by Kingston Reif [contact information]
Remarks at Stimson Center Event on the Nuclear Weapons Budget
Below are remarks delivered by Kingston Reif at a June 5 event hosted by the Stimson Center to discuss the release of a new report published by Stimson's Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense Program titled "Resolving Ambiguity: Costing Nuclear Weapons." For more information about the event, see here.
First off, let me thank Russ and the Stimson Center for asking me to participate on today’s panel. With this new report, Russ and Nate have made an enormous contribution to the debate about nuclear weapons spending and nuclear weapons policy.
They marshal the most definitive evidence to date that there’s good reason to question whether the administration’s estimate of approximately $215 billion in planned spending on nuclear weapons sustainment and modernization between FY2012 and FY2021 captures all of the costs.
I’d like to focus my comments on the charge made by Russ and Nate at the outset and end of their report. As they note, the purpose of their effort is to attempt to clarify the ambiguity in previous nuclear weapons cost estimates in order to return the debate to basic policy questions regarding the right offensive strategic nuclear forces that the United States should maintain and operate.
I’d also like to address the question of whether we can save money through reductions in strategic offensive forces, a question Russ and Nate fairly, given the parameters of their study, didn’t address in great depth. Of course the questions of how much money we can save is directly tied to the bigger policy question of what one believes is necessary for nuclear deterrence.
US nuclear weapons policy is at a critical crossroad. The administration is currently reviewing future deterrence requirements, which will ultimately revise existing presidential guidance regarding the targeting of nuclear weapons, appropriate force levels, and more. Meanwhile, the Pentagon must decide how, on a tight budget, to replace the land-based missiles, submarines, and bombers that make up the nuclear triad.
The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) articulated the goal of reducing the role and number of nuclear weapons in U.S. security strategy. However, it did not fundamentally reexamine the assumptions that drive the structure, size and targeting requirements of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. These assumptions have not been reexamined in over a decade, since the beginning of the George W. Bush administration. The forces levels enshrined in the New START treaty are in fact based on the Bush administration’s guidance.
In 2011 the President asked the Pentagon to lead an interagency review to develop several alternative approaches to deterrence and stability, to include illustrative force size and postures to best support those alternatives. This NPR Implementation study is well underway. A February 14, 2012, news story by Associated Press reporter Robert Burns divulged that as part of the NPR Implementation study, an interagency review group has prepared options that could pave the way for further reductions below the New START level of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads. The President has yet to make a decision on new guidance and force levels.
While nuclear weapons today play an objectively much smaller role in U.S. national security strategy than they ever have, the U.S. continues to retain far more nuclear weapons than it needs to maintain its security. This is because its posture continues to be premised on Cold War era assumptions about what is necessary to fight a nuclear war. What we target, how promptly our weapons must be capable of hitting those targets, and the amount of damage we must inflict on those targets, are all based on the requirement to destroy Russia’s and other adversary’s ability to wage nuclear war.
Let me postulate that the world has changed and that such a posture does not comport with the 21st century threat environment. Our excessive arsenal of approximately 5,000 weapons is ill-suited to current security priorities such as stopping terrorists from acquiring or using a nuclear device, thwarting the spread of nuclear weapons to additional states, and ensuring a stable and predictable relationship between the U.S. and Russia.
What we need is a force that is fundamentally sized and based on deterrence and I believe that such a posture would require far fewer weapons than what we currently maintain.
For an excellent explication of why this is the case, I recommend Global Zero’s recent report on the subject, co-authored by former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright. The report recommends that the US reduce the size of its arsenal to 900 total nuclear weapons over the next decade, and that it do so bilaterally with Russia.
So what are the implications of all this for the nuclear weapons budget?
Regardless of how much you think we spending on nuclear weapons, does it make strategic sense for the U.S. to build an excessive number of new nuclear weapons delivery systems and outsized new warhead production facilities that could saddle the U.S. with a bloated nuclear arsenal for the next half century? Is such spending affordable given today’s budgetary constraints? In my view, the answers are clearly “No.” As Gordon Adams likes to point out, strategy wears a dollar sign.
Russ and Nate identify between $48 and $58 billion dollars on the Ohio-Class replacement program and the next gen strategic bomber over the next decade. Additional billions will be spent on modernization programs and new facility construction at NNSA. If one expands the time horizon beyond ten years, total spending is likely to number in the hundreds of billions.
Now as Russ and Nate point out (as have others) even if we went to zero nuclear weapons tomorrow, savings would not proceed in a direct relationship to weapons reductions, since much of the spending on strategic offensive forces supports conventional capabilities and some modernization is required no matter the size of the stockpile.
