Sen. James Inhofe (R- Okla.) on Thursday made good on his promise to sharply increase the budget for Department of Energy nuclear weapons programs at the expense of the Navy’s attack submarines.

The news Thursday, part of a press briefing on the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), followed Inhofe’s activism with President Donald Trump over the winter, when the Senate Armed Services Committee chair got religion about authorizing a nearly $20-billion budget for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) in the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1 — 20 perent more than the 2020 budget of over $16.5 billion.

Then as now, Inhofe accepted the rationale behind NNSA Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty’s 11th-hour plea in January for more funding: that a year-long, internal NNSA study proved the DoE branch needed much more than the roughly $17.5 billion that Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette was willing to seek for 2021.

“The Department of Energy … came up about $2.5 billion short and we made an appeal to the President of the United States that it should be reinstated because it was a shortfall that did not treat our weapons capability the way it should,” the octogenarian Oklahoman, who is running for reelection, told reporters Thursday on a conference call.

A Senate Armed Services aide said on the call that the committee’s NDAA has all $1.4 billion the NNSA sought for new plutonium pit plants at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Savannah River Site, up about $570 million from 2020. Also, the bill authorizes $53 million for NNSA to start work on the proposed W93 warhead, which would be the first new warhead design since the end of the Cold War.

The bill could come to the Senate floor as soon as next week, committee aides said, at which point the committee will release the bill text, plus a detailed report revealing proposed funding for individual programs.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the committee’s ranking member, confirmed that NNSA’s increased authorization means the Navy will be authorized to build one Virginia-class attack submarine in 2021, rather two, as requested. However, Reed said, the service will get around $400 million worth of long-lead procurement money toward the second boat, up from $250 million requested.

That way, Reed said, “they’re ready to go basically,” on the next attack sub, “if not this year [2021], then in the first opportunity.” The second Virginia-class ship the Navy wanted to build in 2021 would be the 10th in the series.

Despite Inhofe’s enthusiasm for increasing the NNSA’s budget, some Senate Armed Services members chaffed this year at an apparent communications breakdown between NNSA and the Pentagon about the civilian agency’s 2021 budget, committee aides said. 

According to a summary of the Senate committee’s NDAA posted online, the bill “[i]mproves [Pentagon] coordination, insight, and participation in the NNSA budget development process and improves transparency of the NNSA budget for Congress and the public.”

Committee aides declined to be more specific Thursday on the phone, but they did say the bill would require the NNSA to check in with the Nuclear Weapons Council at various times while crafting future civilian nuclear weapons budgets.

Meanwhile, the House Armed Services Committee plans to mark up its version of the 2021 NDAA on July 1, tackling the nuclear-weapons portions of the bill in a subcommittee mark scheduled for June 22. 

The House committee has shown little appetite to authorize $20 billion for NNSA, or to authorize only one Virginia-class attack submarine for the coming fiscal year. However, the House’s Democratic majority got rolled last year in conference negotiations with the GOP-controlled Senate, and the NNSA wound up with more funding that it requested.

Annual NDAAs set policy and spending limits for defense programs. Subsequent appropriations bills actually provide funding, and authorization bills routinely approve more funding than spending bills actually make available. 

Politico reported this week that the Senate Appropriations Committee will begin marking up bills the week of June 22, and that the House Appropriations Committee will begin its work the week of July 6.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), chair of the House Appropriations Energy and Water Subcommittee, has flatly said the NNSA will not get a $20 billion budget from her appropriations panel. 

Last year, Democrats were especially wary of expanding the NNSA’s plutonium pit complex to produce 80 pits a year by 2030. 

They’ll have that fight on their hands again this year.

The Senate committee’s NDAA authorizes $835 million for Los Alamos pits in 2021, up nearly $530 million year-over-year. For Savannah River pits, the bill authorizes more than $440 million, or about $30 million above the 2020 budget. There is also an NNSA-wide pit account that the bill would authorize at $90 million for 2021, some $10 million higher than 2020.

NNSA is expanding PF-4 to cast 10 war-ready pits in 2024, 20 a year by 2025, and 30 annually, the plant’s nominal yearly workload, by 2026. The Savannah River Plutonium Processing Facility, to be built from the remains of the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, would make the other 50 pits annually starting in 2030. NNSA says either plant could handle 80 pits a year alone, but the agency also admits it will be challenged to actually make 80 pits a year 10 years from now.