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Pentagon Considers New Nuclear Cuts

Tom Z. Collina

The Pentagon is looking at bringing the U.S. nuclear arsenal below the levels set in the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), as well as scaling back new weapon systems, administration officials said last month.

Two separate policy reviews to be completed this year are leading the Department of Defense to consider new reductions to the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

One review is looking for ways to reduce Pentagon budget growth by at least $450 billion over the next decade. This target is likely to double to more than $900 billion now that the congressional “super committee” has failed to produce a deficit reduction plan. The committee’s failure to reach agreement, announced Nov. 21, triggers automatic cuts in defense and other spending. The automatic cuts, known as sequestration, would not take effect until 2013.

To save money, the Defense Department is re-evaluating its plans for fielding nuclear forces at levels set by New START—1,550 deployed strategic warheads based on 700 missiles and bombers, administration officials said in recent testimony.

A second review, increasingly related to the first given its significant budget implications, is examining fundamental questions of U.S. nuclear policy, such as how many nuclear weapons the country needs for the future and why. (See ACT, June 2011.) Conceived as a follow-on to the report produced by last year’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), this so-called NPR implementation study will set U.S. nuclear force requirements and play a key role in determining U.S. negotiating positions in future arms reduction talks with Russia. President Barack Obama has said he intends to pursue another agreement with Moscow to reduce strategic and tactical nuclear weapons, whether deployed or in storage.

Late last summer, Obama issued a document spelling out the study’s “terms of reference.” That document is known as Presidential Policy Directive-11 (PPD-11), Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) said at the Nov. 2 hearing of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, which he chairs.

At the hearing, Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Miller said that the 90-day study is expected to be finished by the end of the calendar year. Based on the options presented in the study, Obama would issue new nuclear weapons guidance. The secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff would then use this new guidance to issue more-detailed directions to the military, and U.S. Strategic Command would revise its military plans, Miller said. It is not clear how long the entire process will take.

Both studies appear to be looking at how U.S. forces under New START should be deployed. Miller testified that “[d]ecisions have not yet been made as to whether [the Defense Department] will take the full seven years” to make the reductions required by the treaty and “whether delivery systems will be reduced to or below those central limits” before the pact’s implementation deadline.

The Pentagon has previously said that its New START force structure, which must be in place by 2018, would include 240 submarine-launched missiles, up to 420 land-based missiles, and up to 60 long-range bombers, for a total of 720 deployed delivery systems. The Defense Department plans to reduce this force by 20 to meet treaty limits. “In the context of the budget situation [in] which we find ourselves,” Miller testified, “we are looking hard at those numbers again and in fact want to be informed by…this NPR implementation study that is underway.” The implementation study could, for example, recommend that the Navy scale back its nuclear-armed submarine program, which is currently planning to field 12 Ohio-class submarines, each with 20 missiles, to comply with New START.

To achieve major budget savings, however, the Pentagon also will have to look at scaling back its multibillion-dollar plans for modernizing the triad of sea- and land-based missiles and land-based bombers over the next 50 years. The Navy is requesting 12 new submarines to replace the current Ohio-class fleet, and the Air Force is seeking up to 100 new long-range bombers and a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The Pentagon estimates that these modernization programs would cost more than $125 billion over 10 years, although a public breakdown of this total has not been made available. The Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration is also planning to spend about $88 billion over the next decade on refurbishing the nuclear stockpile and modernizing the weapons production complex.

Submarine Budget Warfare

In the face of increasing budget pressures, tensions between the military and the White House over budget priorities are starting to bubble to the surface.

For example, despite previous Pentagon support for the Navy’s new submarine plans, Miller testified 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.”

Similarly, Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, the head of Strategic Command, testified at the hearing that although the country needs to replace the current Ohio-class submarine, “affordability has to be an issue here. What we don’t have to make a decision on today is what the ultimate number of submarines is that we might have to deploy depending on the world situation that we find as we go to the out-years.”

Reflecting this high-level shift away from a commitment to 12 new submarines, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is recommending that the number of new submarines be reduced to 10, according to defense.aol.com. The Navy reportedly is pushing back by claiming that 10 submarines are not enough to support five submarines “on station” at all times. Submarines that are on station are deployed far off the U.S. coasts and ready to launch their missiles on a moment’s notice.

According to congressional staffers, for the Navy to operate four to five submarines on station, it would need 12 submarines in total: five in the Atlantic, with two of these on station and the rest in port or in transit, and seven in the Pacific with two to three on station and the rest in transit.

The requirement for on-station submarines, according to the staffers, is mainly driven by the military requirement to deploy submarine-based nuclear weapons within range of their targets so they can be launched promptly, within an hour or so. Such requirements are under review as part of the NPR implementation study.

Sequestration Politics

Although the Pentagon has accepted the need to reduce its future growth by $450 billion over 10 years, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is making his case against sequestration reductions, which would require additional cuts of $500-600 billion, according to a Nov. 14 letter from Panetta to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

According to a Pentagon summary document that was sent with the letter, such additional reductions would be “devastating.” Cuts of that magnitude, the document said, would lead to steps such as a delay in the development of the new Air Force bomber until the mid-2020s, for a savings of $18 billion; a delay in the deployment of the Navy’s new submarine and a downsizing of the fleet to 10, saving $7 billion; and elimination of the entire ICBM leg of the triad, saving $8 billion.

After Panetta sent his letter, McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) issued a statement saying that sequestration “is a threat to the national security interests of the United States, and it should not be allowed to occur.” In a Nov. 21 statement responding to the super committee’s announcement, Obama said that he “will veto any effort to get rid of those automatic spending cuts to domestic and defense spending. There will be no easy off[-]ramps on this one.”

Meanwhile, Russia’s nuclear forces already have dropped to or below New START ceilings, according to the Department of State. Former senior Russian officials have said that Moscow will retain fewer than 570 delivery systems by 2018 and will have difficulty fielding the 1,550 warheads allowed by the treaty.

Commenting on defense budget pressures, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said in a Nov. 11 Bloomberg interview that “[t]he amount of money we’re spending on maintaining nuclear weapons, modernizing nuclear weapons, is not in keeping with the modern world. It’s much more a Cold War remnant.”

At a Nov. 8 briefing, Pentagon press secretary George Little said, “Our top priority is maintaining a nuclear deterrent, but the arsenal may not need to be as large as it is.”

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