GAO Highlights Need for Improved Management Controls to Sustain NNSA Microelectronics Activities
A key responsibility of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semi-autonomous agency within the Department of Energy (DOE), is the management and maintenance of the United States’ nuclear weapons stockpile – thereby helping maintain a credible nuclear deterrent. An important element of this role is ensuring the secure development and supply of ‘strategic radiation-hardened microelectronics’ which serve as critical components of the arming, fuzing, and firing systems of a nuclear weapon.
A new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) (published in early June 2020) focuses on plans to sustain the NNSA’s sole domestic source for these critical components – the fabrication facilities at the Microsystems Engineering, Sciences and Applications (MESA) Complex at Sandia National Laboratories (Sandia) in New Mexico – a facility initially commissioned in 1988 with a 25-year lifetime.
Owing to the strategic sensitivity and lack of commercial applications of these components, the NNSA has historically been constrained in its ability to partner with commercial microelectronics producers to fabricate these vital components. This has necessitated an expenditure of $150 million between 2012 and 2019 – and estimated outlay of $1 billion over the next 20 years – to sustain production capacity at Sandia to meet current and future requirements.
Reviewing these plans, GAO found that the NNSA approach to implementing these plans ‘[did] not fully incorporate key management controls that NNSA appli[ed] to other important activities’. Specifically, GAO recommends the development of an ‘overarching management plan’ to oversee and coordinate NNSA microelectronics activities, investing the (newly- created) microelectronics coordinator role with increased responsibility and authority, and developing a ‘mission need statement’ and ‘microelectronics requirements document’. According to GAO, by implementing these controls, “NNSA would have increased assurance that its planned microelectronics activities are clearly defined, efficiently executed, and effectively monitored”.
The audit and recommendations assume significance due to the maintenance of a credible nuclear deterrent being directly tied to the uninterrupted and efficient operation of the microelectronics facilities at Sandia. Renewed great power competition, coupled with the significant expenditure already incurred – and the large outlays contemplated – at Sandia mean that developments in this space will continue to be closely watched going forward.