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– Hans Blix,
former IAEA Director-General

Weapons Research & Development

New Cruise Missile Capability Debated

The United States is planning to purchase a new fleet of nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missiles that will be far more advanced than the missiles they are slated to replace.

January/February 2016

By Kingston Reif

A B-52H bomber releases an unarmed AGM-86B air-launched cruise missile during a test run at the Utah Test and Training Range on September 22, 2014. (Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Roidan Carlson/U.S. Air Force)The United States is planning to purchase a new fleet of nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) that will be far more advanced than the ones they are slated to replace, according to members of Congress and other sources, raising questions about the plan’s consistency with a pledge made by the Obama administration not to provide nuclear weapons with new capabilities.

The development of the new missile also has sparked a debate about whether it could be more “usable” than the existing ALCM, thereby lowering the threshold for when the United States might consider using nuclear weapons.

In a Dec. 15 letter to President Barack Obama urging him to cancel the new cruise missile, also known as the long-range standoff weapon, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and seven other senators wrote that the “proposed…missile is a significantly altered version” of the existing ALCM.

The letter did not say what specific capabilities the new missile would provide, but claimed the proposal contradicts the policy statement from the 2010 “Nuclear Posture Review [NPR] Report” that efforts to sustain U.S. nuclear weapons “will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities.”

“Indeed,” the senators added, “this new cruise missile appears to be designed specifically for improved nuclear war-fighting capabilities.”

The White House disputed the contention that the new ALCM contradicts administration policy. In a Dec. 23 email to Arms Control Today, National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said that U.S. nuclear modernization efforts are “consistent with the President’s strategy laid out in Prague [in a 2009 speech] and in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review.”

The Defense Department elaborated in a Jan. 5 email. The new missile “will use a refurbished version of the current ALCM warhead” that “will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities,” said Army Lt. Col. Joe Sowers. Rather, by developing the new weapons system, the United States “will preserve existing military capability in the face of evolving threats,” Sowers said.

The NPR Report’s prohibition on the development of new military missions and capabilities specifically refers to improvements to nuclear warheads, not their delivery systems.

Nuclear-armed ALCMs are part of the U.S. nuclear triad of strategic delivery systems consisting of land-based missiles, submarine-launched missiles, and long-range bombers, which can carry ALCMs and gravity bombs. ALCMs, which are currently carried by the B-52H long-range bomber, are standoff weapons that can attack targets at distances beyond the range of air defense systems.

The Air Force’s lone remaining ALCM variant is the AGM-86B, up to 20 of which can be carried by a B-52H bomber. Multiple life-extension programs have kept the missile, which was first fielded in 1982 with a planned service life of 10 years, in service for more than 30 years. The Air Force is planning to retain the missile until 2030.

Current Air Force plans call for the procurement of about 1,000 new nuclear-capable missiles, roughly double the size of the existing fleet of ALCMs. (See ACT, June 2015.) Government and think tank estimates suggest that the total cost of building the new missile and refurbishing the associated warhead would be about $25 billion over 20 years. 

New Capabilities Sought

Although the Defense Department has declined to comment publicly on the capabilities of the new ALCM, the limited information the department has released, as well as information from several other sources, points to a missile that will have new capabilities.

In a Feb. 25, 2015, request for information to contractors on the desired performance of the new missile’s engine, the Air Force said it was seeking potential improvements in the performance of the current engine technology, including a possible supersonic option, which would allow the missile to fly at a velocity of at least 768 miles per hour. The current ALCM can travel at a speed of approximately 550 miles per hour.

Pentagon officials also have said that the new fleet of cruise missiles will be compatible with not only the B-52H, but also the B-2 and planned long-range strike bombers. It is not clear if deploying the missile on the more advanced B-2 and long-range strike aircraft would allow those planes to hit targets that the B-52H could not reliably reach.

Advocates of the new missile argue that it provides a continuing ability to quickly add missiles to bombers. They note that the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty does not cap the number of weapons that can be carried on each bomber.

The Air Force told Arms Control Today last May that, despite the current plan to roughly double the size of the ALCM fleet, the requirements for nuclear-armed cruise missiles “have not increased.”

A source who has been briefed on the new ALCM program disputed the need for such a large missile procurement, saying in an interview that, “in exchange for” a more reliable and capable missile, the department “should maintain a smaller hedge.”

