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ACA’s journal, Arms Control Today, remains the best in the market. Well focused. Solidly researched. Prudent.

– Hans Blix,
former IAEA Director-General

Nuclear Budget Debate Heats Up
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Tom Z. Collina

As the congressional “super committee” prepares its recommendations for reducing the federal deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years, Congress is beginning to grapple with the question of how much, if at all, to reduce spending on U.S. nuclear weapons.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said Oct. 11 that the Pentagon will reduce total projected spending by more than $450 billion over the next 10 years as a result of Congress’ August budget agreement. Those reductions could double if the super committee fails to agree on a deficit reduction plan, triggering across-the-board budget cuts, known as sequestration. The committee’s recommendations are due Nov. 23; Congress would have to approve the plan before Christmas to prevent sequestration.

According to Panetta, some of the biggest defense savings will come from “reduced levels of modernization in some areas.” Gen. Robert Kehler, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees U.S. nuclear forces, told reporters Oct. 18 that “there are going to be interesting questions about both the scope and pace of [nuclear weapons] modernization as we go forward, and it will depend on what the ultimate budget targets are.”

The same day that Panetta spoke, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) announced at a press conference that he and 64 other Democratic House members had signed a letter to the super committee asking for reductions of tens of billion of dollars to nuclear weapons programs. Reducing “outdated and unnecessary nuclear weapons,” they wrote, would “allow us to continue funding the national defense programs that matter most.”

For example, Markey said at the press conference that the Navy’s planned $350 billion nuclear-armed submarine program, called the SSBN-X, should be scaled back by reducing the number of submarines from 12 to eight and delaying their procurement. That would save $27 billion over the next 10 years, Markey said.

Arms control advocates, including the Arms Control Association, have noted that eight operational SSBN-X submarines, each with 16 missile tubes, could carry up to 1,024 warheads, which is about the same number of warheads that the Pentagon plans to deploy at sea under the U.S.-Russian New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which entered into force in February. (See ACT, June 2010.)

The plan put forward by Markey and the advocates rests on the fact that the Navy does not load its submarine-launched missiles to their maximum capacity. Each Trident II D5 missile deployed on strategic submarines can carry up to eight nuclear warheads, but the Navy currently loads each with four or five. Maximum loading would allow the Navy to buy fewer missiles and submarines, according to this argument.

In a statement issued after the Oct. 11 press conference, Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, said that “what Mr. Markey proposes amounts to unilateral disarmament” of the United States.

Lt. Nate Curtis, a Navy spokesman, said Oct. 20 that it would be inappropriate for the Navy “to comment on correspondence between members of Congress.” He added that the schedule for submarine procurement contained in the Obama administration’s fiscal year 2012 budget request “supports the long-range force structure necessary to meet national tasking.” The Navy plans to put the 12 SSBN-X submarines into service between 2029 and 2040. Each submarine would operate for 40 years.

The Pentagon also is exploring ways to save money on new strategic delivery systems, such as submarines, while still fielding as many nuclear weapons as planned under New START. Outgoing Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn said Oct. 5 at the Center for American Progress in Washington that defense planners are looking to stay at New START limits “but to do it in a more fiscally responsible fashion.” He did not provide details. Under New START, each side is limited to 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on 700 launchers.

The Navy justifies the extra space on its missiles, known as “upload potential,” as a way for the Pentagon to expand its nuclear force quickly in case of unforeseen threats. Upload capacity also exists on strategic missiles and bombers.

The Air Force wants to build a new type of strategic bomber by the mid-2020s that would cost at least $50 billion in procurement for 80 to 100 planes. That figure does not include operation and maintenance costs.

The current strategic bomber fleet of B-2s and B-52s is being modernized to last until 2040, according to the Air Force, and the Pentagon’s plan to deploy 60 nuclear-capable bombers under New START by 2018 is to be achieved with existing aircraft. The Air Force plans to spend $3.7 billion on research and development for the new bomber over the next five years, according to budget documents.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) proposed in July to reduce nuclear weapons spending by $79 billion over 10 years, in part by curtailing and delaying the new submarine and bomber programs. Russia already has cut its nuclear forces to New START levels and would need to rebuild some systems if it wants to maintain those levels. (See ACT, July/August 2011.)

At the Oct. 18 session with reporters, Kehler said the United States could someday move away from its nuclear triad of submarine-, bomber-, and land-based missiles to a two-part “dyad.”

“As you look into the strategic future, the answer about whether or not we’re going to need a triad, I think, is, ‘it depends,’” he said. “And, of course, there’s a budgetary dimension to this,” he added. “As we look to modernize, in particular, can we in fact spend the resources to modernize the entire triad?”

The Obama administration’s ongoing strategic review “will raise questions about whether we retain the triad or whether we go to a system that only is a dyad,” White House arms control coordinator Gary Samore told Arms Control Today in April. (See ACT, May 2011.)

“I would agree, it’s not a trinity,” Kehler said, rejecting the notion that the triad cannot be questioned, but “sustaining a triad is the right thing to do now.”