by Kingston Reif
The leaders of the Air Force nuclear enterprise are fond of saying that nuclear weapons are relatively cheap. Few are as committed to disseminating this message as Major Gen. Garrett Harencak, the Assistant Chief of Staff for Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration. Harencak’s stump speech on nuclear weapons, which he gives frequently in Washington and around the country, usually includes the following:
“Oh we can’t afford it [nuclear weapons] anyway. Really? Okay, but I’m sorry. Here’s the deal. My two legs, my $5.1 billion – actually $4.9, $5.1, whatever — $5 billion in 2012 for ICBMS, bombers, to protect against our only existential threat. The United States Postal Service in 2012 lost $15.9 billion — $15.9 billion. And we provide deterrence on Sundays.”
Admittedly, Harencak’s rhetorical flourishes make for entertaining listening (and reading). But they also don’t tell the whole story. While the current costs of the Air Force legs of the triad may be cheaper than some other Pentagon programs, these aren’t the only costs. For example, Harencak’s one-year tally ignores the large financial and opportunity costs of current plans to modernize and recapitalize all elements of the Air Force nuclear enterprise, the bulk of which have yet to (but will soon) hit the balance sheets. While the Air Force has been less than transparent about the extent of the bill, it has already acknowledged these costs will be substantial. So substantial, in fact, that the service leadership is looking for assistance from elsewhere in the Pentagon to help pick up the tab.
The Air Force’s nuclear modernization mountain
Harencak’s public relations campaign about the relative affordability of the Air Force leg of the triad is deceptive because it doesn’t include the bulk of the impending costs to recapitalize the bomber and ICBM legs. In addition to the costs to maintain and upgrade its existing nuclear assets, the Air Force’s nuclear modernization plans include:
- A new nuclear-capable Long-Range Strike Bomber (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);
- A new nuclear armed cruise missile (known as the Long Range Standoff Missile);
- A replacement for the Minuteman III ICBM (known as Ground Based Strategic Deterrence);
- A new guided tail-kit for the B61 mod 12 life extension program; and
- Certification of a nuclear-capability for the F-35A
On top of these costs are the National Nuclear Security Administration’s life extension programs for the warheads associated with the two Air Force legs, including the B61 mod 12 life extension program, the air-launched cruise missile warhead life extension program, and two interoperable warheads for the W78 and W87 ICBM warheads. The Air Force will also be footing its share of the nuclear command, control, and communications bill and plans to request additional funding to revitalize the Air Force nuclear enterprise and infrastructure in the wake of the leadership, drug, and cheating scandals that have generated so much negative press attention over the past 18 months.
If the Air Force knows how much its nuclear delivery system recapitalization programs are going to cost, it’s not telling Congress. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released earlier this year stated that the Pentagon’s assessment of planned nuclear weapons spending over the next decade “did not include potential estimates over the 10-year period for replacing the Minuteman III ICBM, or the potential estimates for developing and producing the new bomber that are likely to occur beyond the FYDP [Future Years Defense Plan]. Rather than provide potential budget estimates, DOD treated these efforts as zero-cost over the 10- year period of the report.” GAO criticized this lack of transparency, noting that it’s not conducive to “assessing the long-term affordability of DOD’s modernization plans.”
CBO estimates the cost of Air Force nuclear modernization over the next decade at $32 billion. Independent estimates put the total development cost of the Long-Range Strike bomber at over $80 billion, the new cruise missile at $10-$20 billion, the B61 mod 12 tailkit at least $1.5 billion, and the F-35A nuclear capability at about $500 million. A RANDreport published last year put the total life-cycle costs of a Minuteman III follow-on at between $60 and $219 billion over 40 years depending on the option chosen. In addition, peak procurement for the Long-Range Strike Bomber, new nuclear armed cruise missile, and Minuteman III follow-on programs are slated to overlap one another in the early-mid 2020s – at the same time the Air Force will be buying conventional F-35s and KC-46 tankers.
What’s more, these programs will be in the early stages of development in the face of the military spending caps imposed by the Budget Control Act through the early 2020s. In other words, the resource requirements for Air Force nuclear recapitalization will be significant at a time when the required resources are unlikely to be available.