The source said the technical characteristics of the new missile are still being defined because the program is still in the early development stage but that the goal is to increase the range and accuracy of the missile. The source said another goal is to incorporate the latest stealth features, making the missile much more difficult for adversary air defense systems to detect.

Such features would comport with the Defense Department’s primary rationale for the new missile, namely to ensure that the bomber leg of the triad can strike targets in the face of increasingly sophisticated adversary air defenses. The department has expressed concern that the current ALCM is losing its ability to continue to penetrate these defenses in addition to becoming increasingly unreliable.

Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.), shown above in a March 2015 photo, organized a letter to President Barack Obama opposing a new cruise missile. (Photo credit: Paul Marotta/Getty Images)In response to questions submitted by lawmakers after a Feb. 26, 2015, hearing of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, Brian McKeon, deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, said maintenance of the existing ALCM “is becoming increasingly difficult, and its reliability in the next decade is not assured even with substantial investment.”

The source who had been briefed on the program said that, due to the reliability concerns, the ALCM is currently “not part of the planning scenarios for nuclear use.” He added that the missile could be maintained for the next five years but, “after that, it’s almost a dud.”

Some former officials and experts say it should not be surprising that the new cruise missile will be more advanced than the existing ALCM.

In a December email exchange with Arms Control Today, Al Mauroni and Mel Deaile of the Air Force Center for Unconventional Weapons Studies said they would expect the Defense Department “to improve military capabilities over past, aging weapon systems that continue to be fielded well beyond their originally-designed service life.” Mauroni and Deaile added that their comments did not necessarily reflect official U.S. positions.

Regarding the proposed life extension program for the ALCM warhead, known as the W80-4, the source who has been briefed said a goal of that program is to permit “greater flexibility in actually picking” the desired yield. The ALCM warhead is believed have a built-in option to allow detonation at lower or higher yields.

According to the source, increasing the accuracy of the missile allows for more flexibility in the warhead yield, thus enhancing the overall capability of the weapons system.

The source criticized the Obama administration for claiming the new missile program is consistent with the NPR Report. Focusing narrowly on whether the warhead’s nuclear explosive package is a new design, the source said, “allows the military to increase or change capabilities” in other areas of the weapons system “while shielding [itself] behind the narrow letter” of the report “and avoiding public debate.”

Lowering the Threshold

The source said the briefings made it clear that the Pentagon is envisioning potential uses for the new cruise missile that go beyond “the original mission space” of the ALCM.

For example, the source said that, in the event of a major conflict with China, the Pentagon has talked about using the new missile to destroy Chinese air defenses as a warning to Beijing against escalating the conflict further.

In testimony to the strategic forces subcommittee on April 15, 2015, Robert Scher, assistant secretary of defense for strategy, plans, and capabilities, said an additional rationale for the new ALCM is to preserve the president’s ability to respond “to a limited or large-scale failure of deterrence,” but did not provide details.

In a Dec. 14 statement to Arms Control Today, Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), a member of the strategic forces panel, said claims that the new cruise missile will provide the president with more flexible response options “accept that a nuclear conflict could be controlled through the deliberate use of nuclear force.”

He said he disagreed with that approach because “[t]here is no such thing as a limited nuclear war.”

A Senate Republican staffer offered a different view in a Dec. 15 email. In developing the new missile, the United States should be prepared to match “Russia’s new emphasis” on the use of tactical nuclear weapons “to de-escalate a potential conflict” and “force developments by other nuclear powers,” the staffer said.

In a Dec. 17 interview, a different congressional staffer said it is not yet clear what features the new cruise missile and associated warhead will have, but expressed concern that the Defense and Energy departments will choose features that make the weapons system “more usable,” thus blurring the line between nuclear and conventional weapons.

Others dispute the notion that a more capable nuclear weapon increases the likelihood of its use. Retired Gen. C. Robert Kehler, former commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said in a Dec. 15 email that the new cruise missile will not lower the nuclear threshold because “the height of the nuclear threshold isn’t directly related to the so-called ‘usability’ of the weapons.”

Kehler, who is an affiliate of Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, said U.S. “planners have to balance US policy regarding ‘new’ nuclear capabilities against the realities of weapon design and the evolution of technology and the threat.”

He added, “I believe we can strike the right balance while still meeting the intent of the [president’s] policy.”


