What the super committee’s failure means for nuclear weapons

By Kingston Reif | December 14, 2011

On November 21, the 12-member congressional super committee announced that it failed to approve a plan to shrink the budget deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over the next decade, triggering an automatic sequester that, if implemented, could result in reductions of $500 billion to planned defense spending over the next decade. These cuts would be in addition to the more than $450 billion in reductions the Pentagon has planned over the next decade.

While the super committee’s work is over, the economic challenges it was designed to ameliorate remain. Sequestration is not inevitable (Congress could pass legislation to prevent it), but even smaller-scale cuts will force the military to scale back to a degree. To avoid excessive cuts to essential programs, the Pentagon must closely scrutinize the nuclear weapons budget.

The United States currently plans to spend around $110 billion to build a new fleet of nuclear-armed submarines. The Pentagon estimates the total cost of building and operating the new subs at nearly $350 billion over the next 50 years. The Air Force alone intends to spend $55 billion on procuring 100 new bombers and to spend an unknown sum on new land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. These planned expenditures will add to the already enormous cost of simply operating and maintaining existing delivery systems. In addition, the National Nuclear Security Administration will spend $88 billion over the next decade to refurbish US nuclear warheads and to rebuild the factories that make key warhead parts.

In recent months, numerous high-ranking military leaders and Pentagon civilians have questioned the affordability of the current nuclear weapons spending plans and looked for ways to maintain a credible and survivable nuclear deterrent at reduced cost. For example, Gen. James Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters this summer, “The challenge here is that we have to recapitalize all three legs [of the nuclear triad], and we don’t have the money to do it.”

Fortunately, scaling back plans for new and excessively large strategic nuclear weapons systems and warhead production facilities makes both strategic and economic sense. While a fiscal crisis should not determine strategy, the threat of sequestration provides a long overdue opportunity to re-examine the outdated assumptions that require the United States to maintain approximately 5,000 nuclear weapons nearly 20 years after the end of the Cold War. The price tag is not only unaffordable given today’s budgetary constraints; it prevents the Pentagon from putting scarce resources toward higher priority programs that address 21st-century threats.

Reassessing US nuclear strategy. Most experts agree that sequestration is a poor way to manage a defense contraction, because the spending reductions it requires were designed to be immediate and indiscriminate in order to force a political compromise. Responsible reductions in defense spending ideally should be informed by strategic decisions about which programs to cut and which programs not to cut. And the cuts should be implemented gradually over time.

To that end, the Pentagon is currently leading a follow-on analysis to examine implementation of the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and nuclear deterrence requirements. This study is scheduled for completion by the end of the year in order to inform the fiscal year 2013 budget. Among other things, the NPR called for further study on setting objectives for future arms control negotiations with Russia and on reducing the alert posture of US nuclear forces. The analysis will lead to the revision of existing presidential guidance on the targeting of nuclear weapons and the appropriate nuclear force levels — though to what extent remains to be seen. Pentagon officials recently told Congress that “no decisions have been made with respect to future force sizing or the modernization plans for nuclear delivery systems; such decisions will be informed by the Administration’s ongoing review of deterrence requirements.”

At a July 27 hearing of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, Morton Halperin — a foreign policy veteran of the Kennedy, Johnson, and Clinton administrations — stated that previous nuclear weapons policy reviews have not made fundamental changes to US nuclear forces:

As far as I know, the Department of Defense has never conducted a fundamental review of what is needed to deter Russia and other adversaries from launching a nuclear attack on the United States or its allies. Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union and the unification of Germany, I believe the assumptions remain fundamentally the same as the first day in 1964 that I first went to work in the Pentagon for then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Yet, clearly the international situation is as different today from the Cold War as one can imagine.

The fiscal logic of moving beyond Cold War thinking. How might a fundamental revision of existing nuclear deterrence requirements save billions without compromising national security? An examination of the Navy’s contribution to nuclear deterrence provides an instructive example: The Navy argues that deploying fewer than 12 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines would not allow it to meet a high-level policy requirement to continually maintain five subs “on station” in the ocean, ready for prompt launch against an adversary’s nuclear forces and other strategic targets.

But this raises the question: Does this Cold War-era requirement even make sense? Apart from Cold War aims — like carrying out a first strike against Russia, launching on warning of a Russian first strike, or launching in the immediate aftermath of a Russian first strike — why does the United States need to put so many targets at risk for a prompt attack at any time? What deterrence value do five subs on station add that couldn’t be met by two or three subs on station, with the capability to bring additional subs to bear within a matter of hours or days?

Since the threat of a premeditated nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia has long since disappeared, this requirement is totally irrelevant to the current threat environment.

Members of Congress and experts have suggested that by building and deploying eight new nuclear-armed submarines instead of a dozen of them, the United States could still deploy the same number of nuclear weapons at sea as is currently planned under New START (about 1,000) and save billions of dollars over the next decade and beyond. Such a force would still be far larger than necessary to deter a nuclear attack from another nuclear-armed adversary. Additional money could be saved if the review reduced the enormous warhead requirement as well.

Meanwhile, dollars currently destined to confront Cold War-era nuclear threats that no longer exist could be more fruitfully invested. Within the Pentagon, for example, this money could be spent on body armor and next-generation ground vehicles to protect our troops. The money could also be spent to strengthen critical diplomatic and aid functions at the State Department, since its budget is under far greater stress than the Pentagon’s.

A fundamental revision of US nuclear deterrence requirements is necessary and would:

• Reconfigure US policy to reflect the fact that nuclear weapons today play a much smaller role in national security strategy than ever before.

• Open the way for deeper US reductions of all warhead types.

• Allow the US to maintain its security in a more fiscally sustainable manner by reducing the need for as many replacement nuclear delivery systems as currently planned.

• Ensure that spending on strategically irrelevant nuclear weapons programs doesn’t undermine other defense and security priorities.

• Provide Russia with a powerful incentive to scale back its own unaffordable modernization plans and pursue more bilateral nuclear weapons reductions, thereby reducing the number of nuclear weapons pointed at the United States.

In a time of economic austerity and national insecurity, these are opportunities the United States can’t afford to pass up.

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