Armageddon on a Budget

Don't worry, we can still nuke Russia even if we go over the fiscal cliff.

By , director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies.

As we speed toward the so-called fiscal cliff, we are confronted by dire warnings. A Thelma-and-Louise style plunge will drag the country back into recession, inflict terrible hardship on the less fortunate, and decimate our military might.

As we speed toward the so-called fiscal cliff, we are confronted by dire warnings. A Thelma-and-Louise style plunge will drag the country back into recession, inflict terrible hardship on the less fortunate, and decimate our military might.

Well, perhaps. But here’s a little good news: we’ll still be able to nuke the bejesus out of the Russians.

About a year ago, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta sent around a "heartburn" letter warning of the dire implications of across-the-board budget cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act. Panetta outlined the cuts that might occur under the process commonly referred to as sequestration. This was, in part, an exercise in panic-mongering to generate political will to avoid sequestration.

In case you need a refresher, the United States maintains a stockpile of about 5,000 nuclear weapons, about half of which are backups for the deployed force. Under the New START treaty, the United States will field up to 420 ICBMs with one warhead each, 14 submarines carrying up to 240 SLBMs with four or five warheads apiece, and up to 60 nuclear-capable bombers. That will work out to 1,550 deployed "strategic" warheads, although the real number will be higher because of the way the treaty counts warheads on bombers. The United States also has a few hundred "tactical" nuclear weapons — gravity bombs for use by U.S. and NATO fighter aircraft.

This is a lot of nuclear firepower. The U.S. nuclear stockpile was designed to be resilient in the face of unexpected technical failures and geopolitical surprises. No one planned on the catastrophic scenario being self-inflicted, but it works against that, too. Even if we apply worst-case sequestration cuts, the force looks surprisingly healthy. Here is Panetta’s list of "devastating" cuts, along with the savings, in billions, over 10 years:

  • Terminate Joint Strike Fighter; minimal life extensions and upgrades to existing forces ($80B);
  • Terminate bomber; restart new program in mid 2020s ($18B);
  • Delay next generation ballistic missile submarine; cut force to 10 subs ($7B);
  • Eliminate ICBM leg of Triad ($8B).

The first fact that should be obvious is that much of the savings comes from simply deferring modernization of some systems. Really, the only near-term pain comes from eliminating the ICBM leg of the triad. In the other cases — terminating the JSF, delaying a new bomber, and delaying the replacement ballistic missile submarine — the consequences will not be felt for years. (The current fleet of subs will begin to age out at a rate of about one per year starting in 2027. The aircraft should remain viable through the 2020s, with the Air Force planning on retaining some B-52s through 2035. 2035!)

Now, let’s be clear. It takes a long time to build replacement systems, so delays now may lock in gaps that will appear later. And maintaining old systems too long can be a penny-wise, pound-foolish approach as maintenance costs rise. But it is hard to make the case that the resulting sequestration deterrent would, in the near term, "presage the end of democratic Western Europe" or some such nonsense.

The bulk of the deterrent would be based on 10 submarines, each with 24 missiles. Those missiles can carry up to 12 warheads each, but we needn’t be so aggressive. An average of six would do, resulting in a sea-based force of approximately 1,440 nuclear weapons deployed on submarines, a few hundred of which might be at sea at any given time. The United States would also have, for flexibility, 18 B-2s capable of carrying up to 16 gravity bombs (B83s and B61 Mod 11s) and some number of B-52s capable of carrying up to eight gravity bombs or 20 nuclear-armed cruise missiles.

Suck that, Vladimir Putin.  

Such a force would allow us to keep as many nukes as Russia. Indeed, I would rather be in our worst-case scenario of relying perhaps too much on submarines than the current actual-case Russian situation of relying too much on land-based ballistic missiles. The sequestration deterrent would also be an order of magnitude larger than anything deployed by Britain, France, China, or anyone else.

Now, I should add that the delivery vehicles are only half the equation. The budget of the Department of Energy, which provides the nuclear warheads for this force, is also likely to get whacked. It is a little harder to determine what might be cut, largely because Energy officials have been somewhat sanguine about sequestration. While Panetta was sending out his heartburn letter, Thomas D’Agostino, the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, was simply noting that "[i]If there is a reduction in this area, the thing we are going to focus on first and foremost is doing the surveillance work … on our existing stockpile [to ensure] that today’s deterrent is taken care of." (Can someone teach this man how to panic-monger?)

Still, we can imagine the sort of cuts that might accompany the reductions selected by DOD. According to the Office of Management and Budget, weapons activities would take a $678 million hit in FY2013 under sequestration. With that, it is easy enough to generate a heartburn list for NNSA.

One big-ticket target leaps to mind: the life-extension program for the B61 bomb, budgeted at $369 million in FY2013. The actual cost of the program has doubled, which means that next year it will cost even more than budgeted. Given that the Joint Strike Fighter is likely to be terminated, the B61 will be a bomb without a plane to drop it. We’ve already discussed in this space the questionable political value of these weapons. Nice to have, perhaps, but not in this budgetary environment. Eliminating the B61 solves most of our problem. Wow, halfway home already — that was easy!

