The $350 billion price tag for modernizing the United States’ nuclear arsenal has been a topic of endless debate in Washington. The funds would be spent over the coming decade to bring the nation’s nuclear triad up to date — the bombers, the submarines, the ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and the warheads.
Little to no discussion has focused on the larger issue of how many weapons and what technologies are needed to support the nation’s strategic nuclear deterrence, analysts said. The Obama administration for a time was interested in pushing that conversation to the fore, but clashes with Congress over federal spending and the passage of the Budget Control Act in 2011 completely shifted the course of the nuclear weapons debate.
“Now the discussion is that we can’t afford the weapons,” said Amy Woolf, nuclear weapons policy specialist at the Congressional Research Service. “The conversation of requirements, roles and missions was replaced by a budget conversation,” she said in a presentation at an Arms Control Association conference. Woolf said her views are her own and was not speaking on behalf of CRS.
Obama, like other U.S. presidents before him, talked about how the world would be better off with fewer atomic weapons. In a 2009 speech in Prague, he called for “concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons.” The soaring rhetoric later gave way to the political realities of a hostile U.S. Congress and a defiant Russia.
If there were any serious plans to engage in an arms control debate, they were permanently sidelined when Congress passed the BCA, said Woolf. Even though nuclear weapons make up just 5 percent of the defense budget, the spending cuts imposed by Congress set off a scramble at the Pentagon to identify programs that may have to be delayed or terminated. The costs associated with the nuclear triad became a bone of contention, as Pentagon officials and lawmakers warned about the financial burden this places on the Defense Department at a time when the military is trying to modernize its aging conventional weapon systems.
The next administration may want to turn the attention back to requirements, Woolf said. “If you continue the discussion to be about the cost, there will not be any progress in nuclear reductions.”
The U.S. nuclear modernization plan as it stands today will not break the Pentagon, said Andrew Weber, who served as assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs during the Obama administration. These expenses could reasonably be absorbed with some minor adjustments to quantities and schedules, he said at the Arms Control Association conference.
But Weber said Obama in his final months in office has an opportunity to leave his mark by slowing down or terminating the more destabilizing portions of the nuclear modernization program such as a new cruise missile.
“Our deterrence is on a good path,” he said. Under Obama, the “neglect of the previous decade has been reversed.”
The Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration is producing an upgraded W76-1 warhead to be deployed on Navy submarines, to replace the Cold War era W76-0. The new warhead is in full production and will be finished by 2019. “The heart of our deterrence, the sea leg, will be in very good shape,” said Weber.
The NNSA also is refurbishing the W88 warhead for sea launched ballistic missiles, and making significant upgrades to command and control systems, Weber said.
The Pentagon is on a path to start buying the new B-21 stealth bomber and a modern submarine to replace the Ohio class. There are still questions about how many are needed, but the programs are funded, and the Pentagon may have to make some tradeoffs to fit them under the spending limits set by Congress. “Do we need 60 bombers, 100 bombers?” Weber asked. “That’s a discussion worth having.” If the Pentagon had bought 60 B-2s in the 1990s — instead of truncating the program at 21 — the Air Force would have been able to retire the B-52 and the nuclear-tipped cruise missile known as ALCM. In hindsight, Weber said, it may have been wiser to build more B-2s as the START II force structure calls for 60 nuclear capable bombers.
Weber has joined former Defense Secretary Bill Perry as a vocal opponent of the ALCM and its planned replacement — known as the long-range strike option, or LRSO — a weapon that they argue is unnecessary for deterrence and more likely than any other to set off a nuclear Armageddon.
Perry warned that newer weapons that have lower yields and higher accuracies create “dangerous assumptions.” There is a growing risk of nuclear escalation, Perry said in a recent interview with Vice News. “The danger of nuclear catastrophe is bigger now than during the Cold War and the public is blissfully unaware.”
Ending the LRSO program would be “low hanging fruit” in the nuclear requirements debate, said Weber. Nuclear-armed cruise missiles are destabilizing and viewed around the world as disasters waiting to happen, he added.
Once the B-21 starts replacing B-52 bombers in about 15 years, the ALCM would be taken out of the inventory as it only flies on the B-52. If the LRSO is produced, the United States would have a penetrating nuclear missile combined with a penetrating bomber, Weber said. “It’s more than we need, frankly.” If Obama allows the LRSO to reach milestone A in the Pentagon procurement process and become a program of record, it will be “very hard to stop,” he said. “The president should put a one-year delay on the program and leave it for the next administration to consider in the next nuclear posture review.”
There are other options to fill the LRSO standoff delivery mission, Weber said. The new B61-12 gravity bomb “gives our air leg a formidable part of the deterrent without replacing the ALCM,” said Weber. He cautioned that this would not be a “disarmament step, but investing in what we need to have a sustainable air leg.” The B61-12 has a smaller warhead but has guidance electronics to target more accurately. “This is accuracy our nuclear bombs have never had,” Weber said.