Correction: The original version of this article mischaracterized the party affiliation of one the signers of the letter organized by Sen. Ed Markey. The signers were Markey, six other Democratic senators, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who caucuses with the Democrats.

Posted: January 14, 2016

Hill Denies Money for Submarine Fund

Congress in December declined to fund a special account to pay for a dozen new nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines amid ongoing concerns about the high cost of the boats...

January/February 2016

By Kingston Reif

An Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine returns to Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia on February 6, 2013. (Photo credit: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James Kimber/U.S. Navy)Congress in December declined to provide funding for a special budget account it created in 2014 to pay for a dozen new nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines amid ongoing concerns about the high cost of the boats and a debate about whether the fund would save money.

Lawmakers also voted to withhold 75 percent of the Army’s budget request for the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) after part of the blimp-borne radar system crashed in northeastern Pennsylvania on Oct. 28.

Those provisions were part of the fiscal year 2016 omnibus appropriations bill, which passed the House and the Senate on Dec. 18. Fiscal year 2016 started on Oct. 1, 2015, and runs until Sept. 30.

Navy officials have repeatedly warned that the service’s projected long-term budget is not large enough to accommodate the program to build the new submarines, known as the Ohio-class replacement program, and meet its needs for conventional ships. (See ACT, October 2013.) The Navy estimates that the 12 planned boats, which are slated to be purchased between 2021 and 2035 and replace the existing fleet of 14 Ohio-class subs, will cost $139 billion to develop and build.

In an attempt to address the Navy’s concerns, the fiscal year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act created the National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund, a separate budget account outside the Navy’s regular shipbuilding account that would provide a mechanism for the Navy to buy the new boats without reducing funding for its other shipbuilding programs. The authorization bill for the current fiscal year, which President Barack Obama signed on Nov. 25, expands the purview of the fund and provides the Navy with special acquisition authorities, such as the ability to buy components for multiple boats in a single bulk purchase, which supporters say could reduce the cost of the new submarines.

But critics, including Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s top acquisition official, maintain that the fund is a gimmick because extra monies will have to be found somewhere in the Pentagon’s budget with or without the fund. The critics also argue that Congress can authorize more-efficient acquisition practices in the absence of a separate account.

The actual transfer of money to the fund has to be approved by lawmakers through the appropriations process. The House defense appropriations subcommittee, which has been critical of the fund, attempted to prohibit the transfer of fiscal year 2016 monies to the account. But the full House overruled the subcommittee ban, which the full Appropriations Committee had accepted, in approving two amendments to the defense appropriations bill that removed the prohibition and made $3.5 billion available for transfer. The Senate Appropriations Committee version of the bill did not authorize the transfer of money to the fund.

The final omnibus bill reflects the Senate position and does not approve money for the fund.

The omnibus bill also takes a hard line on the JLENS program, slashing $30 million from the budget request of $40.6 million due to “test schedule delays.” In the Oct. 28 incident, one of the two tethered blimps that make up the current test deployment of the system detached from its mooring station near Baltimore, dragging 6,700 feet of cable for three hours before finally coming to rest. (See ACT, December 2015.) The system is designed to detect and track objects such as cruise missiles and other airborne threats.

In a December email exchange with Arms Control Today, Maj. Beth Smith, a spokeswoman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command, said an Army investigation to determine the cause of the incident is “still ongoing” and could take 90 days to complete. A decision about whether to continue the planned three-year test of the system’s capability to contribute to cruise missile defense “will be made following the investigation’s conclusion,” she added.

In a Jan. 5 email to Arms Control Today, an aide to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), vice chairman of the Senate defense appropriations subcommittee, said that “after more than $2.7 billion invested in the program, continuing criticism of its reliability, and the near-tragedy in October when the aerostat broke free from its tether,” the omnibus bill “does not support continuation” of the test of the system in fiscal year 2016.

Signed by Obama on Dec. 18, the omnibus appropriations bill is a $1.1 trillion conglomeration of 12 appropriations bills that had to be passed to keep the government operating. The bill was made possible by an Oct. 26 agreement between the White House and key congressional leaders on new spending levels for fiscal years 2016 and 2017.

Nuclear Modernization

The omnibus bill largely supported the Obama administration’s proposed funding hike for programs to sustain and to rebuild nuclear-armed missiles, submarines, and bombers and their associated nuclear warheads and supporting infrastructure. (See ACT, March 2015.)

