The Department of Defense’s (DOD) current nuclear weapons management presents a major risk to national security, per the latest Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.
The GAO report, published on Thursday, found that the DOD has failed to resolve many oversight issues since 2021. The GAO — Congress’ auditing, evaluation, and investigative arm — also noted that problematic discontinuity in nuclear oversight structure began in the final week of the Trump administration.
“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,” stated the GAO.
It was on January 14, 2021, six days before President Joe Biden took office, that Acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller replaced the Nuclear Deterrent Enterprise Review Group (NDERG), which had addressed issues from nuclear enterprise reviews since 2014, with another group: the Secretary of Defense Nuclear Transition Review (SNTR). DOD then replaced the SNTR with another group last year: the Deputy’s Management Action Group (DMAG).
In an August 2021 report on SNTR, the GAO expressed concern that the group lacked specific roles and responsibilities, as well as procedures for internal and external communications.
Out of GAO’s three recommendations at the time, DOD has only implemented one: providing guidance to ensure the progress toward or completion of 2014 nuclear enterprise review recommendations.
In a related January 2022 report, the GAO issued four additional recommendations concerning DOD coordination with the Department of Energy (DOE), the agency responsible for the nuclear weapons modernization and infrastructure. None of these recommendations have been met.
In its latest report, the GAO again urged the DOD to take up its unmet recommendations over the years: to clarify roles and responsibilities of oversight organizations; establish methods of communication and collaboration among oversight organizations; prioritize programs, projects, and activities within the nuclear enterprise; and monitor issues affecting the nuclear enterprise.
DOD’s oversight issues were identified as part of GAO’s review of the DOD’s nuclear triad modernization efforts. The nuclear triad are the land, sea, and air nuclear weapons that make up the nation’s deterrence system, all of which are decades past their planned service life.
The DOD estimates that modernization of the nuclear defense systems would cost about $350 billion over the next 20 years.
The land leg, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), currently consists of Minuteman III, a system nearly 50 years past its planned service life. The Minuteman III system is scheduled to be replaced by the Sentinel missile system in 2030.
The sea leg, ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), currently consists of the Ohio-class submarines originally designed in the 1970s to last 30 years. The DOD extended those SSBNs’ service life to 42 years, and is scheduled to replace them with the Columbia-class SSBNs beginning in 2027.
The GAO issued a report in January on the Columbia-class SSNBs with six recommendations on conducting a schedule risk analysis. None of these recommendations have been met.
The air leg, bomber planes, currently consists of the B-52 and B-2 bombers, the former in operation since the 1950s and the latter in operation since the 1990s. The B-52 bombers are anticipated to last through the 2050s with modifications — though the GAO stressed greater urgency in accomplishing modernization — while the B-2 bombers are scheduled to be replaced by the B-21 bombers sometime within the next few years.