Congress’ fight over the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) 2021 budget poses “challenges” for rolling out new nuclear delivery systems and carrier vehicles that already are poised to debut “just barely in time,” the Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Thursday morning.

“If you’ve been in the acquisition business in this building very long, programs don’t always deliver just in time,” Air Force Gen. John Hyten, the No. 2 uniformed officer in the U.S. military, said during a question and answer session in a webcast hosted by the National Defense University’s Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction. “So that causes me some concern.”

Hyten would not answer yes or no when asked whether the NNSA’s 2019 decision to delay production of B61-12 nuclear gravity bombs and W88 Alt 370 submarine-launched ballistic missiles would delay initial deployment of those weapons to Strategic Command forces, compared with timelines envisioned in 2019.

However, the four-star did say that “we have laid in, especially through the Nuclear Weapons Council, an integrated way to manage the [nuclear modernization] program. So we’re not just looking at IOC (initial operational capability) for weapons, and IOC for platforms, but we’re looking at when the requirement is for the integrated capabilities to be delivered and fielded.” 

As an example, Hyten said what mattered was whether the B61-12 would be ready for the B-21 Raider that Northrop Grumman [NOC] is priming for a debut next decade, or whether the NNSA’s W80-4 warhead refresh would wrap up in time to tip the Long Range Standoff Weapon cruise missile slated to be fitted on B-52H bombers in 2030 or so.

“[W]e track to the integrated capabilities,” Hyten said. “And if you look at it from the integrated approach, everything lines up and everything’s on time right now. It’s just in time though.”

Hyten said the relationship between the DoE and the Pentagon, which collaborate on nuclear weapons procurement through their Nuclear Weapons Council, is closer than at any time since his career, which included a stint as commander of U.S. Strategic Forces. 

He also said he worried that the House’s decision to appropriate $18-plus billion for the NNSA, some $2 billion less than requested, would imperil the agency’s ongoing weapons-modernization work.

“So the secretary has directed us to do everything we can to give us margin,” said Hyten. “Extending the current capabilities as far out to the right as we can and doing everything we can to add margin in the [new] programs so that they deliver on time.”