Indeed, the Air Force is already treading water under the weight of this burden. In March, Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, the head of Air Force Global Strike Command, stated that the Pentagon deferred Long-Range Standoff Missile program funding “due to concerns over the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) funding profile for the associated warhead as well as other nuclear enterprise priority bills such as the B61 Tail Kit Assembly.” In February, then Acting Deputy Secretary of Defense Christine Fox noted that “[W]e actually took out more Air Force structure than we would like to protect the new long-range bomber.” And in January, former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartzargued that “that without financial buy-in by the NATO partners, either the F-35 nuclear integration or through fielding of an independent or equivalent European manufactured aircraft, F-35 investment dollars should realign to the long range strike bomber.”
Meanwhile, Senate appropriators have already begun to express doubts about the merits of and the acquisition plan for the new cruise missile program.
Air Force hoping for help to pay for the modernization of its nuclear forces
During the unveiling of the service’s 30-year strategy document last month, Air Force Secretary Deborah James toldreporters:
“A point that I continue to make, and I believe there’s agreement on this point, is that this is a national asset….So it’s not just an Air Force issue per se, it’s a national asset and therefore it’s an issue for all of us. We do feel that additional monies could well be in order, because this is such an important national asset.”
But if the Air Force’s nuclear weapons are so cheap, as Harencak suggests, why does it need to borrow from elsewhere in the Pentagon to pay for nuclear weapons?
In seeking to define its nuclear assets as a “national asset”, the Air Force is following a playbook crafted by the Navy. The Navy is concerned that the $100 billion Ohio-class replacement program is a major threat to its conventional shipbuilding budget. The service’s FY 2015 30-year shipbuilding plan is filled with ominous warnings about the inability to maintain a 300+ ship fleet if additional resources aren’t found to pay for new nuclear ballistic missile submarines.
Consequently, Navy officials have been calling on their submarine allies in Congress to establish a separate funding stream for the Ohio class replacement program. Some lawmakers have heeded this call, at least for now. Both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees included provisions in their respective versions of the FY 2015 National Defense Authorization Act that would create a special National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund to cover the cost of the Ohio-class submarine replacement outside of the Navy budget.
However, House and Senate appropriators rightly did not allocate resources for this gambit. The Pentagon faces tough budget choices in a constrained fiscal environment. An end run around those budget choices by creating a special fund obscures the hard choices that need to be made between nuclear weapons and other defense programs in a time of budget austerity.
If the Air Force is banking on separate funding for its Long-Range Strike Bomber program, Long-Range Standoff Missile program, and next generation ICBM program, it’s likely in for a rude awakening. Indeed, the Navy – which hasn’t received Pentagon leadership’s back for taking the full Ohio replacement cost off its books – can’t be happy that the Air Force is seeking additional funds for its nuclear forces that might otherwise go to the Navy. Inter-service rivalry is a common occurrence at the Pentagon even in the best of budget times. Throw in the current Budget Control Act caps and the fight for dollars among the Navy, Air Force, and Army could grow more intense.
================More than twenty years after the Cold War, nuclear weapons are no longer the service cash cows they once were. Indeed, the recapitalization needs of America’s bloated nuclear arsenal is causing all sorts of angst within the military about how, in a time a budget austerity, to pay for the replacement nuclear delivery systems without undermining conventional programs and missions.
As the recent report of the National Defense Panel Review of the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review put it,
“Accordingly, the Department is committed to a recapitalization of the triad, which under current budget constraints is unaffordable, especially considering that the nuclear deterrent’s supporting infrastructure, command and control system, and other enabling capabilities also require expensive renovations. This recapitalization will involve substantial outlays over the coming decades, and the merits of some aspects of this expensive recapitalization can be debated. Recapitalization of all three legs of the nuclear Triad with associated weapons could cost between $600 billion and $1 trillion over a thirty year period, the costs of which would likely come at the expense of needed improvements in conventional forces.”
Gen. Harencak might not think these enormous costs are worth losing much sleep over, but the numbers don’t lie: rebuilding the Air Force’s current suite of nuclear forces won’t come cheaply.