The bill includes the requested amount of $1.4 billion for the Navy’s Ohio-class replacement program, an increase of $100 million above the fiscal year 2015 appropriation, and $75.2 million for the Air Force’s effort to develop a replacement for Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), an increase of $68.3 million over last year’s appropriation.

The Pentagon’s Frank Kendall speaks at the Farnborough air show in the United Kingdom on July 14, 2014. (Photo credit: Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images)The bill also provides the requested amount of $8.9 billion for nuclear weapons activities conducted by the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), an increase of $667 million, or 8 percent, above the fiscal year 2015 appropriation. The appropriation for weapons activities includes $195 million to begin refurbishing the existing nuclear air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) warhead, an increase of $186 million above last year’s appropriation of $9.4 million.

The omnibus bill provides $16.1 million for the Air Force’s program to develop a new nuclear ALCM to deliver the refurbished warhead, a 56 percent reduction below the request of $36.6 million, and $736 million for the program to build up to 100 new long-range strategic bombers, a 41 percent reduction below the request of $1.3 billion. These reductions reflect schedule delays that decreased the budget requirements for both programs in fiscal year 2016 below the levels that were originally anticipated.

In addition, the bill includes a policy provision prohibiting the use of fiscal year 2016 funds “to reduce or to prepare to reduce” the number of deployed and nondeployed U.S. strategic nuclear delivery systems below the levels the Pentagon has said it will retain as it adjusts its forces to meet the requirements of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty by the treaty’s implementation deadline of 2018. (See ACT, May 2014.)

Missile Defense Gets Increase

The omnibus bill provides $15 million in unrequested funding “to expedite the construction and deployment of urgently needed missile defense assets in various locations within the Continental United States, including Alaska and Hawaii.”

The bill does not specify whether this money can be used to begin building a third missile defense interceptor site on the U.S. East Coast to augment existing defenses in Alaska and California against a limited ICBM attack.

The House version of the fiscal year 2016 military construction appropriations bill included $30 million to begin early planning and design activities for a third site. The Senate version of the bill did not include this funding.

In a Dec. 23 email, Missile Defense Agency (MDA) spokesman Richard Lehner said the agency is currently “assessing” its options for spending the additional $15 million. He added that “no construction [is] planned for an East Coast site” as there has been “no decision to construct a site.”

The Defense Department announced in January 2014 that it would conduct environmental impact studies for four possible missile defense sites in the eastern United States, as directed by Congress. (See ACT, March 2014.) Lehner said these studies are scheduled to be completed by the end of fiscal year 2016.

Overall, the omnibus bill provides approximately $8.1 billion for the MDA, an increase of $175 million above the administration request.

MOX and the Alternative

Lawmakers provided the NNSA with a small amount of money to begin work on an alternative to the mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication plant at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The MOX fuel program is designed to turn surplus plutonium from the U.S. nuclear weapons program into fuel for power reactors.

Of the $345 million the administration requested for construction of the MOX fuel plant, the omnibus bill provides $340 million for construction and $5 million to begin early planning and design activities for the “dilute and dispose” approach, which would down-blend the plutonium with an inert material for direct disposal in a repository. The bill prohibits the NNSA from actually diluting plutonium.

The language on the MOX fuel plant represents the latest round of a long-running battle over the best way to handle the surplus weapons plutonium.

The omnibus bill includes $1.7 billion for the NNSA’s fissile material security and nonproliferation efforts, the same as the budget request and an increase of $90.7 million, or 5.6 percent, above the fiscal year 2015 appropriation

Posted: January 14, 2016

The U.S. Nuclear Weapons Spending Binge

President Barack Obama promised in the 2010 “[NPR] Report that his administration would reduce the number, role, and salience of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense strategy.

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

Bomber Contract Highlights Unrealistic Nuclear Modernization Strategy, Say Experts

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Description: 

Today Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced the U.S. Air Force’s decision to award the contract for the new, nuclear-armed, long-range penetrating strike bomber...

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For Immediate Release: October 27, 2015

Media Contacts: Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, 202-463-8270, ext. 107; Kingston Reif, director of disarmament and threat reduction policy, 202-463-8270, ext. 104

(Washington, D.C.)—Today Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced the U.S. Air Force’s decision to award the contract for the new, nuclear-armed, long-range penetrating strike bomber (or B3) program, which would cost in excess of $100 billion to design and build 80-100 of the planes.

