by Kingston Reif
While there is widespread agreement that sequestration is not a wise way to manage reductions in military spending, it is the law of the land. Unless Congress changes the legislation, the Pentagon will be forced to find $500 billion in spending reductions over the next decade beyond what is has already planned.
Given this austere budget scenario, the Pentagon should be prioritizing military programs that are the most critical to combatting the current threats we face, since every dollar spent on lower priority programs is a dollar than can’t be spent on more important needs.
When it comes to nuclear weapons, however, the Pentagon is doing exactly the opposite – to the detriment of American national and fiscal security. Our military leadership has recently stated that nuclear weapons are off limits to budget cuts – even though they have already determined that the United States can reduce the number of strategic warheads it deploys by up to one third below the New START levels. Meanwhile, top Pentagon priorities such as troop training and readiness and conventional air and sea power projection capabilities are being put under the sequester knife.
The Pentagon’s case for protecting nuclear weapons is that they are cheap and that there are few savings to be found within the nuclear enterprise. But the reality is that nuclear weapons aren’t cheap. And while the Department of Defense’s budget dilemma cannot be solved on the back of nuclear weapons, there are significant savings to be found by trimming the arsenal and scaling back planned modernization programs.
In an August 1 House Armed Services Committee hearing on the Strategic Choices and Management Review, a recently completed internal Pentagon assessment that outlines force options and tradeoffs and their impact on military strategy in the face of budget cuts, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter defended the decision to exempt nuclear weapons from sequester:
We did not want to not send nuclear submarines to sea, not have our missiles on alert, not — we didn’t want to do that. So we protected that. Obviously, that pushed sequester off onto other accounts. But it, like the war in Afghanistan and a few other things, we protected because it’s so important to our security.
The point about cost is this….[Nuclear weapons] are not a big swinger in our budget. That’s just a fact. And so as we go forward, we will make decisions about nuclear forces on the basis of a lot of factors, but the budget will not seriously drive the composition of the nuclear forces. They’re just not a huge part of the budget.
Let’s start with the question of whether nuclear weapons are a “big swinger.” Assistant Secretary of Defense for Global Strategic Affairs Madelyn Creedon hit the nail on the head at a May 9 House Strategic Forces Subcommittee hearing:
Well, first, let me just agree with you that this [the nuclear enterprise] is expensive. But we have a situation where given the various platforms and how they age out we don’t have much of a choice with respect to the metallurgy, the physics, the — just the natural aging of these platforms. So they have been, many of them, extended over time, but there’s a physical factor.
On the other hand, it’s expensive. Being in nuclear power is very expensive. And you know, at the risk of stating the obvious, this is an expensive venture. I mean, being in nuclear power is an expensive venture. We’re prioritizing as an administration the maintenance, the safety, the security of our nuclear enterprise, but it is expensive. [emphasis mine.]
Perhaps more important than the absolute cost of nuclear weapons is their opportunity cost. Whether nuclear weapons are 3%, 10%, or 75% of the budget doesn’t change the fact that every dollar spent on them is a dollar that can’t be spent on other defense programs and personnel, especially in a time of budget austerity. As Colin Powell once put it, nuclear weapons “are expensive. They take away from soldier pay. They take away from lots of things.”
These tradeoffs are about to get even more pronounced in the face of plans to replace all three legs of the triad. If the Air Force acquires a new ICBM, procurement would likely begin in the mid-2020s and overlap, according to current plans, with the Navy’s ballistic missile submarine replacement program, and also the Air Force’s new nuclear-capable strategic bomber program. In other words, the Pentagon could be faced with modernizing all three legs of the triad at roughly the same time. This will be a major (and incredibly expensive) challenge even under the best of budget outlooks. The cost to develop and build the next generation submarine fleet is estimated to be over $100 billion, and the Navy is already fretting that the program will crater the rest of its shipbuilding budget.
The decision to exempt nuclear weapons from sequestration is also puzzling given that the Pentagon has already determined that the United States can reduce the size of our deployed arsenal by up to one-third below the New START level of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads, or approximately 650 warheads fewer than currently deployed. Moreover, we are paying to maintain force structure that the Pentagon is already planning to do without. For example, the Navy is planning to sail for the next two decades with 50 percent more missiles on its existing Ohio class submarines than it has already decided it can do without on the planned replacement submarine.
And let’s not forget the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which has begun a life extension program for the B61 nuclear gravity bomb that could cost at least $10 billion, the President’s desire to negotiate away the tactical versions of this weapon notwithstanding.
Given all this, the claim that curtailing (or even scrapping) two ballistic missile submarines or taking some ICBMs off alert would leave the United States at a crippling disadvantage doesn’t pass the laugh test. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that the Pentagon will be able to protect the current force or planned modernization programs forever. Last year, the Navy delayed the Ohio class replacement program by two years (though the planned buy has not been reduced) and NNSA delayed a pricey new plutonium facility planned for Los Alamos national laboratory by at least five years. Many more tough choices will need to be made, and our military leadership should begin making them now, lest budget cuts force changes to the arsenal in a chaotic, indiscriminate, and ultimately detrimental manner.
As the Arms Control Association’s Tom Collina notes in an outstanding article in Foreign Policy, “Reductions to the nuclear weapons budget won’t solve the Pentagon’s or the NNSA’s budget woes, but they could offset some of the more painful cuts.” He goes on to identify “several ways that the administration and Congress can scale back U.S. nuclear spending and save about $45 billion over the next decade.” Illustrative options include reducing the existing Ohio-class nuclear-armed submarine fleet and building no more than eight new nuclear-armed boats, trimming the ICBM force, and scaling back the proposed B61 life extension program. Indeed, as Tom notes, and as I have written elsewhere, we could actually undertake some of these cuts without reducing the size of the arsenal below the New START levels.
The United States still maintains a nuclear arsenal of approximately 5,000 nuclear warheads, many times more than needed for any conceivable threat. The national security case for reshaping this posture to reflect the realities of the current security and budget environment is espoused by security experts and former military leaders from both parties. “From a strategic point of view,” writes our own Usha Sahay, “nuclear reductions would make sense even if they didn’t free up billions of dollars for more useful defense programs. But they do that too. Targeting the bloated nuclear weapons budget shouldn’t be a difficult call: given the financial and strategic benefits, it should be a no-brainer.” That the Pentagon apparently thinks otherwise smacks more of a Cold War attachment to nuclear weapons than a reflection of current realities.