The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee used a Thursday nomination hearing to spotlight his opposition to House legislation that would made it harder for the Department of Energy to collaborate with the Pentagon on future nuclear weapons budget requests.
That result is something “some people … in the Department of Energy” would like, according to Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.).
From the dais, Inhofe blasted these unidentified officials for embracing the policies advanced by the House, which include barring the use of appropriations to collaborate with DOD, and putting the Secretary of Energy on the joint DOE-Pentagon Nuclear Weapons Council. Those policies, the senator worried, would prevent the council “from even seeing the [National Nuclear Security Administration] NNSA budget until after it was finalized for submission to Congress.”
Inhofe offered his thoughts in conversation with retired Army Gen. Lucas Polakowski, who was before the committee as the White House’s nominee to be assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs.
Whoever serves in this civilian post reports to the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, and is the staff director for the Nuclear Weapons Council. The group, chaired by the acquisition and sustainment undersecretary, aims to keep NNSA and DOD nuclear-weapons acquisitions in sync. The NNSA maintains nuclear warheads and bombs, while the Pentagon is in charge of building and operating missiles and carrier craft.
“I can’t think of anyone who’s in a better position to assess what we need for NNSA than you, and the background you have, and you bring to this committee,” Inhofe told Polakowski during the nomination hearing, in which the committee also vetted three other prospective Pentagon officials.
Polakowski’s resume is not nuke-heavy.
During his 36-year Army career, he specialized in chemical weapons issues, including during his time at U.S. Strategic Command’s Center for Combating Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD); as commander of the standing joint force headquarters for WMD elimination; and during his stint in the Pentagon’s Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Defense.
When it came time Thursday to question the three nominees, Inhofe took the chair’s prerogative to get Polakowski on the record about what a bad idea it would be to bar the Nuclear Weapons Council from shaping the NNSA’s annual funding request.
“If confirmed, what would you think if you were prevented from even seeing the NNSA budget until after it was finalized for submission to Congress?” Inhofe asked Polakowski.
“I think that would be a mistake and would severely impair not only our existing triad but our modernization efforts going forward in the future and in fact could potentially jeopardize our national defense,” Polakowski said.
“That would be a disaster, wouldn’t it?” said Inhofe. “I believe that’s exactly what some people would like and specifically some in the Department of Energy.”
An aide for the Senate Armed Services Committee told Nuclear Security & Deterrence Monitor that by this, Inhofe meant only that some Department of Energy officials would prefer that the NNSA’s budget request be divulged to the Nuclear Weapons Council only once the entire federal budget request was ready for a public unveiling.
The Senate Armed Services Committee declined to say which DOE officials Inhofe believed favored such a course of action.
The committee Inhofe chairs, as part of its version of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, proposed giving the Nuclear Weapons Council a sort of veto power of the Department of Energy’s budget request for its semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration. The full Senate later voted unanimously to strip that language from the defense policy bill, which cleared a floor vote in July.
Around that time, the House approved its National Defense Authorization Act, which includes language that would add both the secretary of energy and the secretary of defense to the Nuclear Weapons Council.
Inhofe, a hard-line supporter of the NNSA, and the ongoing 30-year, $1.7-trillion modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, complained Thursday that the House NDAA’s language would give the secretary of energy a sort of “veto power” over the Pentagon, in nuclear-weapon matters.
House appropriators, meanwhile, decided that instead of tinkering with the makeup of the Nuclear Weapons Council, it would be better to force the NNSA to avoid even the near occasion of collaboration with that body. An appropriations package that passed the lower chamber late last month on a party-line vote would forbid the NNSA from using it’s fiscal 2021 budget to talk to the Nuclear Weapons Council about the civilian nuclear weapons budget. This was the provision to which Inhofe alluded most Thursday, and which drew the most lightning bolts from the octogenarian defense hawk.
These proposed reforms for civilian nuclear-weapon budget negotiations followed a 2019-2020 winter in which NNSA Administrator Lisa Gordon-Hagerty proposed a major increase for the budget request on the basis of a study the agency conceived of independently and performed on itself. The study, Gordon-Hagerty said in congressional testimony, showed the NNSA’s part of the ongoing modernization plan was underfunded by billions.
Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette opposed Gordon-Hagerty’s preferred $20 billion budget figure, but the White House eventually sided with the NNSA, after Inhofe and other influential Republican lawmakers made the case for the bigger budget during an Oval Office meeting — a meeting that happened about a month before the proposal was finalized and officially shared with the Hill and the public.
The House and Senate National Defense Authorization Acts each authorized the NNSA to spend nearly $20 billion, as requested, in 2021. The House’s spending package would limit the NNSA to $18 billion, which is still some $1.3 billion higher than the 2020 budget.
At deadline, the Senate Armed Services Committee had not voted on the four nominees who testified Thursday, nor scheduled a business meeting to do so. Besides Polakowski, these are: Jason Abend, to be inspector general of the DOD; Bradley Hansell, for deputy under secretary of defense for intelligence and security; and Louis Bremer for assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict.