How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb? With a Money Crunch.

The Pentagon is unsure where it will find the money to upgrade its nukes, as costs are expected to double.

B-2 Bomber
390899 01: FILE PHOTO: A B-2 stealth bomber is run on a flight test March 3, 1999 at Edwards Air Force Base, CA. The B-2 , the world''s most expensive aircraft, has controversy brewing around its economic and practical viability June 26, 2001 in Washington, D.C. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has proposed buying 40 more of the $735 million plane in his strategy to develop a stronger American military. (Photo Courtesy of United States Air Force via Getty Images)

The United States, the only country to have used nuclear weapons in war, hasn’t dropped an atomic bomb since 1945, when it debuted its devastating arsenal with twin attacks on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, immediately killing a combined estimated 120,000 people. And not since 1992 has the United States conducted a nuclear weapons test explosion.

Yet U.S. spending on nuclear weapons is set to double over the next 10 years — and not because such warheads are expected to play a bigger role in military strategy. If anything, there is a growing consensus among national security leaders, including a former commander of U.S. nuclear forces, that the U.S. inventory of nuclear weapons is too big, a relic of the Cold War. They argue that today’s nuclear arsenal could be further scaled back and still provide a strong nuclear deterrent.

So why is the Defense Department about to pour money into upgrades and replacements for the warheads — and the bombers, subs, and missiles that carry them? Because, officials say, U.S. nukes are getting old and need to be modernized if they’re going to stay safe and reliable in America’s arsenal.

But it’s unclear whether there will be enough money to pay for the current plan.

The United States maintains what’s called a nuclear triad, or three different ways to carry nuclear weapons: intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and bomber aircraft that can drop nuclear warheads. Currently, the United States plans to replace or upgrade all of these over the next 10 to 15 years.

However, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer told lawmakers this week that the United States is going to have trouble in about six years with coming up with the money to do so.

Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on strategic forces, Frank Kendall said that starting in 2021, it’s going to be a challenge to identify money within the defense budget to pay for the military’s nuclear modernization plans.

“We’re going to have an affordability problem that we’ll have to deal with,” he said in testimony on Wednesday, March 4.

Meanwhile, the Department of Energy, which shares the nuclear weapons budget with the Pentagon, is planning life-extension programs for the warheads. It is also planning major upgrades to the uranium processing facility located at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and a similar facility for plutonium processing at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

Just how much money this is all going to take is still being worked out as the Pentagon and the Energy Department weigh what they want to buy against what they can afford.

Last week, during a House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces hearing, a rather startling estimate was made public. Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) held up a September letter from Navy Adm. Cecil Haney, head of U.S. Strategic Command. The letter said that nearly 10 percent of the Pentagon’s overall budget, for “a period of time,” is necessary to complete the planned nuclear modernization activities.

It’s impossible to predict how much the United States will spend on defense in the future, but Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, says it could reach $625 billion in 2025. That assumes the spending caps mandated by the Budget Control Act remain in place and the budget grows with inflation after that.

According to Haney’s estimate last September, the Pentagon would need to spend almost $63 billion on nuclear weapons alone in 2025, around when nuclear modernization activities would begin to peak. He argued the spending would be worth it.

“The cost of losing a credible deterrent capability would likely be much greater not only in dollars, but potentially in freedom and sovereignty,” Haney wrote then.

When confronted with the letter last week, Haney backpedaled on his 10 percent estimate. Citing a January study from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), Haney told the House panel that it would likely be closer to 5 to 6 percent of overall annual defense spending. This is still somewhere between $31 billion and $38 billion.

In its study, the CBO estimated that the Pentagon would spend $348 billion on nuclear weapons between 2015 and 2024, which would represent roughly 6 percent of overall defense spending during that decade.

But the really big nuclear modernization costs aren’t scheduled to hit for another 15 to 20 years. So the 5 to 6 percent figures likely underestimate the true costs, according to Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association.

“If we continue to move ahead with the current course, we’re going to encounter a budgetary train wreck,” Reif said.

Today, nuclear weapons represent a little more than 2.5 percent of overall defense spending. In 2015, the Pentagon requested roughly $15 billion, and the Energy Department requested an additional $8.5 billion, for a government-wide total of about $24 billion.

The nuclear weapons spending is scheduled to peak as big Pentagon bills need to be paid, creating a funding crunch.

The Air Force will be ramping up production on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons program to date, as well as a number of other aircraft. The Navy’s shipbuilding program to buy more destroyers, attack submarines, and aircraft carriers will also be fighting for the same pot of money.

These fiscal pressures will likely reinvigorate the debate surrounding the nuclear triad and whether all three parts of it are necessary — or whether it’s wiser to cut spending across the board.

The country’s land-based missiles, or ICBMs, are considered the cheapest to modernize, but their usefulness is also hotly debated. To reach targets in Asia and the Middle East, the missiles would have to fly over Russia. That runs the risk of spooking Moscow, which might mistake their flight as an American attack on Russian territory and retaliate. Outside of attacking Russia, the ICBMs are virtually unusable, some have argued. Meanwhile, a host of morale problems have plagued the airmen tasked with this mission.

The Air Force is also building a replacement for its B-1 and B-52 bombers, which can carry nuclear bombs. Because the new plane, known as the Long-Range Strike Bomber, will be useful for both nuclear missions and more traditional bombing flights, this leg of the triad faces less financial pressure from budget cutters than the ICBM force.

Working against the new plane is its own cost. The Air Force estimates each plane — and it is planning to buy between 80 and 100 — will cost $550 million, a target price that will likely be surpassed. The B-2 bomber, for example, cost roughly $2 billion a plane, and no one expects the new one to be any less capable or to be built more cheaply.

Finally, the Navy’s plan to replace its ballistic missile submarines is considered the highest priority of the nuclear recapitalization programs. The cost of this program threatens to crowd out large portions of the rest of the Navy’s shipbuilding budget. It’s expected to be a $100 billion design and construction effort.

“There’s no solution to that problem at this point,” Reif said.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force via Getty Images

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. Twitter: @K8brannen

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