Slimming down by starting a healthy diet is usually a smart decision to make when weight has become a health issue. The US Department of Defense has been forced into such a decision (at least for now) as a result of sequestration, which would, in the long-term, eliminate $500 billion from America’s national security spending coffers over the next decade. Against this backdrop, the Washington-based Stimson Center and CATO Institute recently proposed their own diets for the US defense budget.
The Stimson’s band of academic and military defense experts, known as the “defense advisory committee”, present 27 specific recommendations they call “Strategic Agility”. This strategy would result in annual fiscal savings of around $50 billion while maintaining US national security.
Of particular interest is the report’s identification of cost saving measures in nuclear weapons spending; a particularly fatty expense. It calls for retiring an ICBM wing, eliminating the stockpile of non-strategic B-61s, and scaling back the B-61 life extension program. The planned order of 12 new nuclear-armed Ohio-class replacement submarines would also be reduced to 10 under the proposal. Such changes will cut around $1.4 billion annually from the defense budget while maintaining a viable US nuclear deterrent.
An interesting facet of Stimson’s proposed diet is its argument for the continuation of the triad of nuclear delivery systems (bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine launched ballistic missiles). This is presumably a result of the underlying philosophy of “Strategic Agility”, which places a high priority on “visible evidence of US commitments and capabilities”. According to Stimson, a combination of bombers, missiles and submarines provides such evidence.
Conversely, a recent report by the CATO Institute questioned the strategic and fiscal rationale for the triad. Like the Stimson report, the CATO report authors Benjamin H. Friedman, Christopher Preble and Matt Fay propose a reduction in the number of strategic nuclear weapons. However, the CATO report calls for a shift from a triad of nuclear delivery systems to a dyad of systems based on land- and submarine-based missiles.
Aside from the massive fiscal savings that would result from a reduction to a monad, such a system would maintain a healthy US strategic nuclear deterrent. This argument rests in part on the fact that submarines are difficult to destroy and have the capability of launching a large number of nuclear warheads near a potential target; something the other systems lack. This ultimately reveals the other systems to be unnecessary and, therefore, perfect candidates for fiscal savings.
The report acknowledges the context within which it is arguing and concludes that a monad system is politically unfeasible. Intercontinental ballistic missiles enjoy strong political support, which makes them very difficult to cut. Bombers, by comparison, enjoy relatively less political support, and so, in light of the need for savings, a nuclear dyad would be the next best option.
The different nuclear force structures proposed by Stimson and CATO are certainly reflected in the tremendous differences in savings for nuclear spending that each report identifies. The slimmed down arsenal resulting from CATO’s proposed cuts to two of the three delivery systems amounts to an annual estimated saving of $20 billion. The Stimson slim fast estimates a far smaller annual saving of around $1.4 billion when one only considers the cuts related to nuclear weapons spending.
It is of course a sad fact about diets that many who require them never really start them, and, even if they do, the chances that they will stick with it are slim. This will most probably be the case with Congress and the Pentagon when it comes to the nuclear diets proposed by the Stimson Center and the CATO Institute, at least initially. Their appetite for nuclear defense spending has been traditionally large and definitely unhealthy.
However, the long-term implementation of sequestration would put enormous pressure on U.S. nuclear spending plans. If the face of such budget cuts you can only hide big ticket modernization programs such as a new nuclear ballistic missile submarine and a new long-range penetrating bomber for so long. This is all the more reason to take the Stimson and CATO recommendations seriously.