This summer, Congress has been tying itself up in knots, trying to decide how to adequately fund U.S. national defense priorities, given the limits imposed by sequestration. But the difficult reality is that, however we choose to address immediate challenges, any rational attempt to plan for America’s future security must begin with a clear-eyed reassessment of the costs, trade-offs, and dangers of the trillion-dollar plan Washington is undertaking to modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons complex. That reassessment should include an effort to eliminate the new nuclear cruise missile.
This week, I co-sponsored an amendment to the defense appropriations bill that would cut funding for the development of this missile, the Long-Range Standoff Weapon, by $75.8 million. If adopted, that preliminary cut would have slowed its development by three years.
The United States needs a strong and credible nuclear arsenal. But our current nuclear forces are excessive. With over 5,000 deployed and stockpiled nuclear weapons — and thousands more awaiting dismantlement — we have a nuclear force stacked with redundancy. The “nuclear triad” that we would use to deliver these weapons consists of over 400 land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles on high alert and undetectable nuclear ballistic submarines, each armed with two types of warheads. We also deploy nuclear gravity bombs that could be delivered from bombers or fighter aircraft, and air-launched nuclear cruise missiles. In addition, the United States maintains non-deployed nuclear weapons that act as an additional hedge to our deployed nuclear weapons, along with thousands of nuclear components and, of course, the ability to build even more nuclear weapons.
The truth is that the United States can retain a credible nuclear deterrent with significantly fewer nuclear weapons and fewer delivery systems, at a fraction of the cost.
Instead, and with little debate, Congress has embarked on a plan to modernize all of these systems and increase these capabilities at an estimated total cost of $1 trillion over 30 years. This effort largely results from decisions made before the advent of the Budget Control Act and an ideological commitment to nuclear weapons by the Republican majority, which recently described them as our national security priority and “the foundation of all our defense efforts” in its security strategy. That plan means purchasing new nuclear weapons production facilities and labs, refurbishing warheads, land-based ballistic missiles, ballistic missile submarines, building new strategic bombers and nuclear-capable fighter aircraft, and, to top it all off, a new nuclear cruise missile.
These expenses will soon constitute a huge proportion of the U.S. defense budget: Yearly nuclear modernization costs will soon balloon and then more than double in the ensuing years, requiring at least $40 billion annually between 2024 and 2036, or nearly 10 percent of defense costs. This modernization “bow wave” — a term meant to describe the bulging costs resulting from new defense programs, like the waves that spread from the bow of a ship — will crowd out other defense priorities, consuming money for conventional weapons, cyber security, taking care of military families, and everything else. For comparison, consider that $40 billion would fund an additional 330,000 troops, and is almost twice the yearly cost of the Marine Corps.
That is an enormous problem that we are unprepared to handle. The comptroller of the Department of Defense has called the cost of nuclear modernization “the biggest acquisition problem we don’t know how to solve yet.” Brian McKeon, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, stated that the Pentagon is “wondering how the heck we’re going to pay for it,” and that current leadership is “thanking our stars we won’t be here to have to answer the question.” Meanwhile, Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee repeatedly voted down and blocked amendments that would require more comprehensive cost assessments for these plans.
What’s more, this nuclear investment would actually undermine U.S. security by driving an emerging global nuclear arms race, undercutting American credibility in the pursuit of nuclear nonproliferation. Indeed, over the past few years, Russia and China have been modernizing their nuclear deterrents. Much of their spending is meant to assure the relevance of their deterrents and offset conventional military deficiencies. That doesn’t mean that the Pentagon must counter these new Russian and Chinese investments; America already has a reliable, credible nuclear deterrent. We must be careful to avoid creating incentives for a self-fulfilling cycle that heightens the risk of using atomic weapons.
To avoid going down this road and to ensure that we maintain the capabilities we need, we should cancel redundant systems such as the planned development of the Long-Range Standoff Weapon, which I proposed reducing funding for this week in a defense appropriations amendment; adopt substantial cuts to our nuclear arsenal, which could save tens of billions of dollars; and increase accountability and transparency by requiring the Defense Department to submit a 25-year plan for nuclear deterrent modernization to explain how it plans to manage these costs. Now is the time for serious oversight and a realistic approach to these issues in order to stop an emerging arms race and avoid wasting billions of dollars we cannot afford.
Photo Credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / Staff