Nuke the Budget

Why are nuclear weapons off the budget negotiating table? They're where we should start.


Consider this: The Pentagon, as directed by Congress, must dramatically cut its budget. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warns the projected cuts are so large that they would "break" key parts of the military’s national security strategy, and even then "the savings fall well short" of meeting the $500 billion 10-year target.

At the same time, President Barack Obama, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Pentagon have determined that the United States has more strategic nuclear warheads than it needs to deter potential threats and can therefore reduce the deployed stockpile by up to one-third, to about 1,000 warheads. Hagel supported even deeper nuclear reductions before he was tapped to head the Pentagon.

Perfect target for budget cuts, right? Wrong, says Hagel, who has taken the U.S. nuclear weapons budget off the chopping block, all $31 billion per year of it.

But wait, this is exactly the kind of money saving opportunity the Pentagon should jump on. Hagel said July 31 that the just-completed Strategic Choices and Management Review, or SCMR, identified areas where "we have excess capacity to meet current and anticipated future needs," and that he would make program cuts on this basis. In April, Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter told the Harvard Crimson that "we only deserve the amount of money that we need and not the amount of money that we’ve gotten used to."

Clearly, the Pentagon has yet to accept the fact that, given the depth of its budget hole, everything must be on the table. We cannot afford sacred cows. Nuclear weapons, inherited from the Cold War and poorly suited to today’s threats, must compete with other, higher priorities. If Hagel takes nukes off the table, then every dollar not taken from excess nuclear weapons must come from somewhere else.

Here is a sampling of items that have already been cut, and much more is yet to come:

  • Fewer than half of the Air Force’s frontline fighter squadrons are combat ready, and there could be further cuts to conventional fighter and bomber squadrons.
  • The Army has cancelled combat training rotations, and the active force could shrink from 490,000 to 380,000 soldiers.
  • The Navy has cancelled multiple ship deployments, and the number of aircraft carrier strike groups could fall from 11 to eight.
  • About 650,000 civilian Pentagon employees have been furloughed, and salaries, health care, and retirement benefits may all be cut.

These are significant reductions to conventional forces that are relevant to today’s threats. Can it really be that all of this is less important than the nuclear weapons that the military says we no longer need?

Of course, the United States should base decisions about its nuclear arsenal on strategic calculations, not just budgetary savings. But the strategic thinking has already been done. With full Pentagon backing, President Obama announced on June 19 in Berlin that "we can ensure the security of America and our allies, and maintain a strong and credible strategic deterrent, while reducing our deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third" below the limits established by the 2010 New START Treaty.

Part of the problem at the Pentagon is the persistent myth that nuclear weapons are "cheap." This misperception goes all the way to the top, with Deputy Secretary Carter stating in July that "nuclear weapons don’t actually cost that much." By his estimate — which only includes the costs of operating nuclear delivery systems and command-and-control infrastructure — the Pentagon spends approximately $16 billion per year.

However, independent estimates of total spending on nuclear weapons, which include significant costs borne by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), run twice that to about $31 billion per year. Moreover, these costs are expected to significantly increase as older delivery systems and warheads are replaced. For example, the Navy wants 12 new ballistic missile submarines that would cost $90 billion. The Air Force is seeking up to 100 new, nuclear-armed strategic bombers for at least $68 billion, as well as a new fleet of land-based ballistic missiles, price unknown. The NNSA plans to spend $60 billion for a new family of "interoperable" warheads for the arsenal.

Relative to the overall defense budget, these numbers might seem small, but given the budget crunch, every dollar counts. Reductions to the nuclear weapons budget won’t solve the Pentagon’s or the NNSA’s budget woes, but they could offset some of the more painful cuts. Here are several ways that the administration and Congress can scale back U.S. nuclear spending and save about $45 billion over the next decade:

Right-size the Strategic Sub Fleet. Twelve new ballistic missile submarines (called the SSBNX) have a lifetime cost of almost $350 billion. The Pentagon already delayed deployment of the SSBNX by two years, from 2029 to 2031. But without a reduction in the size of the force, the overall cost of the program will remain the same (or even rise) and take resources away from the Navy’s other high-priority shipbuilding projects. By reducing the existing Ohio-class nuclear-armed sub fleet and building no more than eight new nuclear-armed subs, the United States could save up to $18 billion over 10 years. By revising Cold War-era prompt-launch requirements and increasing the warhead loadings on each submarine, the Navy could deploy the same number of nuclear warheads at sea as currently planned under New START (about 1,000) on a smaller fleet of eight subs.

Delay New Strategic Bombers. There is no rush to field a fleet of new bombers given the Pentagon’s plan to retain 60 of the existing nuclear-capable, long-range B-2 and B-52 bombers into the 2040s. Delaying development of the new bomber would save $18 billion over the next decade.

Trim the ICBM Force. The Air Force can trim the land-based intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force from 450 to 300 or fewer by cutting one squadron at each of the three Air Force bases where such missiles are deployed. This move would save approximately $3 billion over the next decade. As for a new ICBM, the Air Force has requested proposals to build a new force starting in 2025, including the possibility of basing the missiles on underground railcars. Another option is to keep the current Minuteman III until 2075.

Dial Back the B61 Bomb. The NNSA plans to extend the service life of about 400 B61 bombs for an estimated cost of $10 billion, or $25 million per bomb. The Pentagon would spend another $3.7 billion on a new tail kit. But this summer the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to cut NNSA funding for the B61 by $168 million, or 30 percent, and to cut the Pentagon’s request for the tail kit by about 90 percent. The administration should read the writing on the wall and scale this program back by half, saving about $5 billion over 10 years.

Waiting for Russia. Some would argue that, even though the Pentagon says we have more nuclear weapons than we need, the United States should not reduce the nuclear budget until Moscow agrees to go lower, too. But this argument ignores the fact that most of the savings proposed here, such as buying fewer new submarines or delaying the new bomber, can be achieved without reducing the number of deployed warheads. There is no need to wait on Russia to save this money.

Secretary Hagel needs to put nuclear weapons back on the table. The Pentagon itself says we have more than we need, and shielding these programs will force deeper cuts into other, higher priority conventional programs. Reducing nuclear weapons spending now is a smart way to trim the budget.

Tom Z. Collina is Director of Policy at Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation in Washington, DC.

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