Within weeks, a congressional “supercommittee” is due to deliver recommendations for reducing the U.S. federal budget deficit over the next decade. The Pentagon and the White House support trimming military spending by at least $350 billion as part of the plan, but some Republicans are balking. If Congress fails to agree on a deficit reduction formula, even deeper budget cuts will be triggered.
If Congress and the White House are serious about reducing unnecessary defense expenditures, they should start by curtailing the Pentagon’s ambitious plans to develop and build new and excessively large strategic nuclear delivery forces that could cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars in the years to come.
Although U.S. and Russian arms reduction agreements have significantly reduced the size and salience of the two countries’ Cold War-era nuclear stockpiles, each country’s arsenal far exceeds what is necessary to deter nuclear attack. Today, the United States deploys 1,800 warheads on 882 deployed strategic delivery vehicles; Russia deploys 1,537 warheads on 521 deployed strategic delivery vehicles. Each side possesses thousands more warheads in storage.
No other nuclear-armed country deploys more than 300 strategic warheads; China has no more than 40 to 50 warheads on intercontinental-range missiles. Nevertheless, both Russia and the United States currently plan to spend scarce resources to modernize and deploy excessive numbers of nuclear weapons for decades to come.
The Obama administration has outlined plans to replace 12 of the existing 14 Trident nuclear-armed submarines that now carry 228 missiles armed with about 1,100 thermonuclear warheads. The Pentagon is seeking billions to extend the life of 420 Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles and develop and build a follow-on intercontinental missile. Pentagon planners also want 80 to 100 new nuclear-capable strategic bombers with a new air-launched, nuclear-capable cruise missile to replace the existing B-2 and B-52 bombers that are expected to last another 20 years. The total lifetime costs for the new subs and bombers alone would exceed $400 billion.
As outgoing Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright told reporters July 14, “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.”
To keep pace and to field the 1,550 strategic warheads allowed under the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), Russia would have to follow through on its own very expensive, multiyear nuclear modernization effort.
Rather than maintaining obsolete arsenals that they neither need nor can afford, leaders in Washington and Moscow could pursue further, reciprocal reductions in their overall strategic nuclear forces—to 1,000 warheads or fewer each—and still retain more than enough megatonnage to deter nuclear attack by any current or future adversary.
The White House, Congress, and the supercommittee can pursue disarmament and deficit reduction in a number of ways.
For example, by rightsizing its fleet of Trident nuclear-armed subs from 14 to 8 or fewer and building no more than 8 new SSBN(X) nuclear-armed boats, the United States could still deploy the same number of strategic nuclear warheads at sea as is currently planned (about 1,000) and save roughly $26 billion over 10 years, $31 billion over 30 years, and $120 billion over the life of the program.
By delaying the Long-Range Penetrating Bomber (LRPB) program beyond the next 10 years, the United States would save at least $3.7 billion in research and development costs. If the LRPB program were canceled, the United States would save at least $50 billion in procurement costs alone. Because the Pentagon will continue to deploy 60 already-proven B-2s and B-52s under New START, delaying the new bomber program would not have any impact on U.S. nuclear force deployments.
Although the United States could achieve even deeper nuclear reductions while still maintaining all three legs of the triad, further budget savings could be achieved by phasing out long-range bombers from the nuclear mission.
The fiscal and national security logic of trimming U.S. nuclear excess is so strong that one hawkish senator, Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), recently proposed cutting $79 billion from the U.S. nuclear weapons budget over the next decade by reducing the deployed nuclear stockpile and by delaying development of the new bomber until the mid-2020s.
The Soviet Union dissolved 20 years ago and, with it, the threat of a bolt-from-the-blue nuclear attack from Russia. Maintaining thousands of nuclear weapons does nothing to address this century’s top security challenges—civil war, famine, nuclear terrorism, and failed states.
By responsibly reducing strategic nuclear forces and scaling back new weapons systems, the United States can help close its budget deficit. By reducing the incentive for Russia to rebuild its arsenal, these budget savings will make the United States safer and more secure.