National Security

Off to a Bad Start

Why is the president letting America's nukes rust?

In his April 8 article on FP, "Time to Face Facts," Secretary of State John Kerry observed how "in the Senate, we clawed our way to ratification [of the New START Treaty] with 71 votes, a big bipartisan statement that the arms control and nonproliferation consensus could hold together even in a polarized political culture."

The secretary fails to mention, however, that the reason he, as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, was able to "claw" together enough votes to secure ratification is that President Obama and the Senate agreed to a 10-year effort to modernize our aging nuclear weapons complex and our nuclear delivery systems. It was this consensus on the link between nuclear modernization and nuclear force reductions that made New START ratification possible -- not a consensus on arms control, as Secretary Kerry suggests.

In fact, the connection between nuclear modernization and nuclear stockpile reductions pre-dates the New START debate: It was advocated in 2009 by the Strategic Posture Commission led by William Perry and James Schlesinger, and it was affirmed by the president's 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, which noted that "these investments are essential to facilitating reductions while sustaining deterrence under New START and beyond."

Regrettably, the joint commitment to nuclear modernization, codified by the New START resolution of ratification and the president's message to the Senate on New START, is starting to dissolve due to a combination of budget pressures, new members of Congress who are unfamiliar with the state of our arsenal and the importance of maintaining a safe and credible deterrent, and a lack of leadership by the president.

To be sure, the president got off to a good start when he requested full funding for the weapons activities conducted by the National Nuclear Security Administration in his FY 2012 budget, yet he failed to fight for his request when congressional appropriators reduced that amount by $400 million. The following year, the president requested some $370 million less than promised for weapons activities, and deferred by at least five years the start of construction of a plutonium-handling facility in Los Alamos. His own Nuclear Posture Review had recommended that facility be operational by 2021, and the president had committed to that in his message to the Senate. To compound matters, we are told NNSA will cut another $600 million from weapons activities this year to accommodate the sequester, and various other promised modernization projects have been significantly postponed.

Development of a new nuclear submarine and the planned replacement for the nuclear air-launched cruise missile has been delayed by at least two years. We don't know if the next generation of strategic bomber will be qualified for nuclear missions at the outset, if ever. No decision has been made to replace the Minuteman ICBM. The life extension programs for the B-61 nuclear bomb and the W-78 and W-88 nuclear warheads have slipped by at least two years.

Secretary Kerry may argue, as he did during his confirmation hearing, that the administration has honored the spirit of its modernization commitments and reversed the decline in funding for the nuclear enterprise in his first term. That might be true, but the fact remains that we are increasingly short of what the executive and legislative branches agreed was necessary for New START. If the Senate believed we would be in this position today, it is unlikely to have approved the treaty in December 2010.

As the gap between what was promised for modernization and what is provided continues to grow, it becomes increasingly difficult to achieve the responsive nuclear infrastructure that even the president acknowledges is essential for nuclear reductions and the continuing credibility of our nuclear deterrent.

Airman 1st Class Keenan Berry/Released

National Security

GAO Stands by Its F-35 Report

A response to Winslow Wheeler.

The Government Accountability Office disagrees with Winslow Wheeler's characterization, in his March 22 article "Error Report," of our March 2013 report on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. We stand by our work -- past and present. The concluding observations from the report provide the full context and reasoning for our position on the F-35 as it stands today, including the clear rationale for not making new recommendations. We would point your readers to that and not the selected excerpts from Mr. Wheeler that fail to provide the full context.

We make the point that, while overall the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program is now moving in the right direction, it still has tremendous challenges ahead. The program must fully validate design and operational performance, plus make the system affordable so that the United States and partners can acquire new capabilities in the quantity needed, and can then sustain the force over its life cycle. Recent restructuring actions have improved the F-35's prospects for success, albeit at greater costs and further delays. DOD and the contractor now need to demonstrate that the F-35 program can effectively perform against cost and schedule targets in the new baseline and deliver on promises.

The article mischaracterizes the report regarding what we considered in citing the progress made by the overall program and, specifically, the helmet-mounted display system. Regarding overall progress, the article cites a few management objectives but ignores the other, numerous quantitative indicators of development and production progress that we considered, including reduced labor hours, improved efficiency rates, positive supplier quality indicators, reduced parts shortages, increased factory throughput, accelerated deliveries, and increased flight testing and verification. Our assessment of the helmet-mounted display's progress is based on the fact that DOD is pursuing a dual-design approach, essentially creating an alternative to the display's original design. Pursuing an alternative is an appropriate way to reduce risk. While we include the views of program and contractor officials, our assessment of progress is based on the design approach itself. As we make clear in the concluding observations, progress does not mean that the program is out of the woods.

The process GAO follows to ensure its reports are accurate is part of the agency's rigorous quality assurance framework. Among other quality assurance steps, this framework does call for a discussion of facts with affected parties before a draft report is sent for official comments. Such discussions are formal, contrary to the article, and are intended to ensure that the facts are not in dispute. They do not compromise GAO's independence. GAO's quality assurance processes have been assessed on three separate occasions by teams of international auditors -- most recently in 2010 -- and in each case those processes were found to be effective and reliable.

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