by Kingston Reif
Last week, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey previewedthe Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 Pentagon budget request. Additional details are not scheduled to be released until Tuesday (March 4), but the broad outlines of the request are already clear.
And despite cuts to many Pentagon programs, Hagel stated that the budget had “preserved all three legs of the nuclear triad and will make important investments to preserve a safe, secure, reliable, and effective nuclear force.”
Hagel announced a number of cost saving measures driven by the Congressional mandate to reduce military spending as part of an overall deficit reduction effort, including reducing the size of the Army, retiring the A-10 fleet of aircraft, reducing the planned buy of the Littoral Combat Ship, and modest reforms to the escalating and unsustainable growth in personnel compensation costs.
Yet the Pentagon either couldn’t find, or, more accurately, was unwilling to find, additional savings and thus proposed an unrealistic budget blueprint through FY 2019 that exceeds the Budget Control Act caps by $115 billion. The Pentagon also invited Congress to further inflate its coffers by proposing an additional $26 billion in spending for FY 2015 that didn’t make it into the formal budget submission. Without this additional funding, Hagel argued, “the military will still face significant readiness and modernization challenges next year.” (Note: in addition to its formal fiscal 15 request, the the Pentagon has also prepared a sequestration-level budget blueprint that assumes no to changes to the current Budget Control Act caps. It is not clear whether this budget impacts current DoD nuclear weapons spending plans.)
Given the requirement to find budget savings beyond the Pentagon’s current plans and also maintain the world’s finest military, the Pentagon should be prioritizing military programs that are the most critical to combating the current threats we face, since every dollar spent on lower priority programs is a dollar that can’t be spent on more important needs.
It would therefore be puzzling if the Pentagon shields nuclear weapons from the chopping block in its budget request (which it largely appears to have done) – especially since our military leaders have already determined that we have more nuclear weapons than we need for our security. But just as the administration’s FY 2015 budget is divorced from reality, so too are its nuclear weapons spending plans.
The current U.S. arsenal of approximately 4,650 nuclear weapons is a Cold War holdover that is increasingly irrelevant to today’s security threats. The only rationale for such a large force is to address Russia’s similarly sized arsenal, since no other nuclear-armed state is believed to possess more than 300 weapons. Yet even though Washington and Moscow continue to deploy their forces as if the threat of global thermonuclear war were a distinct possibility, the reality is that such a conflagration is an extremely low probability.
Consistent with this reality, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper made no mention of Russia’s nuclear weapons in his 2014 Worldwide Threat Assessment report to Congress. Instead he cited such dangers as cyber threats, mass atrocities, and extreme weather events. Nuclear weapons, to say nothing about 4,650 of them, are not applicable to these problems, unless you think it’s appropriate to nuke hurricanes.
In addition to its irrelevance to the current threat environment, our bloated arsenal also costs hundreds of billions of dollars to maintain and modernize and sucks funding from other national security priorities.
According to a December 2013 Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report, the direct costs of the Administration’s plans for nuclear forces will total $355 billion between FY 2014 and FY 2023. But this is just the tip of the spending iceberg. “Annual costs are likely to continue to grow after 2023,” says CBO, “as production begins on replacement systems.”
The Pentagon’s current plans to rebuild the triad nuclear delivery systems over the next quarter century include over $100 billion to design and build a fleet of twelve new ballistic missile submarines, $81 billion on a new generation of long-range strike bombers, some or all of which will be nuclear capable, and additional tens of billions on a new nuclear cruise missile, a follow-on to the Minuteman III ICBM, and upgrading nuclear command and control systems.
Meanwhile, the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) projected modernization spending includes at least $60 billion on five major life extension programs pursuant to the agency’s “3+2” vision for the warhead stockpile and perhaps over $11 billion for the Uranium Processing Facility at Oakridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Cost overruns, a far from uncommon occurrence in Pentagon and NNSA budgeting, could drive these costs even higher.
The dilemma for the military is that while spending on nuclear weapons is slated to shoot upwards, the military budget has come down and will be lucky to keep pace with inflation for the remainder of the decade. In contrast, the last major modernization of the triad in the mid-1980s occurred against the backdrop of President Ronald Reagan’s defense buildup.
As one former Pentagon official put it last year: “It’s clear that we are facing a modernization mountain in the budget… in the mid part of the next decade…. And it’s going to be a major challenge.” Former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright was even blunter, stating in July 2012 that “The challenge here is that we have to recapitalize all three [triad] legs and we don’t have the money to do it.”
To make matters worse, the growing cost to sustain the nuclear mission is forcing increasingly difficult tradeoffs among nuclear capabilities, conventional capabilities, and other national security programs. The Navy is already fretting that without supplemental funding from outside its budget, the cost to develop and build the next generation ballistic missile submarine fleet will crater the rest of its shipbuilding budget. The Navy delayed the Ohio replacement program by two years in its FY 2012 budget request as a cost saving measure.
Acting Deputy Defense Secretary Christine Fox tolda reporters this week that the FY 2015 budget request “took out more Air Force structure than we would like to protect the new long-range bomber.”
And in order to help keep its weapons programs afloat, NNSA will have to raid the budgets for higher priorities, such as nuclear and radiological material security programs. Indeed, such pilfering has already begun.
In light of all this, shouldn’t nuclear weapons be a ripe area for budget savings?
While the military’s current budget problems cannot be solved by reducing nuclear weapons spending, there are significant savings to be found by trimming the arsenal and scaling back planned modernization programs. Of the $355 billion in spending identified by CBO, tens of billions could be saved over the next decade alone by reducing the current fleet of ballistic missile submarines and planned purchase of new submarines, delaying the long-range strike bomber program, canceling the development of a new cruise missile, extending the life of the Minuteman III ICBM instead of building a new missile, reducing the scope of the proposed B61 life extension program, and canceling the “3+2” warhead modernization plan.
These illustrative cuts are consistent with the fact that the Pentagon has already determined that we can reduce the size of our deployed arsenal by up to one-third below the New START level of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads (and recall that Russia is already well below the New START limits on deployed warheads and delivery vehicles and Moscow’s numbers may dip even lower in the coming years). In fact, many of the reductions could also be achieved without reducing the arsenal below New START if necessary.
There is no doubt that U.S. nuclear forces are aging and that some modernization is required. But as Senator Dianne Feinstein recently noted, “Since nuclear forces are larger than needed for current military missions, it is time to think more creatively about how to maintain a much smaller nuclear deterrent at an affordable cost.”
However, there does not appear to be a coherent strategy that is driving nuclear modernization planning and spending. For example, the B61 life extension program is premised on assumptions about the requirements for nuclear gravity bombs that may no longer be valid ten years from now when the program is scheduled to be completed. In addition, the Pentagon and NNSA have suggested that significant reductions to the size of the U.S. reserve stockpile of approximately 2,500 warheads will not be possible unless the “3+2” vision is successfully executed. The problem is that the “3+2” strategy is almost certainly not executable (indeed, recent reports suggest NNSA may be on the verge of abandoning the strategy all together). It is also unclear why the Pentagon needs a new penetrating nuclear-capable bomber, an upgraded B61 gravity bomb, and a new long-range standoff cruise missile.
The longer current plans remain on autopilot, the more likely it will be that the budget will force suboptimal tradeoffs between nuclear and conventional capabilities and reductions in nuclear forces by financial default. As Michael Krepon has written, “reductions in nuclear forces are coming: It’s not a question of whether, but when — and how deep.” Instead of disarmament by default, we should be reshaping our outdated arsenal via careful planning and preparation that reflects the current security and budgetary environments – and that planning ought to begin now.