A group of senators pressed the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration on Thursday to explain why her agency carries over approximately $8 billion in unspent funds year-over-year that lawmakers argued could be put toward building a second Virginia-class submarine next year.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) noted the second submarine topped the Navy’s unfunded priorities list and could throw off the timetable to deliver the replacement for the aging Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine fleet. Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Sen. Jack Reed, (D-R.I.) and Sen. Tim Kaine, (D-Va.) also questioned the continuing billions being carried over from year-to-year when other programs are seeing cuts.
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, NNSA Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty defended her agency’s carry-over, saying “it’s obligated for this five-year spending plan” that includes rebuilding nuclear infrastructure at its laboratories and plants, treaty compliance, nuclear non-proliferation programs and modernizing four nuclear weapons systems.
She said she was not involved in budget discussions within the Trump administration that shifted almost $2.5 billion from the Pentagon to the Department of Energy this year. The shift almost equals the annual appropriation for the second submarine.
Ellen Lord, the Defense Department’s acquisition chief, agreed. “We have zero margin on Columbia for delays,” she said.
Adm. Charles Richard, head of U.S. Strategic Command, added that instead of slipping timelines for the submarine or any other strategic modernization and recapitalization project, he’s asking “what’s it going to take to have those programs come in on time.”
When asked about the impact of selective cuts on programs like zeroing out the W93, the submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead, he said, “it wouldn’t support the U.K.,” naval nuclear modernization program. Risks increase when “desynchronizing the system from the weapon.”
The Fiscal Year 2021 budget request for the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-autonomous agency in the Department of Energy, is about $19 billion. Gordon-Hagerty said cutting $2 billion from her administration’s budget to pay for the Virginia-class submarine would mean it couldn’t meet other Defense Department requirements and deadlines for four major modernization programs.
She added the administration is keeping its scheduled priorities despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
As for the carryover, she said, “it’s a reasonable amount” and the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ watchdog on executive programs, agreed with her assessment. She added that only “$340 million was unaccounted for or unspent” in FY 2019, the last year complete figures were available. The rest of that year’s $16 billion appropriation was put against five-year construction and other projects to include “my Number One priority,” plutonium pit manufacturing at Los Alamos, N.M., and the Savannah River site in South Carolina.
Gordon-Hagerty said this capability hasn’t been used in 40 years but is necessary for the safety of the nuclear stockpile.
Both the House Armed Services Committee and the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee approved measures that would adhere to the Pentagon’s request to add the second submarine.
But lawmakers have yet to reach a spending deal and with the Oct. 1. start of the next fiscal year looming, Congress is expected to pass a continuing resolution to keep the government-funded. Between now and that deadline, Congress will send over to the White House a stopgap appropriations bill that will last at least through the presidential election in November.
The “continuing resolution” has important restrictions on spending for new programs, killing old ones or upping funding for programs such as the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine.
Lord added she would support a provision in the stopgap spending bill to allow the Columbia program to grow until the president signs the final appropriations act.
What brought so much attention to this part of the federal budget was the Department of Energy’s failure last year to hand over its budget to the Pentagon’s Nuclear Weapons Council to ensure it met defense strategic requirements, before submission to Congress.
Lord, who chairs the council, said this year the numbers were received in a timely manner. Following her guidance in May, the Pentagon, National Nuclear Security Administration and the Office of Management and Budget are reviewing Energy’s proposed request for the coming fiscal year. Three-quarters of that department’s budget goes to defense nuclear programs from submarines to long-range cruise missiles, to Navy propulsion systems.
In his opening remarks, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) was critical attempts by House Democrats to delay or kill some modernization programs and change the way nuclear programs are reviewed by the two cabinet-level departments.
“Bad actors” in the Department of Energy “lied to us” about changes that have been worked into bills this year.
“The real threat,” Inhofe said, “is one of our own making” by adding a new layer of bureaucracy, prohibiting some levels of cooperation between the NNSA and the Pentagon, destroying NNSA independence and “possibly do irreversible harm” to modernization programs to include replacing some buildings that were used in the Manhattan Project.
“We’re at a tipping point,” Lord said because the nation’s “potential adversaries have moved in the other direction” in terms of nuclear weapons and infrastructure.
To not modernize, Richard said “strikes at the core of our credibility as a nuclear power state.”