energy has testified that he supports the elevation of the Nuclear Weapons Council to support co-chairs of the Secretary of Energy and the Secretary of Defense. In my 30-plus years as a career civil servant in and out of government and working with the NWC, what I can say is that the system we have in place right now, and unless otherwise directed by Congress to change, is working well, and we are working at an operational level making the decisions necessary at the, if you will, action officers, sub-Cabinet level because it’s important that we can be decisive, and with two cabinet officials, they certainly are busy with the work of their respective departments, so what I can say is that the administration does oppose it.

Inhofe: That’s very good. The House appropriations bill cuts the President’s request — the NNSA request — by almost $2 billion. Now, we went through this exercise once before, and we know what we had to do get that back where we are supposed to be. Madam Administrator, can you explain why your FY21 budget request grew from the previous year and what a $2 billion cut this year would do to your programs? Would you be able to meet the DOD requirements?

Gordon-Hagerty: Sir, in a word, no, we would not be able to meet the requirements of the Department of Defense. We recognize that this is quite an aggressive schedule, but I’m confident that the NNSA can execute. We developed the FY21 budget based on risk-informed systematic requirements. We involved all of our laboratories’, plants’ and sites’ leadership and prioritized what the missions would be so that we could execute our roles and responsibilities in so far as supporting the nuclear deterrent. It was the result of a year-long requirements-based budget to prioritize those missions within NNSA that needed to be done. Again, like I said, we had all of our labs, plants and sites involved in this from the outset. It’s interesting that we talk about the 18-plus percent increase from FY20 appropriated funding, or appropriated levels, to FY21. There’s a reason for this. Over the last 20 years or so, the NNSA operated with basically one life extension program, one modernization program. That was the 76-1. We are operating now with requirements for four major modernization programs, and, if authorized and appropriated, there will be a fifth with the W-93. So we’re really essentially waking up our system. Over the last several decades, with the lack of funding and lack of support that we had received from previous administrations and previous congresses, we are at a tipping point. We have no more time. We must pursue this aggressive strategy to recapitalize our infrastructure and make sure that we have the men and women throughout our nuclear enterprise to be able to execute these missions. So we are in a good position now — again I know it’s an aggressive schedule, but I have the commitment of our laboratories’, plants’ and management leadership that we will be able to execute these very important missions to maintain a nuclear deterrent second to none.

Inhofe: Secretary Lord, we heard from Energy that they have stated that they have all the information, budget data information, sent to us for coordination. This seems to be different than what happened last year. So I’d just ask you the question, have you received what you need to execute the Nuclear Weapons Council’s statutory responsibility to review and approve the NNSA budget?

Lord: We have gotten what is submitted to Congress, what will be. We still have a bit of work to do to understand the intent and the scope of what those numbers encompass, so that is why we put this working group together that I mentioned before. So I believe we have about another month’s worth of work to do to make sure that we’re fully aligned between NNSA and DOD, and that’s working along OMB as well.

Inhofe: That’s good. I say to our members on both sides of the aisle, we have something at your desk,I believe that’s similar to what’s on the charts, showing the state of disrepair that’s out there right now. And that’s been totally ignored in the past. When you look at that, it’s hard to believe that we can expand our activity effectively with that infrastructure. Madam Administrator, Do you agree that we urgently need to modernize the NNSA’s nuclear weapons infrastructure? And I’d also ask Admiral Richard, are increased investments in the NNSA’s nuclear weapons infrastructure needed to maintain our nation’s nuclear deterrent capabilities? Let’s start with the Administrator.

Gordon-Hagarty: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, thank you for putting those pictures up. Let me start by saying, more than 50 percent of our enterprise is more than 40 years old, and one-third of it dates back to the 1940s, so therefore time is of the essence to recapitalize our infrastructure throughout the entire NNSA. Long gone are the days where we would be able to just patch these facilities. For example one of the pictures that you have is perhaps is of the lithium facility at Y-12 — portions of the ceiling are falling in. I think that’s atrocious that we put potentially our workforce at risk. We need to make sure that we have state-of-the-art infrastructure so we can recapitalize our enterprise and make sure that we can provide to the Department of Defense the requirements that they so sorely need to maintain our nuclear deterrent. Our main priority is to remain completely aligned with the Department of Defense, and the only way to do is to make sure we have state-of-the-art facilities together with the workforce that’s necessary to carry out our unique missions, unique only to the NNSA.

Inhofe: That’s very good, and I really appreciate the responses to these questions in a very straightforward way. I would only conclude by asking Ms. Gordon-Hagerty, what kind of problems do you have on this COVID-19 and how has that impaired your ability to do your job?

Gordon-Hagerty: Mr. Chairman, COVID-19 established unprecedented realities for our entire nuclear security enterprise, my number-one priority is for the health and safety of our workforce. Throughout COVID, however, we did not have the opportunity to maximum telework; we did do our best however. Because of our unique missions throughout NNSA, we had to maintain the nuclear weapons complex. In so doing, however, we provided resources necessary and direction to our entire enterprise to support ongoing activities. I’m heartened to say we did not miss one major milestone or one delivery to the Air Force or to the Navy throughout this time. However, those challenges had to be prioritized; there were some missions that certainly fell below the priority lines so that we could continue to maximize telework where possible, and protect our workforce, which again is our number-one priority. That said, we do have some challenges ahead of us. We are going to have other missions that had been put essentially on hold, and we’re going to have to make up for lost production. So we do have challenges ahead, but we recognize the great work, men and women of workforce and what they’ve been able to do to ensure that the Department of Defense receives the necessary support throughout COVID.

Inhofe: Good, and that’s very good. John Bonsell just reminded me, Admiral, that I asked you a question but didn’t give you a chance to answer that question. Your answer to the question is very important to be a part of the record for this meeting.

Richard: Chairman, I thank you for that, and the short answer is yes. In fact, it’s an emphatic yes. Ms. Gordon-Hagerty just gave you some details of the condition of this infrastructure. I want to applaud you for your interest in this question. Remember, some of this stuff dates back to the Manhattan Project. And it goes beyond — Ms. Lord just gave a very good summary of individual impacts, and I offer that those programmatic impacts transfer to me as operational risk that I have to take in terms of capabilities that are not available for me to use to execute what the nation has asked me to do. But it’s even more fundamental than that. This strikes at the core of our credibility as a nuclear weapons state. The point here is both our allies and our competitors watch what we do, and it is important for us to demonstrate our commitment to this mission set. If we don’t recapitalize now, we’re going to cross these points of no return where we will not be able to reassemble either the human talent or the physical plant for unlimited amounts of money for very long periods of time so that I and future STRATCOM commanders can have the capabilities needed to execute this mission.

Inhofe: That’s good. Senator Reed.

Click here to watch Inhofe’s opening statement.

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