The bomber buy is just one part of the Pentagon’s plan to spend at least $348 billion to maintain and rebuild the nuclear arsenal and refurbish the nuclear weapons complex over the next decade, according to a 2015 Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report.

“Given the B52H and B2A bombers are expected to remain in service through 2040 and 2060, respectively, there is no need to rush forward with the new strategic bomber, especially when it will compete with other high priority Air Force and Pentagon nuclear and conventional priorities,” said Kingston Reif, director of disarmament and threat reduction policy with the Arms Control Association.

Current plans to rebuild all three legs of the existing nuclear "triad" and their associated warheads, including 12 new ballistic missile submarines, up to 100 new long-range, nuclear-capable bombers, 642 new land-based ballistic missiles, and 1000 new, nuclear-capable long-range standoff cruise missiles.

"We believe the administration’s redundant, all-of-the-above approach to rebuilding all of the major U.S. nuclear weapons delivery systems at levels beyond realistic deterrence requirements is unsustainable and will deplete resources from higher national security priorities," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.

The Air Force wants a total 1,000 of the new nuclear-armed cruise missiles for use by all three bombers—the B52H, the B2A and the B3—at a development cost of some $20-30 billion.

"The Pentagon has failed to provide a compelling reason why it needs both a new penetrating bomber and a standoff missile to meet the nuclear deterrence requirements of the United States and our allies," said Reif of the Arms Control Association. 

“The requirement that the air-leg of the U.S. triad have two means to assure mass destruction against the most advanced air-defenses constitutes excessive redundancy. Other weapons, such as submarine-launched ballistic missiles, can penetrate air defenses with high confidence,” Reif added.

In an Oct. 15 op-ed in The Washington Post, William Perry, President Bill Clinton’s defense secretary, and Andrew Weber, President Barack Obama’s assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs, called on President Obama to cancel the nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missiles program.

Perry and Weber described nuclear-armed cruise missiles as “a uniquely destabilizing type of nuclear weapon.” Foregoing the development of a new version “would not diminish the formidable U.S. nuclear deterrent in the least" and "could lay the foundation for a global ban on these dangerous weapons” they wrote.

“Proponents of the new nuclear air-launched cruise missile say that it provides the president with flexible options in the event of a crisis and the ability to ‘control escalation’ in a conflict with another nuclear-armed state. In other words, the missiles would come in handy for nuclear war-fighting,” Reif said.

 “The thinking behind the new cruise missile is inconsistent with the stated goal of President Obama to reduce the role and number and salience of nuclear weapons in U.S. military strategy,” Kimball charged.

“Future nuclear force planning needs to take into account the fact that the President's 2013 nuclear weapons employment guidance allows for a one-third reduction below New START levels, but even if the United States maintains New START warhead levels, it can do so at significantly lower cost," Kimball said.

"Despite warnings from senior officials that the current modernization plans are unaffordable, Secretary Carter and President Barack Obama have failed to make common-sense adjustments. They can and should trim back, and in some cases, forgo redundant and costly systems, such as a new nuclear-armed cruise missile, and save taxpayer dollars," Kimball added.

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The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the threats posed by the world's most dangerous weapons.

Posted: October 27, 2015

U.S. Nuclear Weapons Funding in Limbo

Congress failed to pass any new appropriations bills for fiscal year 2016, raising questions about whether the United States can carry out the nuclear weapons activities planned for the year.

October 2015

By Kingston Reif

Defense Secretary Ash Carter delivers remarks at an Air Force Association conference in National Harbor, Md., on September 16. He warned of the impact on U.S. military forces if Congress passes a spending bill that does not allow military funding to rise above current levels. (Photo credit: Senior Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz/U.S. Air Force)Congress failed to pass any fresh appropriations bills for fiscal year 2016, raising questions about whether the Defense and Energy departments can carry out the nuclear weapons sustainment and modernization activities they have planned for the year.

In the fiscal year 2016 budget request, the Obama administration requested a major funding hike above the previous fiscal year for programs to sustain and to rebuild nuclear-armed missiles, submarines, and bombers and their associated nuclear warheads and supporting infrastructure. (See ACT, March 2015.) If these programs are not funded at the requested levels, the result could be schedule delays and cost increases.

Pentagon leaders already are issuing warnings about the danger to U.S. security if Congress passes a year-long continuing resolution that would extend the previous year’s funding levels.