The president should cancel the LRSO program and work with other countries on a treaty to prohibit nuclear-armed cruse missiles, said Weber. The Pentagon’s mission would not be affected, he suggested, because the Air Force is procuring a conventional air-launched standoff cruise missile called JASSM ER.
The Obama administration is “trying to determine what capabilities we have to maintain in the stockpile and delivery systems so we can maintain a credible deterrence that can sustain itself in the coming decades,” said the president’s deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes in remarks at the Arms Control Association conference.
“We are looking at ways to reduce the risk of an inadvertent catastrophe,” Rhodes said. But he acknowledged that a treaty to ban nuclear-armed cruise missiles would be difficult, as those weapons are the ones “other nuclear states are least inclined to accept restrictions.”
Weber said Obama or his successor could retire weapons nobody talks about, like the B83 gravity bomb. “It has a yield of over one megaton. It has no legitimate use today,” he said. And keeping the aging bombs around costs $30 million to $40 million a year. Over time “it adds up to real money,” said Weber. “We don’t need nuclear weapons in the megaton plus range of yield.”
The ICBM piece of the force would be relatively easy to streamline, he said. “We’ve already done the work. We know we can retire a wing, go down to 300 without having to impact our nuclear deterrent.” Like other decisions related to nuclear forces, this one would a political hard sell, but not impossible. “I would close the wing at Minot Air Force Base” in North Dakota, he said. That would not require closing the base because B-52s in active service are stationed there.
One of two warheads in the ICBM could be eliminated, Weber added. The W87 is in “good shape,” and an argument could be made to not replace the W78.
Woolf said these are tough calls in a deeply divided government and in the face of an aggressive Russia. Nonetheless, the nuclear debate can’t be solely about the cost, she said. The nuclear forces have to be modernized even if that requires some compromises over other Pentagon programs. “In the nuclear program, things are getting old. Old stuff will introduce risk. Upgrading 30-year old missiles is costly,” she said. “If you delay, you introduce risk. We don’t structure nuclear forces according to budget arithmetic. Maintaining deterrence requirements is the key.”
If the verdict is that the current nuclear program is unaffordable, then the president should revisit the requirements, and then change the budget, Woolf said.
Defense analyst Evan Montgomery, of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, said the world is now in the midst of a “second nuclear age,” one that is arguably more complex and potentially more volatile than the bipolar U.S.–Soviet struggle of the Cold War. In a recent CSBA study, Montgomery explained: “Not only does the United States still need to worry about maintaining strategic stability with a nuclear peer, albeit one possessing far fewer weapons than it did in the past, but it must also manage a number of other existing and emerging challenges: the proliferation of nuclear weapons and delivery systems to fragile nations, the expansion of nuclear arsenals by minor powers and aspiring major powers, and the pursuit of capabilities that are lowering the barriers to nuclear use and eroding the ‘firebreak’ between conventional and nuclear conflict.”
The Congressional Budget Office estimated that from 2015 to 2024, the administration’s plans for nuclear forces would cost $348 billion. Of that, $299 billion would be budgeted by the Defense and Energy Departments for strategic nuclear delivery systems and weapons ($160 billion), tactical nuclear delivery systems and weapons ($8 billion), nuclear weapons laboratories and their supporting activities ($79 billion) and nuclear-related command, control, communications, and early-warning systems ($52 billion). The remaining $49 billion is for additional costs that would be incurred over the coming decade if the growth rates for the nuclear program’s costs are similar to the average growth rates for similar programs in the past.
CBO said the costs of nuclear forces represent roughly 5 percent to 6 percent of the total costs of the administration’s plans for national defense for the next 10 years.
Like Obama, the next president will face a tough balancing act. The world appears to not want to denuclearize, according to the latest data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. “While the overall number of nuclear weapons in the world continues to decline, none of the nuclear weapon-possessing states are prepared to give up their nuclear arsenals for the foreseeable future,” said a new SIPRI report.
Nine states — the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea — possess approximately 4,120 operationally deployed nuclear weapons. If all nuclear warheads are counted, these states combined have a total of approximately 15,395 nuclear weapons.
The United States and Russia account for more than 93 percent of all nuclear weapons. “Despite the implementation of the bilateral Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New START) since 2011, the pace of their reductions remains slow,” the report said. Both the United States and Russia have extensive nuclear modernization programs under way. “The ambitious U.S. modernization plan presented by the Obama administration is in stark contrast to President Barack Obama’s pledge to reduce the number of nuclear weapons and the role they play in U.S. national security strategy,” said SIPRI analyst Hans Kristensen.
The report said China appears to be gradually increasing its nuclear forces, India and Pakistan are both expanding their stockpiles and missile delivery capabilities. North Korea is estimated to have enough fissile material for approximately 10 nuclear warheads.
“Despite the ongoing reduction in the number of weapons, the prospects for genuine progress towards nuclear disarmament remain gloomy,” said Shannon Kile, head of the SIPRI nuclear weapons project. “All the nuclear weapon-possessing states continue to prioritize nuclear deterrence as the cornerstone of their national security strategies.”
Photo: Defense Dept.