The fiscal threat to nuclear strategy

By Adam Mount | March 5, 2015

In the year since the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies estimated that the cost of modernizing the US nuclear arsenal could reach $1 trillion over 30 years, the budgetary problem has grown worse rather than better. As the military services gear up to rebuild nearly every aircraft, submarine, missile, and warhead in the arsenal, acute fiscal pressures are causing irresponsible behavior in Washington. The White House’s 2016 budget request to Congress asks for increased spending on the arsenal across the board, even as the House Budget Committee is moving towards capping defense spending at levels much lower than requested. This means that cuts are likely.

But unlike the late Cold War, when the US nuclear arsenal was so large that significant cuts did not require major changes to nuclear strategy, cuts to the US modernization programs will limit the options that the military can offer to the president in a crisis. If the administration does not review nuclear spending and put in place an affordable strategy for the coming decades, nuclear strategy will be set by bureaucratic struggles and congressional politics. This is not strategy; it is an accident waiting to happen.

The new budget requests increased funding on all nuclear fronts. In addition to expected increases for new submarines and bombers, this year's budget request dramatically increases funding to explore an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) replacement and accelerates the program for a new air-launched cruise missile by two years. The expensive and unnecessary life extension program for the handful of B61 nuclear gravity bombs remaining in the US arsenal also receives increased funding for design work. Overall, the budget request from the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA)—an autonomous part of the Energy Department responsible for nuclear weapons production and upkeep—is up 10 percent from last year, including a $667 million increase in weapons spending. As the Pentagon's acquisitions chief Frank Kendall said last week, “I am afraid this is all a fantasy, that what we’re going to end up with is nowhere near what we requested.”

Across the Potomac at the Pentagon, the military services are also moving further from a workable fiscal solution to nuclear arsenal refurbishment. For instance, the Air Force seems to be leaning toward a relatively expensive option for modernizing the ICBM force. Though the RAND Corporation found that the cheapest option by far would be to refurbish the existing Minuteman IIIs in their silos, the Air Force has requested that contractors develop options for building a missile that would be entirely new, save for the reentry vehicles that carry warheads. By asking for a more expensive option, the Air Force may hope to come out ahead in the likely event of a cut to ICBM procurement accounts. Yet the strategy could have the opposite effect: A large price tag up front could provoke a wider conversation about the need to maintain an ICBM force at all.

The Air Force’s behavior is hardly surprising; Because the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review did not mandate major changes to the nuclear force structure, the services are in effect under orders to replicate or improve the capabilities of existing systems. Yet, other priorities intrude. Though the military services knew they would have to modernize nuclear delivery vehicles—many of the current missiles and bombers are decades old—they chose not to moderate their plans for conventional shipbuilding or aircraft procurement to budget for the expense of nuclear refurbishment. Now that military accounts have insufficient funds to support both types of projects in full, the Air Force and the Navy have contrived a gimmick: They have asked Congress to establish new accounts to fund the new stealth bomber and new ballistic missile submarines as "national assets."

Because the nuclear force is likely to be funded at moderate levels in any event, the new accounts are intended to protect the conventional procurement programs by drawing funds for nuclear modernization from elsewhere—namely, from the Army. In this way, nuclear weapons are helping to turn the Pentagon against itself, just as it is struggling to plan for austerity.

The White House should understand that while the services will behave strategically to meet their requirements, Congress may not. Facing a budget request that asks for everything, many Congressmen are moving to fund extraneous projects like the B61 conversion to a guided weapon, the new cruise missile, and a doomed plan to get rid of excess military plutonium by making it into fuel for commercial nuclear power plants, when the funds would be better spent on the new submarine fleet. In search of scarce funds for nonessentials, Congress is likely to move money from more important programs—including the NNSA’s nonproliferation programs around the world—and into its weapons accounts.

Even more important, the overwhelming trend in major defense acquisition programs in recent years has been to plan for large numbers of advanced weapons systems, only to have the purchases cut back precipitously. This was the experience of the Seawolf submarine, the Zumwalt destroyer, and the F-22 fighter, all of which have been fielded at small fractions of their expected numbers. The dynamic has also shaped the current nuclear force: Of a planned 132 B-2 bombers, the Air Force currently operates only 20; of 24 planned Ohio-class submarines, 14 now serve as part of the nuclear arsenal. In a time of acute fiscal austerity, Congress is even more likely to curtail the planned purchase quantities of nuclear delivery platforms.

Today, cuts of this magnitude would affect the ability of the nuclear force to carry out nuclear strategy as it is now written. A quarter century after the end of the Cold War, the US nuclear arsenal is actually quite slim: Where the Russians spread their warheads across a dizzying constellation of tactical and strategic systems, the United States maintains few redundant capabilities. And since real savings can only be realized by dramatically lowering the quantities of a system, by eliminating a platform, or by cutting infrastructure, the way forward will entail changes to how the Pentagon conducts deterrence, assurance, and force planning.

It is possible, even likely, that the nuclear force could adapt to summary cuts without sacrificing deterrence or assurance. Nuclear forces have always operated in a politically fraught and fiscally uncertain environment, and resourceful commanders will do the best they can with the tools provided for them. A senior nuclear planner recently told me that “there obviously is a risk” in cutting nuclear systems and the country should be intellectually honest in having a debate about whether to accept that risk. If the decision is made, he said, the services “will do our best.” Yet, allowing congressional infighting or blind budget sequestration to set nuclear strategy is not an optimal solution. The services are owed guidance, consistency, and forewarning of major challenges.

At minimum, the president will have to authorize changes in patrol requirements for the nuclear missile submarine force (to lower the numbers of boats required) as well as in nuclear warfighting plans (to decrease their emphasis on aircraft). For example, if the new cruise missile is cut to save money, the Air Force may opt to prioritize nuclear certification of its new penetrating stealth bomber and retire the B-52H ahead of the current schedule. If instead the administration opts to delay the new bomber until the B-52H’s are forced to retire in the 2040s, the Air Force can plan its operations in the interim.

In short, budgetary pressures will require changes to nuclear employment guidance that only the president can authorize. The changes can be prudently planned in advance, or they can be put in place hastily as a result of congressional caprice. Taking steps now to decide what systems best match the country's future deterrence needs will allow the Pentagon to plan to operate a slimmer arsenal, to communicate and discuss the changes with allies, to alleviate inter-service rivalry, and to take compensatory steps as necessary. The White House must act to put in place a sensible nuclear strategy for the next decades. It can start by ensuring that its review of nuclear modernization spending is a comprehensive look at how the nation’s strategic needs can be met affordably. The review should order changes to the current modernization plans and instruct the military to begin planning for operations with a slimmer arsenal.

In the next years, the United States will make decisions that shape its nuclear arsenal for the next century. In his final years in office, the president must decide whether he leaves his successor an unstable nuclear force or one that is fiscally sustainable and strategically prudent. There are several steps the president might take to responsibly temper the modernization plans, none of which would require the United States to abandon its triad or exceed the pace of reductions under New START. The specific package of changes can be chosen in consultation with the military services, but the sheer scale of the budgetary problem means that the changes must be extensive. A cosmetic review that condones irresponsible behavior would be worse than no review at all. Delaying the review will diminish the savings that can be obtained from the modernization plans, limit options in the future, and divide the services further. And because a review is likely to be politically contentious and the next president likely to have other priorities, it may be now or never for the country to adopt a responsible and affordable plan for its nuclear forces.

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