Inconsistent acquisition authorities for nuclear weapons are harming modernization

305th AMW supports B-52

A U.S. Air Force B-52H Stratofortress flies alongside a KC-10 Extender assigned to the 305th Air Mobility Wing, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Stephanie Serrano)

The Pentagon has made reforming the acquisition process a priority, and is sprinting ahead with its efforts, despite the occasional bump in the road. But in the following op-ed, CSIS’s Sarah Mineiro says that in its rush, the Defense Department can’t leave nuclear modernization behind.

Nuclear weapons are among the most important and complex weapon systems that the Department of Defense uses to fulfill its mission to sustain and strengthen US deterrence. They are also some of the most expensive systems that the United States has ever developed and maintains. And as has been recognized now by Congress, the DoD, and the National Nuclear Security Administration their delivery systems are all approaching obsolescence and require modernization.

While visions of mushroom clouds are popularly associated with nuclear weapons delivery systems, for those of us who consider ourselves experts in the acquisition of strategic weapons systems, something inspires even more legitimate visions of fright: overly bureaucratic, inflexible acquisition processes.

The reality is that currently the acquisition and development of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems are beholden to at least two rigorously inflexible acquisition systems — the much-maligned standard Series 5000 acquisition, and NNSA’s 6X series. Both of processes work to reflect the legal, regulatory, and programmatic realities of complex weapon system development and procurement. NNSA’s 6.X series also poignantly embodies the political reality that no administration in the past 20 years has wanted to admit to developing a “new” nuclear weapon. Instead, thanks to some impressive bureaucratic two-stepping, every nuke to enter service is technically only a change in the “quantity production” phase of existing designs.

These processes are needlessly cumbersome obstacles to a modernized nuclear force, and Congress and the administration must reevaluate their usefulness.

Over the past few years, the Department of Defense has heard vociferous complaints about the inflexibility of its acquisition system, specifically with regard to how the DoD acquires software, AI/ML algorithms, and generally VC-based innovative dual-use technology. They have done an admiral job in attempting to build more flexibility into the system, reward more risk-takers in the acquisition and contracting process, and set a tone at the very top echelons of the Department to remedy these system challenges. All of this is admirable work and not to be underestimated in its impact for future weapon systems.

But the process if hardly fixed, and procurement officials are facing more challenges. The global economy has been ravaged by the realities of COVID-19 since 2019. Commodity prices remain historically unstable, workforce availability remains a legitimate challenge especially for cleared workers that are required to show up to secret or top secret facilities, and in general both Congress and the DoD have recognized negative impacts on weapon system procurement overall.

While there is plenty of risk to be absorbed by most weapon systems, nuclear weapon systems do not have that luxury. There is no acceptable slip in readiness for our nuclear weapons delivery systems be they based on air, land, or at sea. There is no acceptable incurred gap in capabilities for our nuclear triad. Given the macroeconomic situation, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s withdrawal from New START and his erroneous belief that the employment of a “tactical nuclear weapon” is somehow less escalatory in a regional conflict, and the impending modernization timelines for our nuclear weapons delivery systems, what resources does the Department of Defense have to make sure these programs get delivered on time and within budget?

Thankfully the department has a few options that could be helped aided by Congressional advocacy:

  1. Keep doing your good things. Beyond reconsidering the Series 5000 and 6.X processes, the DoD should absolutely leverage the good work that it has done to reform its acquisition system to be more flexible in accordance with the “Adaptive Acquisition Framework.” This framework outlines acquisition pathways for DoD entities “to select based on program size, risk, urgency, complexity and other characteristics.” While it is not widely known and even less widely used, these authorities already exist and can be applied to a vast number of components necessary for nuclear weapons delivery systems. While everybody thinks of the actual weapon that NNSA is responsible for delivering to the department, the vast majority of the actual components for the delivery system are non-nuclear. Things like fuses, chips, transistors, communications, positioning navigation and timing systems all are necessary components that need to be developed and acquired and should leverage creative and flexible acquisition approaches.
  2. Be consistent with your authorities for the nuclear weapons enterprise. The reality is that both Congress and the Department of Defense have realized that some strategic weapon systems are special and have granted them additional flexible authority to reduce procurement costs, including multiyear procurement and block-buy contracting – authorities that have already been granted to the Navy for the Virginia-class Block V procurement contract [PDF]. But no such authority has been granted to the Air Force for the other two legs of the nuclear triad. Multiyear contracting lasting two to five years could help keep programmatic costs down from an estimated 5 to15 percent across the procurement. It also fights inflation, provides stability to commodity prices, and allows for the industrial base to hire at sustainable rates to ensure the programs get executed on time and within budget. Congress should extend these authorities to the rest of our nuclear weapon delivery systems.
  3. It is of critical importance that people understand that the mission and existential realities of nuclear weapons necessitates true, honest, and rigorous debate. Nuclear weapons are unique in the extent of their potential destruction and role in broader deterrence frameworks — so to must their acquisition authorities. At the very least the acquisition authorities for their delivery systems should be relatively congruent.

Nuclear weapons and their delivery systems are among the most powerful weapons that humans have ever created. The argument here is not necessarily about use of these weapons, it is a plea to bureaucrats to be as creative in protecting humanity as it was in creating this class of weapons in the first place.

Sarah Mineiro was the staff lead of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee on the House Armed Services Committee for the House Republicans and is now a Senior Associate with CSIS Aerospace Security Project.

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