An expert's point of view on a current event.

Hey, Big Spender

Republicans like to say that Obama's gone soft on nukes. In fact, he's spending $213 billion more on them.

Mike Heffner/Getty Images
Mike Heffner/Getty Images
Mike Heffner/Getty Images

The Republican Party platform would have you believe that the strongest nation on Earth has decided to hang it up. "The United States is the only nuclear power not modernizing its nuclear stockpile," the party's 2012 platform warns.

The Republican Party platform would have you believe that the strongest nation on Earth has decided to hang it up. "The United States is the only nuclear power not modernizing its nuclear stockpile," the party’s 2012 platform warns.

Nonsense. All the major nuclear powers — China, Russia, and the United States — are modernizing their nuclear forces. While the Cold War has been cold for two decades now and the world no longer sits at the brink of conflagration, nuclear weapons enjoy a strange momentum. Bombs, warheads, and the means to deliver them are being refurbished and created anew so they will remain potent well into this century.

How do we know anyone in 2050 will want them? We don’t, but we are delivering them nonetheless. A gift for the next generation.

It’s true that in his Prague speech in 2009, President Barack Obama vowed "to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons." But he immediately qualified it, saying, "This goal will not be reached quickly — perhaps not in my lifetime."

His policies have not exactly been a rush to disarmament.

In his 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, the president kept intact the land-sea-air strategic triad, and backed off his pledge to take nuclear missiles off high alert status. He did eliminate one weapon: a sea-launched, nuclear-armed cruise missile.

Obama also negotiated an arms treaty with Russia, limiting both sides to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads by the treaty’s end, after seven years.

But the treaty’s reductions from previous levels were modest. Moreover, there are more nuclear weapons outside the treaty than are covered by its limits. This includes about 2,000 strategic warheads in the U.S. non-deployed "reserve" and thousands more Russian tactical nuclear weapons left over from the Cold War — which have never been covered by any arms control treaty.

When it comes to spending on nuclear weapons, and the complex of laboratories and facilities that support them, Obama has been downright generous in tough fiscal times.

When he submitted the New START arms reduction treaty to the Senate, the president laid out a congressionally required 10-year plan for modernizing and maintaining U.S. nuclear forces, including the warheads, delivery systems, and related infrastructure. Over the decade, the plan envisioned about $88 billion in spending for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semi-autonomous unit of the Energy Department, and $125 billion for updating strategic delivery vehicles, such as submarines, missiles, and bombers.

There’s been some grumbling among Republicans that the president didn’t keep his promise on this score. The GOP platform declares, "It took the current Administration just one year to renege on the President’s commitment to modernize the neglected infrastructure of the nuclear weapons complex — a commitment made in exchange for approval of the New START treaty."

This is pretty weak criticism. The administration is actually shoveling cash into the nuclear weapons stockpile. The NNSA is carrying out a 20-year, multibillion dollar effort, known as the Life Extension Programs, to prolong the life of four types of nuclear warheads and bombs. It is painstakingly difficult work — which involves replacing old parts while adding security systems and controls — and expensive.

Just one of them, the B-61 gravity bomb life extension, was estimated two years ago to cost $4 billion, but in July, Sen. Diane Feinstein, (D-Calif.), who chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee that oversees the program, said the cost had doubled to $8 billion. A separate Pentagon estimate runs even higher, to $10 billion.

Under the original 10-year plan, the budget anticipated for NNSA next year was to be $7.95 billion, but the president’s request was slightly below, at $7.58 billion. There is a good reason for this, one that the Republicans are well aware of: the Budget Control Act. Given that kind of pressure, coming in just a shade under the 10-year plan is not a sign of bad faith, as some in the GOP suggest. Actually, the president is spending considerably more for nuclear weapons upkeep than did his predecessor, whose budget for NNSA weapons activities in the last year of his administration was $6.3 billion.

Obama also promised in a February 2011 letter to the Senate to accelerate, "to the extent possible," work on design and engineering for a new plutonium facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. It is to be called the Chemical and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) building, and the project is estimated to cost $6 billion. Another project, the Uranium Processing Facility at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was to proceed in parallel. But the cost of doing them simultaneously grew to the point where the administration realized it could not sustain both. The White House decided to postpone the CMRR for five years, while boosting the budget for the uranium facility. This is just common sense at work, not some kind of subterfuge, as the Republicans suggest.

The president has not stinted much on the big-ticket modernization of delivery vehicles, either.

