Nuclear weapons spending has become a hot-button issue in recent years, particularly as it becomes increasingly clear that our budget cannot sustain the current nuclear modernization strategy. Those in favor of upgrades argue that in order to reduce nuclear weapons numbers while maintaining our deterrent capability, modernization is key. This myopic view of spending on nuke upgrades fails to bring key internal and external inadequacies into view, and instead undermines the legitimacy of our future deterrent strategy.
By not keeping an eye on internal inadequacies and by perpetuating a culture of complacency, our nuclear weapons management reputation has been tarnished, likely affecting the way our allies and enemies see our future deterrent capability.
In the late 1990s, the Department of Energy fell victim to cost overruns and security issues. At the urging of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, Congress created a new semi-autonomous entity in 1999 called the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). By creating a separate governing body, the security and overhead could be streamlined to minimize gaps in security and duplication in oversight.
However, while the role of NNSA has remained the same—to oversee our nation’s nuclear weapons management, development, and nonproliferation and nuclear security efforts—the entity itself has run into the same budgetary and security issues that it was created to solve.
Where we stand today
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has criticized NNSA’s inefficiencies, structure, and cost/security balance for years without change. In one of the latest attempts to create positive momentum, the Congressional Advisory Panel on the Governance of the Nuclear Security Enterprise, created in 2013, released its interim report in March.
The Panel reports that NNSA is doing relatively well on the physical management and modernization side. It states that, “Stockpile Stewardship has succeeded in sustaining confidence in our nuclear deterrent.” But it also reports that NNSA is not focusing enough on the culture, hierarchy, and vision of the Enterprise, which has led to mistrust, confusion, and ineffective, reactionary solutions. “This is not time for complacency about the nuclear deterrent,” says the panel, “our allies depend on these forces and capabilities for extended deterrence and could well pursue their own nuclear weapon capabilities if they perceive the US commitment or competency to be weakening.”
In other words, by focusing on nuclear weapons’ physical structure without also putting substantial effort into repairing the NNSA’s rocky foundation, we may very well be damaging the future of our security and the legitimacy of our nuclear deterrent. This sentiment is echoed by the panel’s key finding that “[t]he current viability of our nuclear deterrent is not in question. At the same time, the existing governance structures and practices are most certainly inefficient and in some instances ineffective, putting the entire Enterprise at risk over the long term.”
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) weighs in
From September 2012 to May 2014, the GAO conducted an examination of DOE/NNSA 2009 – 2012 security reforms and the implementation of these reforms aimed at improving the security enterprise. The main conclusion of the May 2014 report was that while the NNSA has made efforts toward improvement, they have not been enough, have not been implemented evenly across sites, and there has not been diligent record keeping of quantifiable progress. The report states, the “efforts to-date have not prevented several serious security incidents” and “the goals for security appear to be less clearly defined and less focused than previous attempts at security reform.”
One of the worst and perhaps most well-known security breaches during this period was at the Y-12 National Security Complex. Protestors including a nun, Sister Megan Rice, were able to use simple bolt cutters to reach a restricted area that contained highly enriched uranium (HEU). The consequent DOE report cited a litany of inadequacies leading up to the incident including “troubling displays of ineptitude…, misunderstanding of security protocols, poor communications, and weaknesses in contract and resource management.”
Finally, the GAO says that “without developing a clear vision and path forward for its security program,” the NNSA risks further deterioration of inter-agency collaboration, NNSA/nuclear laboratory trust, physical security, and of the organizational health of our security enterprise.
The bright side
The new Under Secretary for Nuclear Security and NNSA Administrator, Frank G. Klotz, responded to the GAO report in a three-paragraph letter stating that the “NNSA agrees with the GAO’s recommendation and has already initiated an effort to develop a security roadmap for NNSA.” The “road map” Klotz refers to has an estimated due date of December 31, 2014.
Beyond this anticipated course of action, Klotz’s presence itself might be a guiding light for positive change. Klotz is a retired Air Force Lieutenant General who has made safety and security his top priority in his new post. Additionally, Klotz has experience streamlining nuclear weapons control and amending faulty security systems, having successfully led Global Strike Command from 2009 to 2011, the team that was created to rectify issues with the Air Force’s management of nuclear weapons.
The NNSA’s mission and success are vital to our national security. Perhaps Klotz’s experience and commitment coupled with a new, forward-looking vision will drive the NNSA’s internal structure towards balance and more effective policies.