“[T]he longer a continuing resolution is, the worse it becomes, eventually resulting in a $38 billion deficit in resources for our military if Congress chooses to pursue this path for a full year,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Sept. 16 at the Air Force Association’s annual conference in National Harbor, Md.

Overall, the administration requested $561 billion for national defense in fiscal year 2016, which includes the Defense Department’s regular budget activities and the Energy Department’s nuclear weapons programs. This spending proposal is roughly $38 billion above the cap in the 2011 Budget Control Act and $40 billion above the fiscal year 2015 enacted level.

The impact of a year-long continuing resolution on the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semiautonomous agency of the Energy Department, would depend on whether Congress makes an exception from the general no-increase constraints of a continuing resolution so that nuclear weapons funding can increase above the fiscal year 2015 level, a congressional staffer told Arms Control Today in a Sept. 16 e-mail.

The NNSA has been successful in seeking such an exception in the past, the staffer said.

As Arms Control Today went to press, Congress appeared poised to approve a short-term continuing resolution that would extend the previous year’s funding levels for a few months, buying time to negotiate new funding levels for fiscal year 2016 later this year.

In fiscal year 2015, Congress passed a continuing resolution for the first three and a half months of the year, followed by the passage last December of a $1.1 trillion conglomeration of 12 appropriations bills, known as an omnibus appropriations bill. The omnibus bill provided new funding for Defense and Energy department programs at roughly the level of the administration’s fiscal year 2015 request. (See ACT, January/February 2015.)

The passage of higher funding levels in fiscal year 2016 would likely require changing the spending caps set by Congress in the Budget Control Act. But Republicans and Democrats have yet to reach agreement on a total budget for discretionary domestic and military spending.

If Congress fails to pass new funding after a short-term continuing resolution, it could opt to pass a continuing resolution for all of fiscal year 2016.

Cruise Missile Delay Possible

A continuing resolution could have a significant impact on the administration’s plan to buy a fleet of new nuclear-capable cruise missiles. (See ACT, June 2015.)

The Obama administration’s fiscal year 2016 budget request proposed to markedly increase spending to accelerate by two years the development of the long-range standoff missile and the modified warhead that it would carry, partially reversing the fiscal year 2015 proposal to delay development of both by three years. (See ACT, March 2015.

Air-launched cruise missiles are carried by the B-52 long-range bomber and can attack targets at great distances. 

The NNSA is requesting $195 million to begin refurbishing the existing cruise missile warhead that would be delivered by the new missile. That is an increase of $186 million above the fiscal year 2015 appropriation of $9.4 million.

The Air Force is seeking $36.6 million in fiscal year 2016 for research and development for a long-range standoff weapon, more than 10 times as much as the $3.4 million that Congress appropriated for fiscal year 2015.

Impact Debated

In a Sept. 17 e-mail to Arms Control Today, NNSA spokeswoman Michelle Laver said that unless the NNSA receives a special waiver from Congress to begin funding the warhead refurbishment at the requested fiscal year 2016 level right at the beginning of the year, even a short-term continuing resolution would “delay development and engineering work” on the warhead refurbishment and “coordination activities with the Air Force” and would “result in a slip in the overall schedule including first production.” 

But the congressional staffer was skeptical of the NNSA’s warning, which the NNSA has conveyed to Congress. “I don’t think anyone believes” that a short-term continuing resolution and associated delay to the program “is problematic,” he said.

The Air Force had no specific comment on the impact of a continuing resolution on the development of the new cruise missile. “It is hard to say exactly which programs will be affected until we see the language” of the continuing resolution, Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said in a Sept. 17 e-mail.

In their respective fiscal year 2016 defense appropriations bills, the Senate and House appropriations committees approved funding for the new missile at levels below the administration’s $36.6 million request. Senate appropriators provided $14.1 million while the House provided $27.5 million. According to the reports accompanying the Senate and House versions of the bills, the appropriators approved the smaller amounts because they believed that the Air Force requested more money than it could spend on the program in fiscal year 2016, not because of a lack of faith in the program.

Posted: September 30, 2015

Nuclear Costs to Jump, Pentagon Says

The Defense Department’s plan to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal will “roughly double” the percentage of the budget allocated to nuclear weapons, according to a senior department official. 

By Kingston Reif

The Defense Department’s plan to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal “is a very expensive proposition” and will “roughly double” the percentage of the budget allocated to nuclear weapons for a period of time during the 2020s and 2030s, according to a senior department official.

