Nuclear weapons are one of a trilogy of high-spend programs likely to affect defense spending decisions for years, the chair of a House Appropriations panel said Tuesday in an online hearing.

“Cyber security, nuclear modernization and overseas contingency operations funding sound like they’re three unrelated topics,” Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), chair of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, said in the hearing. “[T]he common thread that unites them is the significant impact they all have had on our bill the last several years, and how they will continue to shape our work for the years to come.”

The Biden administration is in the middle of reviewing the ongoing nuclear modernization program started in 2016 at the Department of Energy and the Pentagon by the Obama administration. 

In the meantime, top Biden appointees have declined to back some of modernization regimen’s key acquisition efforts, including the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile and the DoE National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) construction of new plutonium-pit factories to build nuclear-weapon cores at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C. 

At Tuesday’s hearing, McCollum asked the sole nuclear-focused witness, James Acton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, if there was “any scenario in which you would recommend moving forward” with GBSD, the planned replacement for the current fleet of 400 Minuteman III missiles. 

Acton, co-director of the endowment’s nuclear policy program, didn’t say if there was or wasn’t — but he did say that someone should conduct an independent review of a 2015 Analysis of Alternatives the Pentagon conducted ahead of the GBSD procurement, which went to Northrop Grumman [NOC] in September under a nine-year, $13-billion contract. 

“[T]he 2015 analysis of alternatives … reportedly assumed that we should retain 450 [missiles],” Acton said. “That requirement has already dropped to 400 ICBMs and that matters because the fewer [missiles] we keep, the more we have that are available for testing and hence the longer you can sustain the Minuteman III force for.”

The House Appropriations Committee could require a review such as Acton suggested in a future budget bill, either as a condition of providing funds for GBSD, or in addition to whatever funds the committee recommends. The Senate, where majority Democrats may not vote against GBSD en bloc and do not have enough votes to pass legislation without Republican help even if they did, would still have to approve such a reporting requirement.

If there is a review of the 2015 analysis of alternatives, Acton said, it should “look over some of the options that weren’t considered in the 2015 analysis of alternatives … including slightly reducing the size of the Minuteman III forces as a means of keeping it viable for longer.”