The original version of this post erroneously stated that Todd Harrison’s report states that nuclear weapons are unaffordable. The post has been updated to correct the error.
The U.S. Defense Department is careening towards a seemingly inevitable budgetary catastrophe. On September 4, Todd Harrison, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment’s well-respected defense budget extraordinaire, released an eye-opening assessment of this year’s defense budget request. Harrison’s report highlights the many ways in which the Pentagon’s current spending plans over the next decade assume the availability of billions of dollars that are unlikely to be available. In other words, these plans are a fantasy.
What the report also shows is that nuclear weapons and missile defense make up a significant portion of this planned spending – contrary to those who argue that nuclear weapons “don’t actually cost that much.” In fact, so staggering are the expected costs of existing plans to build new ballistic missile submarines and nuclear-capable long-range bombers that military planners won’t be able to afford them without gutting conventional forces.
Fortunately, the United States can scale back its current nuclear spending plans while still maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent – and save billions of dollars too.
Assumptions and underestimations = Simply not enough dough
According to Harrison, the Pentagon’s Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 “budget appears insufficient to support the defense program and strategy articulated in the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance (DSG) and the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR)”.
The Pentagon’s five-year spending plan, known as The Future Years Defense Program (FYDP), exceeds the Congressionally mandated budget caps contained in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 by $116 billion over the next five years and $168 billion over the next ten.
Imagine the defense department were planning to build a giant, nay, the MOST giant pizza ever made. While during the prep stage, there may be enough scraps to begin the process, in the end there just won’t be enough dough. That’s the situation the Pentagon finds itself in.
Harrison identifies a litany of unsupportable or unsustainable assumptions built into the budget request. For example:
1) The budget request does not fund Army and Marine Corps end strength and Navy aircraft carriers to the levels outlined by the QDR as necessary – roughly $20 billion short over the FYDP;
2) The budget assumes that some programs and activities typically funded by the base budget, can be moved to the Oversees Contingency Operations (OCO) account, which funds U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and is not restricted by the Congressional budget caps. Based on recent trends, the Pentagon may be expecting $10-$20 billion annually in OCO funding for non-Afghanistan related activities that belong in the base budget, totaling $50-$100 billion over the FYDP;
3) Historically, large acquisition programs are 20 to 50 percent over their planned budget estimates. Harrison approximates that the “acquisition funding included in the budget is likely to be insufficient to execute all of the currently planned acquisition programs”.
4) The biggest assumption in the budget is that Congress will allow the Pentagon to exceed the Congressional budget caps by $116 billion over the next five years. While the caps were raised modestly by Congress for FY 2014 and FY 2015, no relief appears on the horizon for FY2016 and beyond.
Nuclear weapons and missile defense spending atop the spending charts
In what might come as a surprise to many, the four most expensive Pentagon acquisition programs over the next decade and beyond are all exclusively or partly nuclear weapons related:
a) The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (some later versions of which will be endowed with a capability to deliver B61 nuclear bombs); estimated cost: $351 billion;
b) The Ohio Class Replacement submarine (exclusively nuclear); estimated cost $90 billion;
c) The Long-Range Strikes bomber (LRS-B) (the Air Force is pursuing a new long-range penetrating bomber primarily for conventional reasons, but the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates 25% of the costs as nuclear-related); estimated cost: $73 billion; and
d) The Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS) (key aspects of which are designed to defend against nuclear attacks); estimated cost: over $151 billion.
While some modernization of our nuclear weapons is necessary, the current U.S. nuclear arsenal of approximately 4,800 nuclear weapons greatly exceeds U.S. security requirements. Moreover, both former and current military leaders agree that planned spending on nuclear weapons, which could top $1 trillion over the next thirty years, is unaffordable. Harrison concurs, notes that, given current budget constraints, the Pentagon will not be able to afford its currently proposed buys for the Ohio replacement and Long-Range Strike bomber without making cuts elsewhere.
Ultimately, Harrison concludes that “[i]f the budget caps are not raised by Congress, DoD will be forced to fund this shortfall by making additional cuts to force structure, personnel, acquisitions and readiness beyond what is proposed in the request”, meaning greater risk in implementing the defense strategy. Not only would scaling back current spending plans save billions that could be better spent on more urgent national security priorities, but doing so would not jeopardize our safety or deterrent capability.