$350B DoD nuke makeover efforts lack oversight, say inspectors

Still, it's not like it's a matter of life and death, is it?

The US Department of Defense's update of its aging nuclear arsenal could cost as much as $350 billion over the next 20 years, yet oversight problems mean that some of the cash infusion could be wasted.

In a snapshot report issued by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), inspectors stated that more than a dozen recommendations for improving oversight of the DoD's nuclear enterprise going back to 2018 have yet to be acted upon despite how crucial such a mechanism is for supporting US nuclear deterrence missions.

The issues affect efforts to modernize the US nuclear arsenal across its triad of operation: land-based ICBMs, nuclear missile-carrying submarines, and aerially deployed bombs.

On land, Minuteman III ICBMs are 50 years past their planned service life, but won't be replaced until at least 2030 by the new Sentinel system. Columbia-class nuclear ballistic missile submarines to replace the aging Ohio-class fleet won't be ready for at least four more years, necessitating a lifespan expansion for Ohio subs from 30 to 42 years and keeping naval nuclear deterrence on a back foot. And B-52 bombers from the early 1960s are still in service, and aren't being retired, just upgraded. New B-21 bombers are on their way to replace the B-2 stealth bomber sometime this decade too. In other words, there are a lot of moving parts to this nuclear modernization effort.

But rather than addressing the GAO's recommendations to eliminate oversight wrinkles from such a complex process, things at the DoD seem to have only become worse, the report found.

"DoD has significantly modified its nuclear enterprise oversight structure multiple times since 2021, putting oversight continuity at risk and potentially affecting senior leaders' ability to make informed decisions," the GAO said.

The brief two-page report noted that the DoD established a group "to ensure the long-term health of DoD's nuclear enterprise" way back in 2014 after concluding "that no single entity governs the loose federation of nuclear activities spread across multiple organizations."

"Nuclear enterprise problems do not exist in isolation and require a coordinated, holistic approach to resolve," the DoD reportedly remarked nine years ago.

But in 2021 it scrapped the 2014 group for another that would assume the same responsibilities. That group didn't last long, and was replaced the very next year "with a nuclear-focused Deputy's Management Action Group," the GAO noted.

We asked the DoD why it rebooted oversight efforts in recent years, but have yet to receive a response. According to the GAO, the changes were "mostly their shift from conducting many targeted actions based on the hundreds of recommendations from the 2014 DOD and independent Nuclear Enterprise Reviews toward some of the longer-term efforts."

"Our concern has been that as DoD has replaced one oversight group with another, the level of senior attention to ongoing nuclear enterprise reforms would wane," Chuck Young, the GAO's public affairs director, told The Register. That loss of attention hasn't materialized, Young noted, "but none of the replacement groups to the original mechanisms has been around long enough to provide a good track record."

Wrangling rankling recommendations

Assistant Secretary of Defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs Deborah Rosenblum announced a "proactive, integrated approach" to nuclear modernization at the DoD in August 2022, describing it as something the Defense Department had no option but to act on.

"This work is so important and so vital and is really a no-fail mission for us, we need to make sure that the senior-most leadership of the department remains focused on it, is actively working on it [and] is solving problems and challenges," Rosenblum said last year.

If the GAO's 15 outstanding recommendations are any indication, Rosenblum's rhetoric may be about as far as the changes went. 

Two recommendations from 2018 are outstanding, including one requesting the DoD "update the applicable guidance to establish methods for communication and collaboration among organizations that have oversight responsibilities for portions of the nuclear enterprise."

Three issues identified in 2021 are outstanding, with oversight role clarification and establishing documentation regarding such unacted upon. Recommendations from 2022 that have yet to be acted on include establishing a joint risk management process, establishing project prioritization criteria, and figuring out how to apply said criteria. 

Issues identified this year center on the Columbia-class nuclear submarine, which the GAO said has been hampered as the US Navy "lacks insight into the program's schedule because the shipbuilder hasn't conducted a schedule risk analysis."

Still, the GAO noted, there have been successes, which Young attributed to DoD leadership's ability to maintain that aforementioned attention and focus among its new oversight team.

"The degree to which DoD maintains that focus and attention, in the face of fiscal, strategic, and many other challenges, remains to be seen," Young said. ®

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