Now, we’re just looking for another $309 million. Since in this scenario Leon Panetta has axed the ICBM leg of the triad, we can go ahead and retire the W78 and W87 warheads, saving us $139 million and $86 million, respectively. We can also eliminate much of a $47 million budget increase currently planned for Sandia National Laboratories to support the now-canceled B61 and W78 life-extension programs. (This money would also have gone toward supporting a new arming, fuzing, and firing system for the W88 SLBM warhead. It’s an important program, but not an essential one — at least not right now and not in this budgetary environment.) Another $272 million saved, and I haven’t even found my green eye-shades yet.

That leaves us just about $37 million, which pretty much is loose change for NNSA. One solution would be to reduce funding for dismantling nuclear warheads we’re getting rid of. Look, I am an arms control guy through-and-through, but in an era of budgetary austerity it isn’t clear to me that a longer dismantlement queue is a mortal threat to national security. And since we’re talking about lopping one leg off the triad, I think we’ll be okay at the next NPT Review Conference. The dismantlement budget is just over $50 million.

And, just like that, we’ve endured the awful pain of sequestration. What remains is a relatively robust dyad, with two redundant nuclear weapons designs for both the SLBMs and the bombers. There would be only one cruise missile warhead, but that’s all we have today as well. There may be some costs associated with life-extending a larger number of W76s or placing into service some rebuilt W88s, but these should be manageable issues.

Notice what I have not mentioned: the Uranium Processing Facility, clocking in at a fat $566 million in FY2013. My editor asked me to explain what UPF does. Officially, it provides "a state-of-the-art, consolidated facility for enriched uranium operations including assembly, disassembly, dismantlement, quality evaluation, and product certification." Unofficially, it compensates two Republican senators from Tennessee, where UPF is to be built, for having voted for the New START treaty. You may recall this facility from press stories about how the nearly complete building is 20 percent too small to house the necessary equipment and must grow by 13 feet. Or perhaps you remember when the 82-year-old nun breached security and scrawled "Woe to the empire of blood" on the wall. Well, no budgetary woe for UPF, one of two big-ticket infrastructure projects from the New START ratification process. (The other, the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility at Los Alamos has already been sacrificed, for now, to the budgetary gods.) UPF is a big, juicy target, but eliminating the B61, W78, and W87 warheads probably saves it. I should note that there is also a political calculation here. While UPF is part of the New START deal with Republicans, the Senate ICBM caucus is a surprisingly Democratic affair. But I’ll leave the politics to Barack Obama. On the merits, if push comes to shove, I’d rather have the UPF than the ICBMs since infrastructure improvements represent a long-term investment in sustaining the nuclear deterrent.

So, if sequestration is really about the ICBM force, it is worth asking what function, precisely, that force serves. The core argument in favor of ICBMs has always been that the president can issue a launch command to land-based missiles more quickly than to missiles located on submarines at sea. A few months back, I looked into that particular claim. How much difference exists between land- and submarine-based missiles in the time it takes for an order to produce a mushroom cloud (also known as "promptness")? No more than a few minutes. As the Government Accountability Office concluded, "Contrary to conventional wisdom, SSBNs [missile subs] are in essentially constant communication with national command authorities and, depending on the scenario, SLBMs from SSBNs would be almost as prompt as ICBMs in hitting enemy targets."

That’s a whole lot of "nice to have" at $7 billion dollars of missiles and a pair of pricey warheads.

Now, there are other advantages to having ICBMs. Some people see them as valuable insurance in the event of a Russian breakthrough in anti-submarine warfare technology or as a "sink" that requires many Russian nuclear weapons to target. I don’t find most of these arguments compelling. The idea that the Russians will suddenly be able to hold our boomers at risk strikes me as far-fetched. And it is not clear to me that the citizens of North Dakota would be pleased to learn their contribution to national security will be soaking up much of a Russian nuclear attack. In any case, the merits of these arguments are now beside the point. It is hard to argue that either advantage, even if true, is essential in the current era of austerity. Whether we base our nuclear-armed missiles in silos or on submarines is largely irrelevant.  The United States can sustain its basic approach to deterrence even with a sequestration force.

Of course, push needn’t come to shove. All things being equal, I would prefer to keep ICBMs as part of a triad of nuclear delivery vehicles. I would happily pay Clinton-era taxes to keep them. (I am just delighted to no longer be earning my Clinton-era salary as a research assistant at CSIS.) But I can’t in good conscience tell you that the loss of the ICBM leg of the triad is an insurmountable threat to the stability of deterrence or the security of the United States. It buys us a minute or so response time, the loss of which is a manageable inconvenience. It pales in comparison to all the other catastrophes that will presumably befall us if the geniuses in Washington opt for the Thelma-and-Louise plunge over the fiscal cliff.

Jeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Twitter: @ArmsControlWonk

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