WASHINGTON — The government agency in charge of upkeep and modernization of America's nuclear warheads is in line for a big funding boost, thanks to U.S. President Donald Trump's fiscal 2018 budget request.
The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a quasi-independent entity within the Department of Energy, is marked for $13.9 billion, an increase of $1 billion — or 7.8 percent — above the FY17 Omnibus level.
The vast majority of that funding will be going towards NNSA's nuclear weapons programs, which was certainly welcomed by Frank Klotz, the retired U.S. Air Force general who now heads the nuclear agency.
NNSA is engaged in a quintet of major warhead programs, including the W76-1 Life Extension Program, which will extend the life on the U.S. Navy's Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile; the B61-12 Life Extension Program, which seeks to combine a number of B61 bomb variants into a more modernized nuclear gravity bomb; the W80-4 Life Extension Program, whose goal is to provide a warhead for a future long-range standoff missile that will replace the U.S. Air Force's current air-launched cruise missile; the IW-1 Life Extension Program, which is meant to create an interoperable warhead for various systems; and the W88 Alteration 370, which will replace the arming, fuzing and firing subsystem for the W88 warhead for the Trident II.
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A recent report by the Government Accountability Office warned that NNSA has to understated how much money it will need to complete those warhead modernization programs, in some cases by billions of dollars. Klotz did not address that report directly, but noted that as the weapon programs move forward from early research into higher-level stages of development, they will naturally require more funding.
The budget growth is "a recognition of where we are in several of our major weapons programs," as well as the need to revitalize NNSA's infrastructure, Klotz said. The retired general has spent much of the last year campaigning for congressional aid to deal with what he says is $3.7 billion in deferred maintenance costs.
Stephen Young, a nonproliferation expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists says to not get too excited about the budget increase for weapons programs.
"The cost increases in U.S. nuclear weapons programs are not a result of any desire by President Trump to enhance the U.S. nuclear arsenal," Young said. "They simply reflect costs increasing in the weapons programs beyond what the NNSA expected, a completely unsurprising development considering the history of major projects at the agency."
While the weapons programs are getting a boost, nonproliferation programs are not so lucky, which raised concerns within the nonproliferation community.
"The Trump administration's budget request continues a trend that began under President Obama, of cutting programs intended to halt the spread of nuclear weapons in order to fund programs to maintain and upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal," Young said.
One interesting program in the budget highlighted by Klotz is the fact NNSA is kicking in $183 million to a partnership led by Office of Science’s Advanced Scientific Computing Research to develop exscale computing power that will allow higher-level research capabilities.
Pentagon nuclear programs
More broadly, nuclear weapons programs from the Pentagon remained on track in the FY18 request. That includes continued funding for the start of the Long Range Stand-Off weapon (LRSO), the new nuclear cruise missile in the early stages of design.
Congressional Democrats and members of the nonproliferation community have taken aim at the weaponas destabilizing, but there does not seem to be much interest from the Trump administration to rethink its requirement.
Also of note, Pentagon budget documents show that the F-35A is scheduled to become certified to carry nuclear weapons in fiscal year 2025. While the goal of carrying the B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb has long been planned, this is the firmest date for when that capability will be online.
Meanwhile, the B-21 Raider, the Air Force’s new bomber, increases its publicly acknowledged funding from $1.3 billion to $2 billion, although the program remains largely shrouded in secrecy. Budget documents continue to show an operational date of "mid-2020s" for the stealth plane, which will be used for both nuclear and conventional missions.
A recent estimate from the Congressional Budget Office put the cost of modernizing the nuclear enterprise over the next decade at $400 billion, with other estimates putting the overall nuclear modernization at over $1 trillion when all is said and done.
One quirk in how NNSA’s budget worked in recent years involved a Program Support account inside DoD, which would hold onto out-year funding that OMB would then reallocate to NNSA in one-year increments. However, starting this year, that fund disappears. Instead, NNSA will house all that funding internally in what Klotz called a "return to regular order."
That money was always part of NNSA’s budgeting plan and so will not impact the agency’s budget.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.