The House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday voted for more scrutiny of Department of Energy nuclear-weapon-site contracting and against a proposal to condition funding for the Secretary of Defense’s office on an intercontinental ballistic missile test.

The votes were part of the committee’s debate of the fiscal year 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the annual, must-pass bill that sets policy and spending limits for defense programs, including those at DoE’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

Early on in this year’s House-side NDAA debate, expected to last most of the day Wednesday and possibly into Thursday morning, the Armed Services Committee universally adopted a trio of uncontroversial, nuclear-related amendments. 

Two of the uncontroversial amendments are from Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-Texas). They require:

  • The Government Accountability Office to study NNSA’s process for awarding management and operations contracts — the potentially 10-year deals that determine the upper management for nuclear-weapon design labs, production and test sites — including a review of recent successful award protests. NNSA in May withdrew a potentially 10-year, $28-billion award for a Fluor [FLR]-led team to manage the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas, and the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., following protests by two losing bidders. Technically, these protests were denied by the Government Accountability Office because the NNSA volunteered to review the award internally. 
  • NNSA to brief House and Senate Armed Services Committees by Dec. 23 about the agency’s efforts to improve its process for awarding management and operations contracts. 

The third uncontroversial amendment, from Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.), requires a classified briefing to Congress on “U.S. nuclear launch processes and procedures, including the checks and balances that exist to prevent the accidental or inappropriate use of nuclear weapons.”

Meanwhile, the House Armed Services Committee struck down an amendment proposed by Rep. Blake Moore (R-Utah) that would have held back 25% of any 2023 funding appropriated for the Office of the Secretary of Defense until the Air Force conducted a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile test. The proposal fell 27-31, largely along party lines, with majority Democrats voting against it.

Minuteman III is the ground-based leg of the U.S. nuclear triad. The Air Force periodically pulls missiles out of silos, slaps dummy warheads on them and launches them toward the Marshall Islands in the Pacific to make sure any given silo’s missile is working as intended. Moore, and other Republicans, believed the Biden administration made a mistake by canceling a Minuteman III test planned in March, shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine. 

Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), ranking member of the Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee that writes the nuclear-weapons portions of the NDAA, supported the amendment. 

Lamborn said Russia always has knowledge of planned Minuteman III tests, which are scheduled far in advance, and therefore that canceling such a test, even after Russia launched its brutal war in Ukraine, served less to demonstrate U.S. restraint in the face of Russian aggression — as the White House said — and more to sow doubts among friendly nations about both the reliability of Minuteman III and U.S. resolve to use one, if the president deemed it necessary.

Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), the retiring chair of the strategic forces subcommittee, said the proposed gating of the Secretary of Defense’s budget was ill-advised and unnecessary, given that postponing March’s Minuteman III test neither altered the Air Force’s appraisal of the wider fleet’s reliability nor interfered with development of the Sentinel missile, also called the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, which is slated to replace Minuteman III beginning in 2030 or so.

Also, Cooper said, the Air Force plans more Minuteman III tests in August and September. In addition to pulling random missiles to test, the Air Force maintains a collection of spare Minuteman III rockets that can be used to test new technology for the current and future intercontinental ballistic missile fleets.