“I will say, Mr. Chairman, it does appear that on the budget request from the administration, gets this pretty close to where we need to go, and I’d like to hear your positions. It seems like we’ve had a move that recognizes the triad’s importance and the need to modernize nuclear weapons. So this is a right step, in my view, and it’s — particularly in this time of the Ukraine and China’s aggressiveness, that we don’t need to be sending any signal that somehow we’re not willing to modernize or utilize even, God forbid, the weapons that we have.”
So said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), one of the administration harshest critics on nuclear weapons policy, in his opening statement at a March 5 hearing of the Senate Strategic Forces Subcommittee on the FY 2015 budget submission for nuclear forces. Overall the Pentagon’s FY 2015 budget proposal to modernize and replace the triad of nuclear delivery systems and support warhead life extension programs is an increase of about 50% above last year’s enacted level. The National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) request for nuclear weapons activities is about 7% higher than last year.
Later in the hearing, Sessions continued his praise for the administration: “And I sense that the administration and the Defense Department is thinking more clearly about this area, and some of the spending priorities represent a step in the right direction. So I’m pleased about that.”
Apparently aware that it would be untoward to only praise the administration for it’s proposed nuclear weapons spending, Session’s caught himself and stated: “I don’t want to overstate my happiness about where we are financially and where the programs are going. I think we’ve seen a more healthy approach in the last year, and I compliment the Defense Department.” He then went on to identify several nuclear modernization programs that have experienced schedule delays, including the proposed one to three delay in the budget request to the new air launched nuclear cruise missile and the five year delay to the joint W78/88-1 warhead life extension program. He also repeated an oft-leveled charge that the administration has not made good on its New START nuclear spending commitments.
But in the end, Sessions’ praise outweighed his disapproval.
“I support a more frugal approach,” Sessions proclaimed at the end of hearing regarding the schedule slips to some programs to save money in the near term. “I’d give you an A, but it’s delaying things.”
“I’m still trying to get an A from Senator Sessions,” Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO) blurted out in response.
Of course, Sessions’ suggestion that the administration is just now coming around to recognizing the triad’s importance and proposing substantial increases in nuclear weapons spending isn’t exactly accurate. But the fact that a usually uncompromising critic of the President’s nuclear policy agenda was relatively euphoric about the budget request for nuclear weapons is yet further evidence of the great lengths the administration is going to protect nuclear weapons in the face of the budget crunch. It also raises more questions about the wisdom of the administration’s plans in this area.
If Sen. Sessions is truly interested in a more frugal approach to nuclear modernization (the current approach is anything but frugal), he ought to at least consider options for reducing nuclear spending that would still allow the United States to maintain the New START level of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads. While the incremental delays to some nuclear programs outlined in the budget request are a step in the right direction, they will only be meaningful if they lead to a more fundamental reconsideration of the need and affordability of the proposed programs in the first place.
As the Congressional Research Service’s Amy Woolf writes in the March 2014 issue of Arms Control Today, current nuclear weapons modernization and replacement “programs represent a commitment to rebuild and recapitalize the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal so that the country can retain a triad like the one it has today for another 50 years. This long-term plan seems ready to proceed regardless of whether the fiscal environment will support it and the security environment will require it.”
Deferring hard choices isn’t a substitute for ultimately having to make hard choices. The longer the Executive Branch and Congress wait to make the necessary tough choices about current nuclear weapons spending plans, the more likely it is we will end up with a force that is the product of budgetary fratricide and/or ill suited to the future security environment.
To quote Woolf again: “It seems unlikely that spending on nuclear weapons will grow at a rate needed to support the full scope of the modernization plans. Moreover, it is difficult to imagine increased Pentagon spending on nuclear weapons at the expense of conventional forces and capabilities. Thus, the services can stay their course until budget realities force irrational changes in their plans, or they can change their plans so that the outcome is affordable and consistent with U.S. national security needs.”