However, this does not mean there are no savings to be found. Significant changes to US force structure and warhead levels would lead to savings. So too would changes to currently planned modernization and replacement programs for US nuclear warheads and strategic delivery systems.
Over the past year, numerous high-ranking military leaders and Pentagon civilians have questioned the affordability of current nuclear weapons spending plans. For example, Gen. Cartwright, before leaving his post as Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs argued that, “The challenge here is that we have to recapitalize all three legs [of the nuclear triad], and we don’t have the money to do it.”
STRATCOM Commander Gen. Kehler echoed similar sentiments last November. Commenting on current plans to build twelve new ballistic missile submarines at a price tag of $110 billion, Gen. Kehler stated “affordability has to be an issue here.”
The Pentagon also is no doubt grappling with the reality that every dollar that is spent on nuclear weapons is a dollar that can’t be spent on other defense priorities, such as upgrading conventional air and naval power projection capabilities, confronting unconventional challenges in countries such as Afghanistan and keeping up with the growing medical costs for veterans. The Navy’s FY 2013 30-year shipbuilding plan highlighted the opportunity costs in especially sharp relief. The Ohio-class replacement program will put enormous pressures on the Navy’s shipbuilding budget, especially in the 2020s.
Concerns about the budget environment and affordability are already beginning to be reflected in the Pentagon and NNSA’s budget submissions. The FY 2013 budget delays the Ohio class replacement program by two years, which will result in a force of 10 submarines in the 2030s. The Pentagon believes the delay is manageable and necessary to put the replacement program on a more stable and predictable footing, saving approximately $4 billion over the next five years. Separately from the budget submission, Air Force officials have indicated that they plan to delay certification of the nuclear mission for the new bomber to control costs.
In addition, NNSA’s FY13 budget submission includes a delay by five years of a new plutonium facility at Los Alamos, known as the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (or CMRR). This delay will save an estimated 1.8 billion over the next five years. Despite the delay to CMRR, the NNSA weapons budget is still a 5% increase over last year’s level, and enormous plus up given the budget environment.
More definitive and longer-term decisions about the future of the arsenal and the requirements for strategic modernization are awaiting the outcome of the ongoing deterrence requirements review.
In the meantime, let me suggest how a fundamental revision of existing nuclear could deterrence requirements save billions while strengthening US security. An examination of the Navy's contribution to nuclear deterrence provides an instructive example.
The Navy argues that deploying fewer than 12 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines would not allow it to meet a high-level policy requirement to continually maintain five subs "on station" in the ocean, ready for prompt launch against an adversary's nuclear forces and other strategic targets.
But this raises the question: Does this Cold War-era requirement even make sense? Apart from Cold War aims -- like carrying out a first strike against Russia, launching on warning of a Russian first strike, or launching in the immediate aftermath of a Russian first strike -- why does the United States need to put so many targets at risk for a prompt attack at any time? What deterrence value do five subs on station add that couldn't be met by two or three subs on station, with the capability to bring additional subs to bear within a matter of hours or days?
Since the threat of a premeditated nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia has long since disappeared, this requirement is no longer relevant to the current threat environment.
Some of us have suggested that by building and deploying eight new nuclear-armed submarines instead of a dozen of them, the United States could still, if it wanted to, deploy the same number of nuclear weapons at sea as is currently planned under New START (about 1,000) and save billions of dollars over the next decade and beyond that could be more fruitfully spent elsewhere.
Now some of you might be thinking, well this isn’t how the Navy operates its force. That’s true. In fact, many observers lose sight of the fact that reducing the size of the arsenal isn’t a simple mater of reducing the role of nuclear weapons in US national security strategy. Only by changing the guidance, targeting requirements, etc. can we change how we operate, and ultimately size, the force.
I think there are strong incentives to start thinking along these lines. Not only does it make strategic sense (apart from Russia no other country deploys more than 300 strategic weapons), but it makes fiscal sense as well by reducing the need for as many replacement nuclear delivery systems as currently planned.
In fact, fiscal pressures, whether its sequestration or similarly sized spending reduction, could force changes to US nuclear force posture that exceed those recommended by the deterrence-requirements study. As some experts have noted, we ought to change our outdated nuclear posture on our own terms before the budget possibly forces us to reduce the size of our force. And if reduced spending necessitates a smaller arsenal, doesn’t it make sense to try to lock in Russia at a lower level through further arms control?
Kingston Reif is the Director of Nuclear Non-Proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, where his work focuses on arms control, nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear weapons, and preventing nuclear terrorism. He has published letters and articles on nuclear weapons policy in such venues as the Washington Post, Washington Times, Wall Street Journal, Survival, Defense News, and Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.