by Kingston Reif
On January 5 President Obama, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, and other high-ranking defense officials previewed the results of the recently completed strategic defense review at a press briefing at the Pentagon. Though short on specific details about which programs and systems will be scaled back or eliminated, the review lays out a blueprint that will inform the more than $450 billion in reductions to projected defense spending increases the administration is planning to implement over the next decade. We’ll find out more about the budget impact of this blueprint when the FY 2013 budget request is released next month.
Nuclear Weapons Policy and Posture
The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) stated that the U.S. and Russia “still retain many more nuclear weapons than they need for deterrence.” However, it largely punted on the question of the desirability and feasibility of deeper reductions below New START levels, directing instead a follow-on analysis of deterrence requirements to set a goal for future reductions with Russia.
The new strategy document states that “As long as nuclear weapons remain in existence, the United States will maintain a safe, secure, and effective arsenal.” It goes on to say that “It is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force, which would reduce the number of nuclear weapons in our inventory as well as their role in U.S. national security strategy.” Outgoing Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michelle Flournoy was more forward leaning at last Thursday’s rollout, noting that “it’s…our judgment…that we can maintain deterrence at lower levels of forces, but I will defer any discussion of specific programmatic details to the budget when it rolls out.”
The new review is significant for two reasons. First, while some observers may doubt whether the latest guidance breaks new ground, timing is everything, and we should pay attention when the Pentagon hints at a smaller nuclear arsenal in the context of painful budget cuts. Numerous high-ranking military officials and Pentagon civilians had already begun dropping these hints before the review was completed. For instance, despite prior statements that the U.S. would maintain a robust triad of 700 delivery systems, Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Jim Miller toldthe House Strategic Forces Subcommittee last November that “In the context of the budget situation [in] which we find ourselves…we are looking hard at those numbers again.”
Second, the Pentagon is on the verge of completing (if it hasn’t already) the deterrence requirements review mandated by the NPR, which will be delivered to the President in the form of options based on the strategic objectives laid out in the NPR. This analysis will lead to the revision of existing presidential guidance on the targeting of nuclear weapons, appropriate nuclear force levels, and more. It seems clear from the strategy review document that some (if not all) of the options presented to the President will entail reductions in delivery systems and warheads, though how far reaching the option the President ultimately chooses will be remains to be seen.
The more far-reaching, the better. While nuclear weapons today play a much smaller role in U.S. national security strategy than they ever have, the U.S. continues to retain far more nuclear weapons than it needs to maintain its security (for an excellent explication of this position, see Phil Taubman’s January 7 New York Times column). Our excessive arsenal of approximately 5,000 weapons is ill-suited to address 21st century nuclear security priorities such as stopping terrorists from acquiring or using a nuclear device, thwarting the spread of nuclear weapons to additional states, and ensuring a stable and predictable relationship between the U.S. and Russia.
The new review’s shift in focus to the Asia-Pacific region (i.e. China) further erodes the rationale for maintaining an excessively large nuclear arsenal. Despite a specious recent estimate to the contrary, China is believed to possess approximately 250 nuclear warheads, far, far from the U.S. total. Were the U.S. building a nuclear force sized to address the Chinese (or North Korean) nuclear arsenal, it would number in the hundreds not the thousands. Of course, Russia’s arsenal of approximately 11,000 warheads is the key driver of the size of the U.S. arsenal, but a growing number of conservative analysts and lawmakers are pointing to the much smaller Chinese arsenal as a reason why the U.S. should be hesitant to alter its current nuclear posture.
As Jeffrey Lewis recently noted, the biggest danger posed by Russia and China’s nuclear arsenal is not the threat of a deliberate nuclear attack but the possibility of unauthorized, miscalculated, or accidental use. “These challenges,” he told the House Strategic Forces Subcommittee, “require not ‘more’ deterrence, but continued attention from the United States to ensure that our overwhelming capacity to deter Russia and China is both effective and stable.”
U.S. and Russian security and financial interests would be better served by the continued pursuit of further mutual reductions not only in deployed nuclear forces, but in all types of nuclear weapons, including weapons held in reserve. Some current and planned systems could be cut or scaled back without strict Russian reciprocity.
The Nuclear Weapons Budget
In his opening remarks at last week’s press conference, President Obama stated that in order to achieve the strategy outlined in the review, “We’ll continue to get rid of outdated Cold War-era systems so that we can invest in the capabilities that we need for the future, including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; counterterrorism; countering weapons of mass destruction; and the ability to operate in environments where adversaries try to deny us access.”
The President is right that we should spend scarce dollars on the weapons we need for current threats, and not on programs with diminishing strategic relevance. Perhaps the most egregious example of outdated defense spending is the hundreds of billions of dollars in planned spending over the next decade on nuclear weapons, particularly to build new delivery systems, which are nearing the end of their service lives at roughly the same time. For example, current plans call for the construction of a new fleet of twelve nuclear-armed submarines at cost of $110 billion. The Pentagon estimates the total cost of building and operating the new subs, which could carry more than 1,000 warheads into the 2070s, at nearly $350 billion over the next 50 years. The Air Force intends to spend $55 billion on procuring 100 new bombers and to spend an unknown sum on new land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.
To avoid excessive cuts to essential programs, the Pentagon must pare back the nuclear weapons budget, which is of limited relevance to combating the emerging 21st century security priorities highlighted by the President and military leaders.
It is unknown whether the FY 2013 budget submission will include cuts to programs that support the existing arsenal and/or to planned spending on new delivery systems.
In a November 14 letter to Sens. McCain and Graham, Secretary of Defense Panetta stated that sequestration, which would require an additional $500 billion in cuts on top of the $450 billion the Pentagon is already planning to save over the next decade, would force the Pentagon to delay the next generation nuclear ballistic missile submarine and reduce the buy from 12 to 10 subs (which would save $7 billion over the next decade) and terminate until the mid-2020s the next generation strategic bomber (which would save $18 billion over the next decade).
Some experts suggest that by building and deploying eight new nuclear-armed submarines instead of a dozen of them, the U.S. could still deploy the same number of nuclear weapons at sea as is currently planned (about 1,000) and save $27 billion over the next decade.
Though sequestration is not inevitable (Congress could pass legislation to prevent it), even the smaller-scale cuts the Pentagon is already planning on will force the military to scale back to a degree. The need to spend smartly is particularly important as the Pentagon calculates the opportunity costs of building new nuclear weapons delivery systems at the expense of more important defense priorities.
For example, a recent draft of the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding blueprint revealed that the plan to build 12 new nuclear-armed submarines would reduce the number of conventional ships in the 30-year plan by 56 boats. One plugged-in defense official recently told Global Security Newswire’s Elaine Grossman that “If they can’t figure out how to get the Ohio-class submarines funded without destroying the Navy shipbuilding plan, then the rest of the Navy’s going to kill the [Ohio-class] replacement program or dramatically reduce the number of boats.”
The new strategic guidance unveiled on January 5 suggests that the Pentagon is laying the groundwork, albeit cautiously, for further reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal and the nuclear weapons budget. How significant these reductions will be, however, is still to be determined.