by Laicie Heeley and Kingston Reif
“Getting America’s fiscal house in order will require difficult budgetary choices. This means that we need to make smart decisions about what is most needed to safeguard U.S. national security in the 21st century,” write Laicie Olson and Kingston Reif in their article published in World Politics Review on September 26, 2011.
There is broad bipartisan agreement that few national security issues are as critical as how to deal with America’s crippling debt. Getting America’s fiscal house in order will require difficult budgetary choices. This means that we need to make smart decisions about what is most needed to safeguard U.S. national security in the 21st century.
A close look at the Pentagon budget reveals numerous programs that are more suitable to defeating the Cold War-era Soviet Union than to addressing current security threats, such as weak and failing states, cyberattacks and nuclear terrorism. A particularly egregious example is the budget for nuclear weapons programs.
The U.S. currently spends more than $30 billion per year to upgrade, operate and sustain the U.S. nuclear arsenal. These costs will increase significantly in light of the Obama administration’s pledge last year, made as part of its effort to win Senate ratification of the New START treaty, to spend at least $200 billion over the next decade on new nuclear delivery systems and warhead production facilities.
Political pledges must not drive strategy, particularly in a time of economic austerity. The fact that nuclear weapons today play an increasingly limited role in U.S. national security strategy provides an opportunity to reduce nuclear weapons spending and reinvest in capabilities that are more relevant to the current threat environment — while still allowing the U.S. to maintain a survivable and credible nuclear deterrent.
The U.S. currently deploys approximately 2,000 strategic nuclear warheads on 800 strategic nuclear delivery systems: the triad of land-based missiles, submarine-launched missiles and bombers that deliver nuclear warheads to their targets. Counting weapons in reserve, the U.S. possesses more than 5,000 nuclear warheads. New START will reduce the size of the arsenal to 1,550 deployed warheads and 700 deployed delivery vehicles.
The plan to recapitalize the triad includes around $110 billion to build a new fleet of 12 nuclear-armed submarines. The Pentagon estimates the total cost of building and operating each new submarine at nearly $350 billion over its 50-year lifespan. It also plans to spend $55 billion on procurement of 100 bombers and an unknown sum on a new intercontinental ballistic missile. Additionally, the National Nuclear Security Administration plans to spend $88 billion over the next decade to refurbish existing nuclear warheads and rebuild the factories that make key nuclear warhead parts.
Anyone who has studied defense contracts knows that all of these estimates are likely to rise. The price of the new submarine has already almost doubled over the past three years.
Missing from these spending plans and from our nuclear weapons budget in general is a coherent overall strategy. As former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright noted in July, “We haven’t really exercised that mental gymnastics, the intellectual capital, on [what is required for deterrence] yet. . . . I’m pleased that it’s starting, but I wouldn’t be in favor of building too much until we had that discussion.”
Some of these mental gymnastics should include asking probing questions about whether the planned number of replacement submarines, bombers and land-based missiles is truly vital for American security or, indeed, whether all three legs of the nuclear weapons triad remain necessary.
In the current economic environment, it will be counterproductive to make unsustainable, open-ended commitments to hugely expensive programs. “We’re not going to be able to go forward with weapon systems that cost what weapon systems cost today,” Strategic Command chief Gen. Robert Kehler said recently. “Case in point is [the] Long-Range Strike [bomber]. Case in point is the Trident [submarine] replacement. . . . The list goes on.” Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates echoed similar sentiments before leaving office, when he noted, “All elements of the triad need to be modernized. You may have to make some choices there.”
Some fiscally responsible Republicans are proposing to rein in spending on nuclear weapons. Sen. Tom Coburn, who voted against New START last December, has proposed a deficit reduction plan that would save $79 billion over the next decade by reducing the U.S. nuclear arsenal to below the treaty limit of 1,550 deployed warheads and cutting the number of delivery systems and warheads held in reserve.
While nuclear weapons play a much smaller role in U.S. national security strategy today than they ever have, the U.S.continues to retain far more nuclear weapons than it needs to maintain its security. Russia has already met New START’s limits on deployed warheads and delivery vehicles, and is expected to continue to reduce the size of its nuclear arsenal over the next decade as it retires older systems faster than it adds new weapons. Meanwhile, China possesses fewer than 250 nuclear warheads.
The U.S. nuclear arsenal of more than 5,000 active weapons may be useful in deterring a large-scale conventional or nuclear attack from a state, but it cannot prevent terrorists from acquiring or using a nuclear device, thwart the spread of nuclear weapons to additional states or ensure a stable and predictable relationship between the U.S. and Russia.
In the fight for scarce resources among national security programs, investments should match capabilities to current threats. The need to prioritize is particularly important as the Pentagon calculates the opportunity costs of building new nuclear-weapons delivery systems at the expense of 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.
We need to invest in a strategy now that focuses on the threats of today and the threats of the future, not the Cold War threats of the past. America can guarantee its security and that of its allies in a more fiscally sustainable manner by spending less on nuclear weapons programs.