Nuclear Weapons Sustainment:

Improvements Made to Budget Estimates, but Opportunities Exist to Further Enhance Transparency

GAO-15-536: Published: Jul 30, 2015. Publicly Released: Jul 30, 2015.

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What GAO Found

The annual joint report submitted by the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Department of Energy (DOE) in May 2014 includes 10-year budget estimates for sustaining and modernizing U.S. nuclear weapons (see figure), and these estimates are generally consistent with internal funding and modernization plans, with a few exceptions. For example, GAO could not fully verify that DOD's command, control, and communications estimates were consistent with its internal funding plans, because DOD did not document methodological assumptions and limitations associated with these estimates as GAO had previously recommended. Similarly, DOE's estimates are generally consistent with its internal plans, with two exceptions; for example, the budget estimate for the first five years of the cruise missile warhead life extension program is lower than the cost range in DOE's internal plans.

Figure: Departments of Defense (DOD) and Energy (DOE) 10-Year Estimates for Sustaining and Modernizing the U.S. Nuclear Deterrent as of May 2014

Figure: Departments of Defense (DOD) and Energy (DOE) 10-Year Estimates for Sustaining and Modernizing the U.S. Nuclear Deterrent as of May 2014

aDOD provides estimates for the nuclear command and control system, which includes early warning radars, aircraft, and communications networks, and for delivery systems, which consist of a variety of platforms such as heavy bombers, air-launched cruise missiles, and ballistic-missile submarines.

bDOE provides estimates for the nuclear weapons stockpile (seven types of weapons) and the nuclear security enterprise (eight geographically dispersed sites).

The 2014 report includes information that was not included in the 2013 report—such as estimates for the Air Force's new long range bomber and some DOE construction projects—but opportunities exist to further enhance transparency. DOD did not describe in detail the methodology used to develop some estimates, even though the Air Force and Navy used different methodologies for estimates of sustaining and modernizing nuclear delivery systems, and the Air Force changed the methodology it had used previously. Also, DOD's estimates for nuclear delivery systems increased by about 40 percent from last year's report, due in part to changes in the methodologies used to develop them, but the report does not provide comparative information about changes in the estimates from those in the 2013 report. Further, DOE inadvertently omitted budget estimates in fiscal years 2020 through 2024 for two planned activities, thus understating its estimates by $1.6 billion. Without thorough documentation of methodologies and comparative information, it may be difficult for Congress to understand the basis for the estimates or assess long-term affordability when allocating resources.

Why GAO Did This Study

DOD and DOE are undertaking an extensive, multifaceted effort to sustain and modernize U.S. nuclear weapons capabilities, which are aging and being deployed beyond their intended service lives. This effort is expected to take decades and cost hundreds of billions of dollars. Section 1043 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2012, as amended, requires the submission of an annual report to congressional committees on DOD's and DOE's plans for related matters, including 10-year budget estimates, and includes a provision that GAO review aspects of that report. In June 2014, GAO reviewed the July 2013 joint report and made recommendations to improve future reports, such as documenting the methodology used to create certain estimates and identifying its assumptions and limitations.

This report assesses the extent to which the May 2014 joint report provides (1) budget estimates that are consistent with the departments' internal funding and modernization plans and (2) complete and transparent information on the methodology used to develop the estimates.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that future joint reports provide more thorough documentation of the methodologies used to develop the estimates and comparative information on changes in the estimates from the prior year. DOD and DOE generally agreed, but DOD noted that information on changes is not required. GAO continues to believe the recommendation is valid as discussed further in this report.

For more information, contact Joe Kirschbaum at (202) 512-9971 or kirschbaumj@gao.gov or David Trimble at (202) 512-3841 or trimbled@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: In commenting on this report, DOD and DOE concurred with our recommendation to provide more thorough documentation in the joint report on the methodologies used to develop the budget estimates and ensure the accuracy and completeness of the information included. DOD stated that it added information on the methodologies used to develop the estimates in the April 2015 joint report and would consider including further information in subsequent reports. However, neither department provided information on the specific steps it would take to ensure the accuracy and completeness of the information included in future joint reports. DOD and DOE have included additional information in subsequent annual versions of the joint report. However, the usefulness and transparency of the joint report could be further improved if DOD more explicitly identified and explained the methodological assumptions and limitations affecting the nuclear command, control, and communications system estimate and included additional information to clarify assumptions and limitations for its year-to-year comparisons, particularly regarding changes in the alignment of the Air Force's programs. We continue to believe that the joint reports should include accurate and complete budget estimates, which includes methodological information that explicitly identifies and explains all assumptions and limitations affecting the budget estimates.

