Nuclear modernization is frequently high on the list of difficult matters to resolve in defense budget debates, but the House Armed Services Committee’s top Republican expects efforts to rebuild the U.S. nuclear weapons production complex and modernize the three legs of the triad to be front and center in fiscal year 2021 defense authorization talks.

Lawmakers face an “enormous challenge” as they work through efforts to replace aging nuclear-armed bombers, submarines, missiles and munitions at the same time that the defense budget is scheduled to plateau over the next few years, said HASC Ranking Member Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) at a March 2 event at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

“This will be, I predict, the probably most contentious issue in this year’s defense authorization bill, about modernizing the stockpile,” Thornberry said. He referenced a “temptation” on the part of lawmakers to claim that the process for rebuilding the stockpile has “worked pretty well so far,” warning that the U.S. expertise on nuclear deterrence has atrophied since the Cold War.

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has requested about $20 billion in the FY ’21 presidential budget request, about $2.5 billion over its FY ’20 numbers. Lawmakers have already begun asking questions about why the agency requires such a raise when it retains about $8 billion in unappropriated funds (Defense Daily, Feb. 26).

Asked whether funding could be an issue for NNSA to fulfill its mission of rebuilding the nuclear stockpile, Thornberry answered that “it very well could be.”

“I think they have a decent plan to extend the stockpile and then we also have a decent plan to replace all three legs of the triad,” he said. However, “there is no slack in that plan.”

Thornberry emphasized that he is a strong defender of nuclear modernization, noting that it has “all sorts of implications, and yet it is never more than 7 percent of the defense budget in any year.”

He warned that the current moratorium on nuclear weapons testing could be preventing the U.S. government from developing more simple and reliable warheads.

“I don’t have the expertise to know whether testing is required or not,” he noted. However, he expressed concern over the possibility that laboratory directors are facing political pressure to certify the nuclear stockpile every year without testing.

“Are we so policing ourselves that we can’t even think about or explore those things?” he said.

Thornberry, who plans to retire from Congress in 2021 following more than two decades on the Hill, also reflected on the creation of the NNSA as a sub-agency within the Department of Energy in 2000.

“We went conservatively, working with the management,” Thornberry said. “I’m still not sure that was the right answer.” He added that having multiple stakeholders from outside of the DoE invested in the NNSA’s budget “does slow things down.”