One of the largest is the Navy’s planned replacement of the fleet of Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines. Today’s fleet of 12 deployed submarines carries a total of 288 Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The first of them entered service in 1981. These were the real workhorses of nuclear deterrence — nearly invulnerable and incredibly accurate from 4,000 miles away. The Ohio-class boats each can carry up to 24 missiles, but will only have 20 under the new treaty with Russia. The new class of submarines, the SSBNX, will carry just 16 missiles, for a maximum of 192 when the fleet is fully replaced. The cost of this new generation of submarines, now advancing through the planning process, is roughly $100 billion.

Similar replacements will be offered for land-based missiles and the air leg of the strategic triad. Whoever is elected the next president will face enormous budget pressures and may yet decide that a triad is a Cold War relic, and no longer necessary. But Obama did not want to go there in 2010. His nuclear posture review looked at the possibility of a two-pronged nuclear deterrence force, say just land-based missiles and submarines, and shuddered. The report declared: "Retaining all three Triad legs will best maintain strategic stability at reasonable cost, while hedging against potential technical problems or vulnerabilities."

And as to the Republican criticism that Obama’s deterrence strategy is insufficient, that seems like old politics. In 2008, presidential candidate Obama promised to take nuclear-tipped missiles off launch-ready alert. He didn’t.

Today, one-third of U.S. strategic forces, including almost all land-based missiles and some sea-based, are still ready for a prompt launch. This has not changed since the Cold War ended. The launch-ready alert time is four minutes from the moment the president gives the order for land-based missiles, and about 12 minutes for submarines.

Obama’s nuclear posture review acknowledged the need for more presidential decision time in a crisis, but the alert posture was left unchanged. The only reason the United States maintains a hair-trigger posture today is because Russia does. (China is not believed to keep weapons on launch-ready alert.)

Despite tensions that flare up, the United States and Russia are no longer enemies; the chance of nuclear war or surprise attack is nearly zero. We trade in each other’s equity markets. Russia has the largest audience of Facebook users in Europe, and is open to the world in a way the Soviet Union never was.

Yet the missiles of Armageddon are still on prompt launch.

Another nuclear relic of the Cold War are the 200 or so tactical nuclear weapons the United States still retains in Europe as part of the NATO nuclear deterrent. The refurbished B-61 bombs would replace the older tactical B-61s now deployed at bases in Belgium, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, and Turkey. These forward-based tactical nuclear bombs were intended to deter a Soviet land invasion of Europe. That threat vanished long ago, and so has the military mission for the weapons. They are now there entirely as a political device to reinforce the idea that non-nuclear members are sharing in the alliance defense burden.

Obama didn’t change this. Perhaps he concluded these nuclear weapons should be part of a larger deal with Russia later on, putting the big Russian stockpile on the negotiating table. But some NATO members are growing restive about them, and these weapons are ripe for a future deal.

Clearly, Obama is not a disarmament dreamer. But what would he do in a second term? Would Obama consider negotiating deeper cuts in the arsenals with Russia? Would he take missiles off prompt launch?

The White House carried out a detailed implementation study after the nuclear posture review. Sources say the study sketches out alternative paths for U.S. nuclear forces — keeping today’s levels, or seeking deeper reductions. The results of this study have been locked up during the election campaign, but if Obama is re-elected, he will have to make decisions relatively early in a new term.

Mitt Romney opposed the New START treaty and called for a large defense spending increase and even more for missile defense. In general, he seems skeptical of the need for negotiated nuclear arms control and has promised to stand up to Russian President Vladimir Putin. But if elected, he would face some pressures similar to those confronting Obama. The large number of Russian tactical nuclear weapons is a continuing worry. Congress is unlikely to approve such a large defense spending increase, and the new president may have to find ways to scale back the strategic nuclear deterrent as a result — perhaps with fewer submarines or missiles. The NATO allies are restive about continuing to station American nuclear bombs in Europe. The question is what would Romney do once in the White House — and how much does his campaign rhetoric really say about where he would take nuclear weapons policy?

At the Seoul summit, in March 2012, President Obama declared, "We can already say with confidence that we have more nuclear weapons than we need…" For him, too, the question is: What will he do about it?

David E. Hoffman covered foreign affairs, national politics, economics, and served as an editor at the Washington Post for 27 years.

He was a White House correspondent during the Reagan years and the presidency of George H. W. Bush, and covered the State Department when James A. Baker III was secretary. He was bureau chief in Jerusalem at the time of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, and served six years as Moscow bureau chief, covering the tumultuous Yeltsin era. On returning to Washington in 2001, he became foreign editor and then, in 2005, assistant managing editor for foreign news. Twitter: @thedeadhandbook

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