House Democrats failed in their effort to slow procurement of next-generation, nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles via the 2020 National Defense Appropriations Act, the final version of which funds the program at nearly the requested level, while also approving the Department of Energy’s plan to build warheads for the missile.
However, the bill is loaded with legally binding language requiring several new, unclassified reports about the Pentagon’s effort to replace some 400 aging, silo-based Minuteman III missiles with Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) missiles that would go into service beginning in 2030 and stay in service into the 2080s.
President Trump on Tuesday said he would sign the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which sets policy and spending limits for defense programs. The House expects to vote on the compromise legislation Wednesday. Progressives in the House have signaled their opposition, but their caucus alone lacks the votes to derail the bill.
The latest NDAA would authorize a little more than $550 million for GBSD: some $20 million less than requested for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. That includes a $40 million program reduction — details of which were not part of the 2020 NDAA’s bill report — partially offset by some $20 million in nuclear command and control funding that Congress shuffled into the GBSD program within the Air Force’s Research, Development, Test and Evaluation account.
Boeing [BA] and Northrop Grumman [NOC], under three-year contracts awarded in 2017, were maturing competing GBSD designs until this year, when Boeing dropped out of the competition for the follow-on contract to build and deploy the missiles. In a July letter to the Air Force, the company cited an insurmountable competitive advantage for Northrop Grumman, which owns its own solid-rocket motor business. The service in October responded by cutting off funding for Boeing’s GBSD Technology Maturation and Risk Reduction contract.
That has drawn the ire of many, including Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the chair of the House Armed Services Committee, resulting in bill language that would force the Pentagon to provide an unclassified report on the risks of building GBSD under a sole-source award. The report would be due 60 days after Trump signs the NDAA into law.
Whatever happens with the GBSD bidding — Boeing has tacitly reserved the right to protest either the competition, set to end Dec. 13, or an eventual award, set for summer of 2020 — the Defense Department will be on the hook to write annual, unclassified progress reports about GBSD and its planned W87-1 warhead, beginning on Feb. 15, 2020.
These reports would be due on Feb. 15 for each year until the GBSD program hits Milestone C: the point in the Pentagon’s project system that directly precedes deployment of new weapon systems.
Each of these unclassified progress reports would, among other things, have to estimate how long it would take to get GBSD to its planned initial operational capability, and explain program delays.
That encompasses both delays with the solid-fueled missile itself, its W87-1 nuclear warhead, or even the civilian-owned Department of Energy infrastructure that produces the warhead’s plutonium core, or pit. The Pentagon would write the report with the cooperation of the DoE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA): the semi-autonomous DoE agency that builds nuclear warheads and bombs.
The NNSA itself was also saddled with new reporting requirements, which if onerous to the agency are at least not the funding reductions that Smith and House Democrats sought for the program in the version of the NDAA that passed the House this summer.
The compromise NDAA would authorize around $710 million for the NNSA to design and build a two-state pit complex at DoE sites in New Mexico and South Carolina, and require that complex to produce not fewer than 80 pits a year by 2030. The House NDAA would have provided only $410 million or so and limited the pit complex to Los Alamos, for now.
Under the NNSA’s current plans, Los Alamos will start making 10 pits a year in 2024, then ramp up to 30 annually by 2030, at which time the planned Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility will begin making another 50 pits annually.
Yet a pair of 2018 reports paid for by the NNSA have found that the civilian agency is unlikely to hit the 80-pits-a-year target by 2030, and that the South Carolina facility, which is not specifically authorized in the 2020 NDAA, probably couldn’t cast 50 pits a year until 2035 or so. Senior NNSA officials have said publicly they can pull the schedule to the left, but Congress is looking for more specifics.
To that end, the new NDAA would require the NNSA to have its Cost Estimating and Program Evaluation office, which is independent from individual agency program offices, analyze the agency’s decision to replace the W78 warhead on Minuteman III missiles with W87-1 warheads. In a double-whammy for the agency, the NDAA would also require the NNSA to hire the JASON group of scientists employed by the MITRE Corp. to do a parallel study on the decision to replace W78 with the more complicated W87.
The Air Force expects GBSD to cost about $100 billion over its lifetime. The NNSA’s two-state pit production complex is forecast to cost some $30 billion over its lifetime.
As always, congressional appropriations committees will have to produce Pentagon and DoE spending bills to fund GBSD at the authorized level before the Defense and Energy Departments can proceed with their plans to reinforce the land-based leg of the U.S. nuclear forces known as the triad.
At deadline Tuesday for Defense Daily, the government was funded under a short-term continuing resolution that extended 2019 budgets through Dec. 20.
Meanwhile, Democrats and Republicans continue to clash over whether to provide funding for Trump’s proposed southern border wall in permanent appropriations bills that would release increased funding for GBSD and GBSD-adjacent programs.