On Monday, not long after senior nuclear-weapons managers gathered outside of Washington and lamented programmatic gear-grinding caused by what they called premature attempts to pin down costs, the House Armed Services chair asked the president to consider shrinking the arsenal, in part over concerns about its affordability.  

The Biden administration’s forthcoming Nuclear Posture Review should “[t]ask the Secretary of Defense and the Commander of Strategic Command to provide you specific, credible, and realistic options to reduce the requirements that drive the size and diversity of the U.S. arsenal,” Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) wrote in a letter to the White House. The missive was dated Monday and shared widely with the press.

Smith called in the

letter for a nuclear arsenal that is “ safe, secure, reliable [and] affordable.”

Smith also said the posture review should “[t]ask the Secretary of Energy to provide specific, credible, and realistic options for reducing cost and ensuring success of the modernization program of the National Nuclear Security Administration [NNSA].” Congress has levied “an increasing number of requirements” on an NNSA complex troubled by “massive cost increases, schedule delays, and cancellations of billion-dollar programs,” according to Smith. “This must end.”

Staff-level work on the White House Nuclear Posture Review began in the Pentagon last month, administration officials said last week at the Exchange Monitor’s annual Nuclear Deterrence Summit. The review is nominally to be published in January as part of an updated national defense strategy that serves as a signal to allies, adversaries and industry alike.

Also at the Deterrence Summit last week, senior nuclear-weapons managers alluded to a perpetual Catch-22 faced by the civilian nuclear weapons complex: those making policies and decisions about long-term projects often want cost and schedule forecasts before anyone in the agency has the ability to make a forecast that will stick.

“The fear is, we don’t want people to think that there’s a lot more fidelity to those early numbers than there really are,” Robert Raines, associate administrator for acquisition and project management, said at the summit. “Because then the credibility that we’ve built up is damaged.”

“There’s this expectation that’s out there that the plans can be developed at the outset, just written down and then [we] go execute them,” Bob Webster, deputy director for weapons at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, said at the summit. “That’s not true for R&D and we’re seeing more and more pressure to down-select decisions,” said Webster, including in his assessment the NNSA’s plan for restoring a U.S. capacity to make pits, the plutonium cores of nuclear-weapon primary stages.

The pressure to “downselect requirements before you’ve actually got the data to make an informed decision … is not quite working,” Webster said. “We’re locking decisions in that are bad decisions and then having to recover late.”