WASHINGTON – The head of the National Nuclear Security Agency (NNSA) is trying to sort out what effect a civilian hiring freeze will have on his agency at a time when officials are working overtime to ensure a series of nuclear warhead modernization programs do not fall behind schedule.
Frank Klotz opened his speech at the Exchange Monitor Nuclear Deterrence Summit in Washington by acknowledging that he "fully expected my career in public service to end in January 20," a reference to the confusion about whether he would be asked to stay during the transition to the Trump administration.
Ultimately, Gov. Rick Perry – Trump's choice for Secretary of Energy, who may be confirmed as soon as this week – asked Klotz to stay on. While he would not put a specific timetable on his tenure, the NNSA head indicated he plans to stay until he is asked to leave.
Unfortunately for Klotz, that means he now has to deal with a multitude of challenges still facing the agency, including a civilian hiring freeze put in place by Trump.
"This is something that quite frankly, I spend time every day worrying about, and making sure we are able to staff key and critical positions in our enterprise," Klotz said, adding he is having regular conversations with the Office of Management and Budget to figure out what NNSA positions may qualify under national security hiring exemptions.
However, he said ultimately "my sense is we’ll be able to manage this."
The NNSA is a semi-autonomous office of the Department of Energy that has oversight for the US nuclear warhead stockpile. While the Air Force and Navy have the lead in developing new delivery systems, such as an updated intercontinental ballistic missile fleet, NNSA is in charge of updating and maintaining the destructive payloads.
As always, the budget is a challenge for the agency, particularly given the long-running concerns about infrastructure bills. Klotz repeated a previous claim of $3.7 billion in deferred overhead for his agency, noting that at least one facility had workers dealing with an infestation of snakes.
The NNSA finds itself in a strange position as the Trump administration lays out its first full budget plan. On the one hand, there has been significant reporting done that shows the Trump team aims to slash funding for the Department of Energy, NNSA’s home agency. On the other hand, the president has expressed support for the nuclear weapons enterprise.
In other words, the agency could undergo a major budget slash or a major plus-up, an unusual situation for an outfit whose budget has remained largely stable.
Klotz artfully dodged a question about the budget situation, pointing out that the fiscal year 2018 budget planning is now underway and so his lips are sealed. But he did emphasize that on both the Hill and in the Pentagon, there is a broad political consensus for modernizing the nuclear stockpile.
"The overall top view of this is everybody in government, on both ends of Pennsylvania avenue, on both sides of the river, on both sides of Capitol Hill, on both sides of the aisle, understand our nuclear security is an extraordinarily important mission, and it is one that we need the resources to carry out," he said.
However, analysts worry that support may be in danger as a result of recent comments made by Trump about the New START treaty. The bi-partisan support for nuclear modernization is based on the trade-off of modernization money for nonproliferation funds, and moving away from a nonproliferation agenda could cause Democrats to take a stand against the increasingly expensive nuclear weapons modernization plan now underway.
Another area that could affect the consensus, said James Acton, senior associate of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is a move to create new weapon systems.
"I think it’s very possible the modernization consensus, such as it exists today, would be risked by a lack of commitment to arms control or [a push for] the development of new military capabilities," Acton said on the first day of the conference.
Those new capabilities could potentially include low-yield weapons, something brought up as a possibility worth studying in a December report by the Defense Science Board. Asked about those systems, Klotz said such a decision really must be assessed at the policy level – likely through the recently started Nuclear Posture Review.