A draft National Defense Authorization Act due for a committee vote on Wednesday makes good on House Democrats’ promise to slow procurement of next-generation, nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The draft National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) would authorize less funding than requested for the program, and also calls on the Air Force to commission an independent study about extending the existing silo-launched, intercontinental ballistic missile fleet through 2050: something that, if possible, could short-circuit procurement of the replacement missiles entirely.
“The Air Force has indicated there is an opportunity to extend Minuteman III,” a House Armed Services Committee staffer for the majority told reporters last week in a background briefing about the proposed bill. Such an extension could include “not only repouring” Minuteman III’s solid-fueled rocket motors — removing their propellant, cleaning them, and putting the propellant back in — “but modernizing its capabilities,” the staffer said.
The Pentagon has said that it could cost as much or more to extend Minuteman III as it would to replace the fleet.
The latest draft NDAA is a long-promised legislative stroke by Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who even before Democrats retook the House in November’s midterm election questioned whether the Pentagon and the Department of Energy — which provides nuclear warheads — really need to rush to replace the 400 deployed Minuteman III missiles. The full Committee is scheduled to debate the proposed NDAA on Wednesday.
Smith’s bill authorizes 20% less funding than requested for procurement of the Boeing [BA]-built Minuteman III’s intended replacement, the silo-based Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) missiles. That would leave GBSD with a little more than $460 million instead of the $570 million requested for fiscal 2020: the final year of a three-year competitive development pitting Boeing– and Northrop Grumman [NOC]-led teams against one another to design GBSD.
The Air Force forecasts that GBSD will cost between $85 billion and $100 billion to procure.
The House’s proposal to trim GBSD sets up a showdown with the Senate, where the upper chamber’s Armed Services Committee has already produced a draft NDAA authorizing all the GBSD spending the Pentagon requested. The bill was not scheduled for a floor vote at deadline Monday.
The next domino to fall in this year’s congressional GBSD debate will be the Senate Armed Services Committee. The panel’s defense subcommittee had yet to write its annual military spending bill at deadline.
The House Appropriations Committee, on the other hand, has already approved the $460 million or so in GBSD funding that the Armed Services Committee proposes to authorize. That is still about 11.5% more than the program got in 2019.
The full House was slated to consider the Appropriations Committee’s defense spending bill beginning on Wednesday. The measure is part of a minibus appropriations package with five bills total, one of which funds the Department of Energy’s budget to build nuclear warheads and components for GBSD.
Within the civilian agency too, House Democrats have taken aim at GBSD.
In bill language, the house committee’s draft NDAA would relieve the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration from a legal requirement to prove it can annually produce 80 fissile warhead cores called plutonium pits by next decade. All of those cores would initially be for GBSD.
The National Nuclear Security Administration proposed casting the cores in at an upgraded facility at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, and a new facility at the Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C.
The House Armed Services Committee, like their colleagues on the appropriations committee, scaled back funding for the program and urged the agency to focus for now on making pits only at Los Alamos. The national security lab is slated to produce 30 cores annually by 2026, compared with 50 annually by 2030 in South Carolina.
The House Armed Services Committee authorized $471 million for 2020 for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Plutonium Sustainment program in 2020: about a 30% increase over 2019, but only half as large an increase as the agency sought for the coming fiscal year. The program includes design and construction of pit infrastructure.
The Senate Armed Services Committee authorized the requested funding for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s weapons programs, including both the pit plants the agency wants to build.