The public debate about the future of the US nuclear arsenal is largely a controversy about strategy. But the outcome also has major implications for dollars and cents. The United States plans to spend more than $1.5 trillion over the next several decades to sustain and upgrade its nuclear delivery systems, associated warheads, and supporting infrastructure. The biggest bills for this effort, which are slated to hit over the next 10 to 15 years, pose a growing threat to other military and security priorities amid what most experts believe will be flat defense budgets. The cost of ongoing programs to buy new fleets of ballistic missile submarines, long-range bombers, and intercontinental ballistic missiles has generated the most attention.
Meanwhile, the exploding price tag of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s long-term plan to sustain and modernize the nuclear warheads and production facilities—now an exorbitant $505 billion—flies under the radar.
Now more than ever it’s important to scrutinize the National Nuclear Security Administration, which is a semiautonomous agency of the Energy Department. Most of the agency’s budget goes to contractors, though their contract mismanagement has repeatedly landed them on the Government Accountability Office’s high-risk list. Some projects have significantly exceeded initial cost estimates—in one case nearly eight times more than the initial price tag. While cost breaches of this magnitude at the Defense Department would have triggered a review that might have cancelled the programs, the National Nuclear Security Administration was able to waste billions with no threat of closure.
The agency’s past failures to complete major projects on time and on budget raise questions about its ability to execute a workload that has grown to unprecedented post-Cold War heights. Since the end of the Obama administration, the National Nuclear Security Administration weapon-activity spending has grown by roughly 70 percent. Last year, the agency requested a multibillion-dollar boost while sitting on $8 billion in unspent funds from past years.
Against this backdrop, nuclear-weapon hawks in Congress successfully pushed through a consequential change last year that gave the Pentagon much greater influence over the development of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s budget. This power grab will not only make it harder to rein in increasingly out-of-control agency spending but put other Energy Department national security programs at greater risk. As Congress moves to write annual defense authorization and appropriations legislation this summer, lawmakers should take steps to undo the Pentagon’s expanded authority and institute reforms in an attempt to reign in wasteful spending at the National Nuclear Security Administration.