How To Fix Our Broken Nuclear Weapons Enterprise; DoD Must Take Over

on April 29, 2014 at 12:00 PM

Pantex plant for nucelar weapons

Why is America’s nuclear weapons enterprise — the vast array of national laboratories and other facilities that make, build and maintain our nuclear warheads — so problem-ridden? Is it because the big weapons laboratories (Los Alamos, Livermore, and Sandia) have too much autonomy, or because they have too little? Is it because the Department of Energy (DOE) exercises too much oversight or not enough? Is it because the Pentagon demands too little of the weapons processes or because it demands too much? Is it because Congress or the White House are involved too little or too much? Is it because the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA’s) weapons-related projects are incomplete, late, and over budget or is it because its projects are . . . over budget, late, and incomplete?

These views reflect the frustrations of the core players in the enterprise: NNSA, DOE, DOD, and the big weapons laboratories. For the most part, these frustrations and complaints are not so much diagnostics as they are pleas for reducing friction.

But acting on these pleas would relieve — at best — only the symptoms and not the underlying malaise that afflicts the enterprise. The underlying pathology is the fractionated authority that is supposed to organize the participants to work toward a common goal. Unless the basic organization is changed, its constituent agencies are doomed to continue to frustrate and disappoint one another, further exacerbating the hard feelings and bad blood that are already on display. The current dysfunctional system provides no authoritative means to align the incentives of its individual components with progress toward joint objectives. Each component can pursue the right as it is inspired to see the right, confirmed in its views by its oversight and support groups, even as its actions complicate and hamper the work of the others.

Sandia nuclear weapons component test

This is not a particularly unusual development in larger organizations, and it can be seen today in the nuclear weapons world by asking each major element “what is your primary business?” Taking into account their words and their resource allocations, I think the nuclear labs would answer their business is Science; for the Pentagon, it is Deterrence; for NNSA, it is Non-Proliferation; and for DOE, it is alternative energy (or everything in its remit except nuclear weapons). To be sure, there is a lot of competition within each of these organizations over precisely this question, and their views of their primary business do change over time.

The national mission that ties these elements together is something like: “ensuring a safe, secure, reliable, effective [add adjectives to taste] arsenal of militarily relevant nuclear weapons.” In principle, there could be an organizational structure with that mission and with the authority to try herding the participant cats. There has not been such an arrangement, but variations of it have been talked about. More talking is sure to follow reports from the congressionally-mandated Augustine-Mies Commission (which says “the ‘NNSA experiment’ involving creation of a semi-autonomous organization has failed”). There will be suggestions that NNSA be fully separated from DOE and that it be completely re-integrated into DOE; that the national mission be given to a new organization, perhaps a Federally-Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC); that vigorous leadership by the Secretary of Energy or Defense or the White House will evoke productive new harmony, perhaps provoked by Russian aggression.

It matters little whether any of those suggestions is adopted: they will not make much difference. The authorities for determining priorities would still be diffracted by diverse organizations.

Moreover, the continuing systemic contention is of some benefit to the participants: it helps ensure that local priorities are met adequately, if not entirely. This perhaps counter-intuitive outcome results from the impossibility of linking deficiencies in any particular area to shortcomings in the overall national mission. Each year the responsible parties sign papers that “certify” the safety, security, reliability, and effectiveness of the nuclear stockpile; the White House reviews those papers, endorses them, and passes them to Congress. We can be sure that the nuclear stockpile will be “certified” next year and for many years to come, if only because doing otherwise would entail incalculable consequences at home and abroad. With a guaranteed “A” for work, participants in the nuclear weapons enterprise have wider latitude to frustrate, disappoint, antagonize, and complain about one another in pursuit of local priorities.

This lack of a meaningful metric to assess the national mission makes it hard to compel cooperation. The only way to establish a common approach is to put the Nuclear Weapons Enterprise under one authority, which means abandoning the shibboleth that nuclear weapons production must be kept out of military hands. Only the weapons business would be reassigned, not all of the activities of the weapons laboratories or NNSA.

The people responsible for executing the defense mission must be responsible for acquiring the weapons to do so. The dynamic processes of requirements and acquisition must be brought together; demand and supply must interact continuously; the customer who will use the product must have the means to enforce production values; and legislative oversight of defense programs must reside with defense committees.

And to overseers, public interest groups, the General Accountability Office, and departmental inspectors general: do not fear unemployment. There will still be problems aplenty.

Bob Butterworth, a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, is a consultant and expert on nuclear issues and intelligence. The president of Aries Analytics, Butterworth was former senior advisor to the head of Space Command and was a staffer on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, as well as on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.