Written by John Isaacs & Greg Terryn
The Pentagon and Department of Energy have launched an ambitious program to modernize all three legs of our nuclear weapons forces, land-based, sea-based and air, as well as our nuclear weapons stockpile. But their arithmetic does not add up.
The government will not be able to pay for all of its nuclear weapons programs in the coming decades. And this compelling opinion comes from within the Pentagon and prominent former officials.
Earlier this month, Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s Undersecretary of Acquisitions, characterized the Obama administration’s modernization plans as “unaffordable.” He went on to say that updating all three legs of the U.S. nuclear force concurrently will fail unless the Department of Defense can secure an additional $10 to $12 billion annually by 2021 – a very unlikely scenario.
Kendall is not alone. “The challenge here is that we have to recapitalize all three legs [of the nuclear triad] and we don’t have the money to do it,” explained General James Cartwright, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Over the next decade, the United States plans to spend $348 billion on its nuclear forces, or about $35 billion a year, according to a 2015 Congressional Budget Office report. Reports conducted by the congressionally-appointed National Defense Panel and Center for Nonproliferation Studies indicate the nuclear arsenal could cost as much as $1 trillion to modernize.
“It’s clear that we are facing a [nuclear] modernization mountain in the budget in the period of time in the next decade… And it’s going to be a major challenge,” remarked John Harvey, a former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs.
The National Defense Panel, which included former Secretary of Defense William Perry, retired four star General John Abizaid and former Senator Jim Talent, Distinguished Fellow at Heritage Foundation, wrote: “recapitalization of the triad . . . under current budget constraints is unaffordable” and the $600 billion – $1 trillion cost “would likely come at the expense of needed improvements in conventional forces.”
These exorbitant programs are likely to lead to defense budget tradeoffs, as neither the Air Force nor Navy can afford to fully fund both their nuclear and conventional forces. To compensate, Congress has authorized the creation of the “National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund,” which moves the nuclear submarine program from the Navy’s account to the defense-wide budget. Undersecretary Kendall acknowledged that this option merely changes the accounting system without fixing the actual affordability problem.
Another poor management solution: build a smaller number of each weapon at a substantially higher unit cost. There is ample precedent for this option; the Air Force planned to build 132 B-2 nuclear bombers and ended up with only 21 and the MX Peacekeeper missile was whittled down from 200 to 50. Similarly, the Navy wanted 24 Ohio-class Submarines and 32 Zumwalt-class Destroyers, but received only 18 and 3 respectively.
The Pentagon is hoping that significantly more funding will be available by the time the budget crunch hits in the 2020s, but this is likely not the case, as it would require a political deal on national debt, the reduction in funding of conventional forces, or both. The Pentagon, or Congress, will need to take decisive action to avoid this budgetary train wreck. Acting sooner, rather than when the budget crunch hits, is a sounder business approach.
John Isaacs is a Senior Fellow and Greg Terryn is a Scoville Fellow at the Center for Arms Control & Non-Proliferation.