In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on June 25, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work said the cost to build and sustain new nuclear missiles, submarines, and bombers and to make needed improvements to nuclear command and control systems is projected to average $18 billion per year from 2021 to 2035 in constant fiscal year 2016 dollars.

When combined with the cost to sustain the current arsenal as the new systems are built, this will increase spending on nuclear weapons from the current level of approximately 3 percent of the overall defense budget to about 7 percent, Work said.

Work’s testimony marked the first time the Pentagon has provided cost information about nuclear forces beyond 10 years. He did not specify for how long nuclear weapons would consume 7 percent of military spending, but he said spending would peak “around 2026 and 2027.”

The projected increase “will require very hard choices and increased risk in some [non-nuclear] missions without additional funding above current defense budget levels,” Work added.

U.S. Strategic Command estimated in September 2014 that maintaining and modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal “will require close to 10 percent” of the Defense Department budget “for a period of time.” The command has since backed away from that number, stating that the cost is likely to be closer to 5 to 6 percent of the budget. (See ACT, April 2015.)

The Defense Department and the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration are required by law to submit a joint annual report to Congress that includes 10-year budget estimates for nuclear forces and their supporting infrastructure.

The most recent joint report, submitted to Congress in May 2014, projected $298 billion in spending between fiscal years 2015 and 2024 in then-year dollars, according to a July assessment by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress.

In the past, the GAO and some members of Congress have criticized the joint report for undercounting the cost of certain nuclear modernization programs. (See ACT, July/August 2014.) The July GAO assessment found that the May 2014 joint report was much more comprehensive than previous iterations, but said “opportunities exist to further enhance transparency.”

Bloomberg, however, reported on Aug. 17 that, apparently unbeknownst to the GAO, last year’s joint report and the 2015 version, which has yet to be publicly released, misstated the 10-year cost estimate for the long-range strike bomber program. The Air Force is developing a new nuclear-capable bomber to complement and then replace the existing B-52H and B-2A aircraft.

Whereas the May 2014 joint report included a 10-year estimate of $33.1 billion in then-year dollars for the new bomber, the Air Force is now saying the correct number should have been $41.7 billion, according to Bloomberg.

The Air Force told Bloomberg that the estimated cost of the program between fiscal years 2016 and 2025 is also $41.7 billion, a reduction of nearly $17 billion from the $58.4 billion figure cited in the original version of the 2015 joint report submitted to Congress.

In an Aug. 24 press conference at the Pentagon, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said the misreporting of the bomber cost to Congress was a “regrettable error” and blamed a lack of “coordination” within the Air Force and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. James did not provide an explanation for why the two corrected estimates are now the same.

Earlier on Aug. 24, Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services oversight subcommittee, sent a letter to James, expressing concern about “recent reports indicating massive discrepancies” in 10-year cost estimates for the new bomber. She called on the Air Force to detail the steps it is taking “to ensure the accuracy” of future cost estimates for the program.

Amid questions about the credibility of the Defense Department’s budget estimates for nuclear weapons, an August report published by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments sought to provide a more detailed, long-term assessment of nuclear costs and put them in the context of overall national defense spending.

Written by Todd Harrison and Evan Braden Montgomery, senior fellows at the center, the report estimated that sustaining and modernizing nuclear weapons and their supporting infrastructure will cost $222-253 billion in then-year dollars over the 10-year period between fiscal years 2015 and 2024 and $836-963 billion over the 30-year period between 2014 and 2043.

Harrison and Montgomery concluded, “Although the costs of sustaining and modernizing U.S. nuclear forces are projected to grow in the years ahead…those costs will still account for a small fraction of total defense spending, even at their peak.”

The two analysts calculate that nuclear weapons will not exceed 5 percent of the total national defense budget over the next 25 years, even at the peaks of the anticipated nuclear spending bow wave in the mid-2020s. They dispute the notion that nuclear weapons impose a uniquely significant budget burden, saying, “What the United States can or cannot afford depends on the priorities set by policymakers.”

Harrison and Montgomery’s estimate is lower than the government’s projection due to different assumptions about how to count nuclear costs. For example, they attribute the bulk of the cost of acquiring and operating nuclear-capable bombers to conventional needs and only a fraction to the nuclear mission. The Pentagon includes the full cost of the bombers in its estimate of nuclear costs. 

