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former IAEA Director-General

The U.S. Nuclear Weapons Spending Binge
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December 2015

By Daryl G. Kimball

President Barack Obama promised in the 2010 “Nuclear Posture Review [NPR] Report” that his administration would reduce the number, role, and salience of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense strategy. The “fundamental purpose” of the weapons, the review stated, is to deter nuclear attack, not wage a nuclear war. At the same time, the strategy called for maintaining and modernizing the remaining U.S. nuclear forces on a smaller triad of delivery systems.

The 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) established modestly lower limits for U.S. and Russian deployed strategic arsenals and a far-reaching verification regime. A 2013 Pentagon follow-on study determined that deterrence requirements can be met with one-third fewer deployed strategic nuclear forces.

But today, U.S. and Russian forces still far exceed deterrence requirements. Russia possesses some 1,780 nuclear warheads and the United States some 1,900 that can be delivered on several hundred strategic bombers and missiles. If used even in a “limited” way, the result would be a humanitarian catastrophe.              

The quest for further nuclear reductions has stalled and may be in reverse. Russia has rebuffed U.S. proposals for further nuclear cuts and violated the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The danger of close encounters between NATO and Russian aircraft has increased tensions.

Worse yet, both countries are pursuing a multidecade nuclear weapons spending binge that promises to perpetuate excessive force levels and Cold War-era war-fighting capabilities for generations to come.

Current Pentagon plans call for 12 new nuclear-armed strategic submarines, 80 to 100 new penetrating strategic bombers, a fleet of new and stealthier nuclear-capable cruise missiles, and new land-based, intercontinental ballistic missiles that could reportedly be deployed on mobile launchers in the future, all at spending levels that exceed what was originally advertised.

In 2011 the Pentagon claimed that the cost for sustaining and modernizing nuclear delivery systems would be $126 billion and up to another $88 billion for warhead refurbishment and infrastructure modernization, for a total of about $214 billion. In 2015 the Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost from fiscal years 2015 to 2024 would be about $355 billion, including upgrades to nuclear command and control.

By the mid-2020s, the cost of nuclear weapons will consume 7 percent of the entire defense budget, according to Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work. Senior Pentagon leaders warn that there will not be enough money to fund all of the items on the military’s wish list. With one year left in his term, it is past time for Obama to chart a more realistic, affordable, and sustainable course.

For example, the president could announce that U.S. deterrence requirements do not require spending at least $62 billion on 642 new land-based missiles to support a deployed force of 400 missiles with a mobile option. Instead, he could direct the Pentagon to pursue the deployment of a smaller fleet of 300 new or refurbished fixed-silo ICBMs.  

The 2010 NPR Report stated that a decision would be made on “whether and (if so) how to replace the current air-launched cruise missile,” which is due to be retired in 2030. The Air Force wants 1,000 to 1,100 new air-launched, nuclear-capable cruise missiles at a cost of some $20 billion to $30 billion. Obama should order a second look and, as former Secretary of Defense William Perry recommended in a Washington Post op-ed last month, halt the program.  

As Perry says, “The old Cold War requirement for such a capability no longer exists.” The new system is for nuclear war-fighting, not deterrence, and other capabilities make the weapon redundant.

The Air Force is poised to spend $100 billion on its stealthy new strategic bombers to penetrate enemy air defenses with newly refurbished B61 nuclear gravity bombs. A new, long-range, precision conventional cruise missile is now being introduced for delivery by existing and new bombers and fighter jets.

Halting the new cruise missile program would open the way for a U.S.-led effort on a global ban on all nuclear-armed cruise missiles within a specified time frame, thus reducing current and future threats to the United States.

Obama also could announce that requirements for the sea-based leg of the triad can be met with a smaller fleet of strategic subs. Under the current plans, the 12 new boats would carry 192 missiles with up to eight warheads each, at a cost of $140 billion to develop. But with adjustments to the current launch-under-attack posture, that number of boats could be reduced to 8 to 10 and still meet current plans for 1,000 sea-based warheads.

Obama can still use the time he has left in office to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons by trimming back and in some cases forgoing redundant and costly nuclear weapons systems. By doing so, he would open the way to further reducing the role and size of U.S. and Russian nuclear forces and to a safer and more secure future. 

Posted: December 2, 2015