Top government officials are in agreement that current plans to rebuild our nuclear arsenal (to the price tag of at least $355 billion over the next decade and up to $1 trillion over the next 30 years) are overly ambitious and likely unaffordable. Add in a defense budget that’s already stretched thin, always-looming budget caps and sequestration, new international security challenges like Russian expansion in Ukraine, terrorist expansion in Iraq and Syria, and the Ebola virus in Africa, and it’s safe to say the US budget is burning its ‘defense candle’ at both ends.
The Arms Control Association (ACA) has released a report on just this issue, urging the “executive branch, Congress, and the American public to rethink current plans to rebuild U.S. nuclear forces in the years ahead.” The nuclear shopping list is a long one: new ballistic submarines, new nuclear-capable bombers, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, a new air-launched cruise missile, and an upgrade to five nuclear warhead types. By paring down that list, ACA has highlighted some commonsense solutions to save roughly $70 billion dollars in the next decade. A summary of ACA’s recommendations follows.
Strategic Submarines – SSBN(X): Save $16 billion/10 years
A 2013 report by the CBO analyzed the option of reducing the SSBN(X) force to 8 boats. Under this scenario, the Navy would still have a robust deterrent and be able to deploy the maximum number of warheads at sea, consistent with the New START treaty.
Long-Range Bombers – LRSB: Save $32 billion/10 years
Because the current US bomber fleet will operate into the 2040s-50s, there is no urgency for a renovation. By delaying the LRSB until the mid-2020s, the USAF can free up $32 billion dollars for other projects that have more urgent funding needs.
Air-Launched Cruise Missile – ALCM: Save $3 billion/10 years
The recently rebuilt gravity bomb (B61-12) gives our current bombing fleet the capability to drop nuclear weapons, drawing the need for a new air-launched cruise missile into question. Not only is this weapon unnecessary, as our submarines are capable of launching a nuclear ballistic missile, but it would serve as an effective bargaining chip on the international stage. Discontinuing our ALCMs as part of a global ban on nuclear-armed cruise missiles would eliminate the growing threat of a Chinese or Pakistani cruise missile while simultaneously saving at least $3 billion dollars in development and procurement costs.
B61 Life Extension Program – LEP: Save $4 billion/10 years
The B61 Life Extension Program is designed to extend the lives of 400 gravity bombs for tactical (front lines) and strategic (reserves) purposes. The two most costly portions of the program are a consolidation plan of four versions of the bomb into one and the refurbishment of some of the nuclear components. This program has faced budget pressures in Congress and would be better served by scaling back the program to update our strategic reserve bombs while allowing our tactical bombs in Europe to age out gracefully. This or other reductions to the program, such as discontinuing the 4-in-1 modification plans for the bomb, will allow for cost savings up to 4 billion dollars over the next decade.
Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles – ICBMS: $16 billion/10 years
The Air Force’s 450 ICBMs are scheduled for maintenance to ensure their reliability through 2030. The Air Force is expected to decide by 2016 whether they will employ incremental modernization of the missiles, or scrap the current design and create new ones. A 2014 RAND study sponsored by the Air Force to analyze options for the ICBM determined that incremental modernization would both meet the US’s nuclear deterrent needs and be the most cost-effective. The USAF would save at least $16 billion dollars by forgoing a new missile and an additional $84-$219 billion (not included in above projections) by forgoing potential mobile-basing options which have been considered ineffective since the 1980’s.
These options illustrate ways to safely trim the bloated nuclear budget while maintaining our nuclear deterrent. This creates a win-win scenario for the Department of Defense, which will preserve the nuclear arsenal from uncontrolled cuts as a result of an overly ambitious budget and secure funding for its conventional forces. In a world where nuclear exchanges are most commonly associated with global destruction, these nuclear exchanges to the budget are both sensible and necessary.
Greg Terryn is a Scoville Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation.