Into Thin Air

Congress and Obama are planning Reagan-era expenditures to modernize U.S. nuclear weapons under sequestration-era budgets. What could possibly go wrong?

Bennie J. Davis III/U.S. Air Force via Getty Images
Bennie J. Davis III/U.S. Air Force via Getty Images

The House has passed the fiscal 2015 National Defense Authorization Act. Like last year and the year before that, the bill constrains the Pentagon’s ability to implement the New START agreement with Russia — which limits both sides to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads — while simultaneously making budget decisions that will result in much deeper cuts than that. 

I have already written at length about the perverse state of affairs afflicting the U.S. nuclear deterrent. President Barack Obama and Congress are arguing at knife point over relatively minor cuts, when the ugly truth is this: The budget cuts they have imposed will bring the number of U.S. deployed strategic nuclear warheads well below 1,000 by about 2030. Neither the president’s budget nor the House’s version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) include any hint that Obama or his opponents have come to grips with this reality. 

The problem is that, in 2010, the president, in order to get New START through the Senate, committed to meet the treaty’s limits by deploying 60 nuclear-capable bombers, 400 intercontinental ballistic missiles, and 240 submarine-launched ballistic missiles. And he promised to invest significantly in replacing all three legs of the nuclear triad, committing to spend about $200 billion over 10 years to sustain and modernize the nuclear deterrent. But then the 2011 Budget Control Act resulted in significant across-the-board cuts through "sequestration." How the United States is going to spend more on nuclear weapons while drastically cutting defense spending has never been addressed.

To make matters worse, the first 10 years of investment tell only part of the story. Over the next 30 years — the amount of time it will take to replace the triad — the United States will spend about $1 trillion to sustain and modernize its nuclear forces.

One can argue about whether $1 trillion over 30 years is a lot of money. (I find the argument that it’s not works better inside Washington than out.) We can argue whether the current nuclear forces provide that sort of value, what sort of nuclear relationship Washington is likely to have with Moscow and Beijing, and whether those resources might be better spent on conventional capabilities. At some level, however, these discussions are academic because the United States simply doesn’t have the cash.

The problem is not finding a trillion dollars over 30 years. The problem is that the United States is now facing what a Defense Department official called a "modernization mountain" — a period of very high expenditures on nuclear weapons in the 2020s. Although the official in question was strapping on his crampons, this story is going end like Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. (Spoiler alert: Lots of climbers die.) Reports and studies that account for nuclear spending tend to make 10-year estimates, stopping just before the modernization mountain gets steep in about 2024 and creating the illusion that the expenditures are feasible. In truth, things are going to get really, really ugly.

The reason for this sorry state of affairs is political: No one in Washington wants to take responsibility for the scale of the coming reductions. In 2013, the president made a rather timid proposal in Berlin to reduce deployed forces by one-third, despite the fact that deeper reductions are imminent. His political opponents, some of whom want more nuclear weapons, so categorically oppose Obama and his signature call for a world without nuclear weapons that many would probably happily sacrifice the triad for a chance to accuse the president of unilateral disarmament. The result is that Obama is trudging up the modernization mountain, egged on by preposterously bellicose opponents, in total denial about the brewing budget storm that will sweep them all off the mountain and bury the triad in ice. 

To get a sense of the problem, it helps to look comprehensively at the plans to replace all three legs of the triad during the 2020s. Here are the three major programs, along with current plans for new nuclear warheads. The following cost estimates are not ones I made up. All I have done is curate existing estimates and timelines, providing a few comparisons:

  • A new ballistic missile submarine, also known as SSBN(X). Government cost estimates for building 12 boats are $77 billion to $102 billion through 2042. The Navy needs to bring one boat into service each year after 2030. (Because you pay for each boat before it is built, procurement ranges over 2019 to 2033.) Any slippage, even by one year, will reduce the total number of boats. Right now, the plan is to drop to 10 boats, before going back up to 12 after a number of years. If you believe that, I have some oceanfront real estate in Albuquerque where we can base the last two.
  • A new heavy bomber, also known as LRS-B. The most common estimate is $55 billion for 80 to 100 aircraft, though that number does not include research and development costs. The bomber is dual-capable, but the Air Force plans to delay certifying it to carry nuclear weapons. (The Air Force promises to get around to certifying the aircraft for nuclear missions eventually. We can base any nuclear-capable LRS-Bs at the new naval base in Albuquerque.) The new bomber also needs a new cruise missile, which goes by the abbreviation LRSO. The LRSO program is reportedly in disarray with cost estimates between $20 billion and $30 billion — though some of that cost includes a new warhead.
  • A new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). According to the Air Force, the existing Minuteman ICBM force will become "unsustainable" after 2030. Rand Corp. estimates that a replacement ICBM might cost between $84 billion and $124 billion. (Extending the life of the current system is nearly as expensive: $60 billion to $90 billion.) Making the new missiles mobile — as some Air Force officials have advocated — would cost tens of billions of dollars more, based on similar U.S. programs from the 1980s. Exotic schemes like basing the new ICBM in tunnels are no cheaper.
  • Nuclear warheads. Of course all these missiles need nuclear warheads — and the infrastructure to make them. The Obama administration has this crazy plan called "3+2" that envisions three warheads for the intercontinental/submarine-launched ballistic missile force plus two warheads for delivery by aircraft. This program starts with the $10 billion to $12 billion program to develop a bomb called the B61 Mod 12. It is worth noting that the Government Accountability Office has already said that this program cannot be executed with anticipated resources. The National Nuclear Security Administration, which is responsible for building the warhead, more or less says, "we’ll figure it out," which, based on its track record, is laughable.

By 2030, the United States needs to buy nine of the 12 SSBN(X) boats, 80 to 100 LRS-B bombers, a new nuclear-armed cruise missile, and 400 new ICBMs, all the while working on replacements for three of the warheads in the "3+2" concept. Upgrades to command-and-control systems, as well as new facilities to handle plutonium and uranium, are extra. Most of the procurement spending will occur between 2024 and 2030. At its peak, the United States will spend about $15 billion on procurement each year for six years to kee
p this modernization on track.

(If you are interested, there is a longer discussion of these costs in a new monograph from the Center for Nonproliferation Studies: "The Trillion Dollar Nuclear Triad: US Strategic Modernization over the Next Thirty Years.")

As a share of the defense budget, that’s comparable to what Ronald Reagan’s administration spent during the last great modernization of the triad. Whether or not one believes that Russia or China poses a similar threat as did the Soviet Union of the early 1980s — and I am pretty down on Mr. Putin at the moment — the cultural zeitgeist is simply in a different place. When we remade Red Dawn, it was for laughs. It is very hard to imagine devoting a Reagan-like portion of the defense budget to procuring nuclear weapons delivery systems today. It is also important to keep in mind that the Reagan administration wasn’t able to fully realize its plans, either. Congress significantly cut the purchase of Peacekeeper ICBMs, B-2 bombers, and Ohio-class SSBNs.

Whether or not you think rebuying the nuclear deterrent is a good idea, it should not be controversial to note that many defense programs go over budget and fall behind schedule. So, is it likely that the new submarine, bomber, and ICBM programs will experience no further cost growth or schedule delays? No, it is not bloody likely. 

More likely are cost overruns and schedule delays that result in deep reductions in the number of forces — reductions that will lack any strategic rationale and that will kill off what remains of the bilateral arms control process with the Russians.

Consider the following scenario: The Navy and the Air Force are going to do everything possible to save the new submarine and the new bomber. But these programs are already stretched thin. The Navy currently plans to procure 10 new ballistic missile submarines. Any further delay of even a year or two will drop that number further, to only eight boats. (Again, no one believes the United States will replace the lost boats on the back end, absent a dramatically different security environment.) Navy officials are already winging about the impact of the SSBN(X) on the shipbuilding budget. Keeping this program on track will be a challenge.

The Air Force is in worse shape. As one colleague said about Air Force priorities, "They will throw everything else out to protect ‘the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit’ — the tanker, the F-35, and the LRS-B. If you’re not on that list, you’re on the table. Guess what’s not on that list?" That means the Air Force may well cannibalize the funds for modernizing its ICBMs to make sure it can buy large numbers of new aircraft. In a funding crunch, the ICBM force is on the outside looking in. The Air Force is not going to spend $60 billion to $90 billion to preserve the ICBM force at the same time that its precious F-35 and LRS-B programs are at their most expensive.

There are also signs that the Air Force will try to avoid spending the funds necessary to certify the LRS-B (as well as the F-35) to carry nuclear weapons, which is more expensive than one might think. That would allow it to cancel the new cruise missile too. It’s not a stretch to imagine that we wind up with lots of new conventional-only bombers, with the Air Force having cannibalized the nuclear mission. As the B-52 bomber eases into retirement, only the B-2 (good through 2058) retains a niche capability for delivering nuclear gravity bombs, though its days are numbered unless the LRSO gets built.

The United States could easily end up with a force sometime after 2030 that comprises eight ballistic missile submarines and some number of B-2s. Do the math: The submarines have 16 launch tubes each, meaning about 400 warheads deployed at sea at any given time, assuming no change in operational practices. The B-2 might retain a nuclear mission, though probably not without a new cruise missile. Each can carry 16 gravity bombs, meaning another 160 or so warheads deployed at any one time. I actually think this is a pretty rosy scenario, given that we are starting from the premise that the SSBN(X) and LRS-B must be fully funded, starving legacy programs to do it. But, basically, the United States would have a slightly larger version of France’s nuclear arsenal.

The president is not in favor of unilateral disarmament. But if he were, my advice to him would be: KEEP TRYING TO REBUY THE ENTIRE FORCE.

Now, 500 or 600 deployed nuclear weapons is nothing to sneeze at. The world would not come to a crashing end. Although smaller than the Russian force, the U.S. arsenal would still be larger than China’s. But the process of getting there would be ugly. Messy cuts with little or no strategic rationale would surely alarm America’s allies, especially those that share borders with Russia. And it’s a little hard to imagine sustaining political support for a bilateral arms reduction process with the Russians, who by the way are investing heavily in a new generation of land-based missiles.

So, other than undermining deterrence, alarming allies, and destroying what remains of the bilateral arms control process, the current U.S. path is a wonderful model of bipartisan cooperation on national security.

The alternative, of course, is a process of managed reductions, with careful attention to phasing and efforts to negotiate with the Russians. (It’s worth noting that I am much more hawkish on Russia than most, but arms control is founded on the notion that sometimes it makes sense to cooperate with an enemy like Mr. Putin.)

The first step in managing the inevitable reductions would be for Congress to ask for a full cost estimate of both existing systems and new systems through the end of their lifetimes. This estimate needs to be presented in a year-by-year format so policymakers can see choke points in the schedule and identify unrealistic plans. (The NDAA requires a report on nuclear modernization from the Congressional Budget Office, but like other such reports, it too will look out only 10 years.)

My sense is that such a study would make clear the core problem: Replacing the entire fleet of ballistic missile submarines and bombers at the same time is really expensive. Current plans to replace the Minuteman ICBM and develop a new generation of nuclear warheads before 2030 are not realistic, given the huge expenditures required by the new submarine and bomber. Trying to do everything at once is not the answer. Proposing a schedule of investments that do not pile up into an insurmountable modernization mountain might be, but the president and Congress need realistic cost estimates over the entire lifetime of each system to do it.

Better planning won’t preserve the size of America’s nuclear force. It may not even preserve the triad. But the U.S. nuclear deterrent would stand a much better chance of getting off the modernization mountain alive.

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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