    Recommendation: To provide decision makers with better insight and additional context to identify any significant changes to the estimates in the joint report from the prior year and understand the reasons for such changes, and to improve the completeness and transparency of the budget estimates in the report, we recommend that, for future joint reports, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Air Force, the Secretary of the Navy, and the Department of Defense Chief Information Officer (DOD CIO), and the Secretary of Energy direct the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to provide more thorough documentation in the joint report on the methodologies used to develop the budget estimates, including information that may be available in related planning documents, and ensure the accuracy and completeness of the information included.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In the fiscal year 2017 joint report on plans for sustaining and modernizing U.S. nuclear weapons, the Department of Defense (DOD) included comparative information to identify year-to-year changes in its 5- and 10-year budget estimates from the fiscal year 2016 joint report. In NUCLEAR WEAPONS SUSTAINMENT: Improvements Made to Budget Estimates, but Opportunities Exist to Further Enhance Transparency (GAO-15-536), we recommended that the Secretary of Defense direct the Secretaries of the Air Force and Navy, and the DOD Chief Information Officer to provide comparative information on changes in the budget estimates from the prior year and explain the reasons for those changes in subsequent joint reports. We found that DOD's estimates for nuclear delivery systems increased by about 40 percent from the fiscal year 2013 joint report to the fiscal year 2014 joint report, due in part to changes in the methodologies used to develop them, but the fiscal year 2014 joint report did not provide comparative information about changes in the estimates from those in the previous year's report. By including comparative information on any changes in the budget estimates from the prior year and an explanation of the reasons for those changes, the department can better assist decision makers in understanding developing trends and potential risks that they would need to consider in making funding decisions and developing effective risk mitigation strategies. In comments on our report, DOD partially concurred and agreed with the intent of our recommendation but stated that the explanations of the changes should only be necessary for substantive or significant changes rather than for any changes from the prior year. The inclusion of comparative information in the fiscal year 2017 joint report that identified changes in the 5- and 10-year budget estimates from the prior year's joint report meets the intention of GAO's recommendation.

    Recommendation: To provide decision makers with better insight and additional context to identify any significant changes to the estimates in the joint report from the prior year and understand the reasons for such changes, and to improve the completeness and transparency of the budget estimates in the report, we recommend that, for future joint reports, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Air Force, the Secretary of the Navy, and the DOD CIO, and the Secretary of Energy direct the Administrator of NNSA to provide comparative information on changes in the budget estimates from the prior year and explain the reasons for those changes.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: We will follow up with DOE and NNSA in fiscal year 2018 to assess whether and how this recommendation has been implemented.

    Recommendation: To provide decision makers with better insight and additional context to identify any significant changes to the estimates in the joint report from the prior year and understand the reasons for such changes, and to improve the completeness and transparency of the budget estimates in the report, we recommend that, for future joint reports, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Air Force, the Secretary of the Navy, and the Department of Defense Chief Information Officer (DOD CIO), and the Secretary of Energy direct the Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to provide more thorough documentation in the joint report on the methodologies used to develop the budget estimates, including information that may be available in related planning documents, and ensure the accuracy and completeness of the information included.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: We will follow up with DOE and NNSA in fiscal year 2018 to assess whether and how this recommendation has been implemented.

    Recommendation: To provide decision makers with better insight and additional context to identify any significant changes to the estimates in the joint report from the prior year and understand the reasons for such changes, and to improve the completeness and transparency of the budget estimates in the report, we recommend that, for future joint reports, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Air Force, the Secretary of the Navy, and the DOD CIO, and the Secretary of Energy direct the Administrator of NNSA to provide comparative information on changes in the budget estimates from the prior year and explain the reasons for those changes.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

 

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