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US nuclear modernization programs put at risk by yearlong continuing resolution

April 18, 2017 (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Ann Stefanek/US Air Force Pentagon)
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force’s nuclear programs, including those for its new bomber and next-generation intercontinental ballistic missiles, would take a massive hit if Congress doesn’t pass a budget this year, a top service official said Monday.

Lawmakers have until April 28 to either pass new spending bills or extend the current continuing resolution, which would keep weapons programs running at the same funding levels as 2016 and prevent any new ones from starting. But with time running out, the services are already preparing to seek “anomalies” — special permission from Congress that would allow programs to move around the CR’s restrictions.

For Air Force acquisition, the impact would be deeply felt, especially in the realm of nuclear modernization. Late last month, Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the Air Force’s top uniformed acquisition official, told senators he would need 17 anomalies for nuclear programs alone, and 60 new acquisition programs would need congressional approval to start.

“The reality of it is we would need a ton of anomalies,” he told Defense News in an exclusive interview on April 17. “Some of those are big programs, some of those are not big programs, but we would need a ton of anomalies — and that we are trying to avoid. We really need to get an [appropriations] bill passed. We really need to be able to move forward.”

The service plans on awarding contracts for two major nuclear programs this fiscal year: the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, or GBSD, which will replace the Air Force’s Minuteman III ICBMs; and the Long Range Standoff (LRSO) weapon, an air-launched cruise missile that can be outfitted with a conventional or nuclear warhead. A yearlong CR would force the Air Force to defer those awards by a year, potentially delaying those programs overall, Bunch said.

If a contract award is delayed long enough, he hinted that the companies bidding on the program could have to go back to the drawing board and rework their proposals to reflect costs in the current market environment.

“You need to make sure you’ve got all your proposals up to date, costwise, and if we start delaying we could start running into problems with that,” he said.

The B-21 Raider recently completed its preliminary design review, but a yearlong CR could impact later milestones. The new bomber’s budget is classified, and thus it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how much of a bump in funding the service would need to keep on schedule, but Bunch said the Raider would need a “serious” anomaly to keep its development on track, “or we would have to slow the program down, which we don’t want to do.”

Todd Harrison, a budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said there’s a “good chance” that Congress may be able to pass a budget by the end of the month, given that the House and Senate have “prenegotiated” the defense appropriations bill and several other spending bills.

But even if lawmakers default to a yearlong CR, nuclear programs will be a top priority, he said.

“It is really in no one’s interest to pass a full-year CR for defense because of all the anomalies that would be needed for critical programs like the B-21 bomber and Columbia-class sub. Among nuclear modernization programs, those two are at the top of the list to be protected no matter what,” he said. 

“Programs like GBSD and LRSO that were planned to start late this fiscal year anyway could be shifted by a few months without doing much harm, so I think they would be a lower priority if it came to it. But I don’t think that will happen.”

Outside of nuclear programs, a yearlong CR could prevent the Compass Call recapitalization program from moving forward, Bunch said. The Air Force has selected L-3 Communications to move technology from the legacy EC-130H onto a new airframe, but the company cannot make a final aircraft selection until the 2017 spending bill is passed.

A longterm CR could also inject additional risk into the service’s JSTARS recapitalization program, which will not be able to continue radar risk reduction efforts, he said.
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