Posted: September 2, 2015

CSBA Downplays Nuclear Effect on Budget, Potential Nuclear Savings

On August 4 the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) published a detailed estimate of the long-term costs of sustaining and modernizing U.S. nuclear weapons and their supporting infrastructure. The report, written by CSBA’s Todd Harrison and Evan Braden Montgomery, concludes that “Although the costs of sustaining and modernizing U.S. nuclear forces are projected to grow in the years ahead…those costs will still account for a small fraction of total defense spending, even at their peak.” Moreover, they write, “cutting nuclear weapons is unlikely to provide enough savings to...

New Nuclear Cruise Missile Won’t Control Escalation, Will Erode Stability

Arms Control Today recently reported on emerging details of the Air Force’s plan for the long-range standoff weapon (LRSO). The LRSO is a replacement for the Air Force’s current, 1980s-vintage air-launched cruise missile (ALCM). The Air Force plans to build 1,000-1,100 of the new cruise missiles at a projected acquisition cost of about $9 billion. After adding the $7-9.5 billion cost of life-extension for the associated warheads (according to estimates of the National Nuclear Security Administration), the total cost of replacing the existing ALCM could be close to $20 billion. Producing a...

Air Force Drafts Plan for Follow-On ICBM

An initial Air Force proposal for replacing the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile calls for procuring 
642 missiles.

July/August 2015

Updated: July 8, 2015

By Kingston Reif

U.S. Air Force airmen install a cable raceway on an intercontinental ballistic missile at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on February 3, 2014. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jonathan Snyder/RELEASED)An initial Air Force proposal for replacing the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system calls for procuring 642 missiles, 400 of which would be operationally deployed, multiple sources told Arms Control Today in recent months. The remaining missiles would be used for flight tests and as spares to support the program’s anticipated 50-year lifespan, the sources said.

If the U.S. government moves ahead with the proposal, it will have a capability extending into the 2070s to deploy 400 ICBMs, the number that the United States will have in 2018 under the terms of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).

To meet the treaty limits, the Defense Department has said it will reduce the U.S. arsenal from its current level—447 deployed missiles as of September 2014—while retaining 50 nondeployed missile launchers.

During interviews in May and June, the sources said the preliminary acquisition cost estimate for the Minuteman III replacement system—an option studied under the Pentagon’s Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program—is $62.3 billion, which covers a 30-year period between fiscal year 2015 and fiscal year 2044.

In a subsequent e-mail exchange, Air Force representatives confirmed the estimated cost and the number of planned missiles to be purchased and deployed.

The $62.3 billion cost estimate was first reported on June 5 by Nuclear Security and Deterrence Monitor. The newsletter quoted Ed Gulick, an Air Force spokesman, as saying the draft estimate was completed in February by the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center’s ICBM System Program Office and that it includes $48.5 billion for the missiles, $6.9 billion for command and control systems, and $6.9 billion to renovate the launch control centers and launch facilities.

In a June 15 e-mail to Arms Control Today, Gulick said that the cost estimate is in “then-year dollars,” meaning it includes inflationary increases expected to occur in the program over the 30-year time horizon of the estimate.

Options Studied

Last summer, the Air Force conducted an analysis of alternatives to sustain the ICBM force beyond the anticipated end of the Minuteman III’s service life in 2030.

Gulick said the analysis initially examined five options, but after discussions with senior officials in the defense secretary’s office, the analysis narrowed its focus to three alternatives: a “baseline” option that would extend the life of the Minuteman III through 2075, a “replacement system capitalizing” on the existing Minuteman III silo infrastructure, and a “hybrid” option that would “mix” the existing Minuteman III silo infrastructure with new road-mobile ICBMs.

A request for information issued by the Air Force on Jan. 23 seeking information and feedback from defense industry companies said the United States “is preparing to acquire a replacement for” the Minuteman III system “that replaces the entire flight system” and “retains the silo basing modes.”

Maj. Melissa Milner, one of the Air Force representatives, said in a June 19 e-mail that the current program cost estimate of $62.3 billion is “focused on a replacement system that reflects a missile similar in size to the Minuteman III.” The Air Force has not provided a public cost estimate for the other options.

Milner did not indicate whether the GBSD missile would have a completely new design or would incorporate significant design features from the Minuteman III.

Deployment of the replacement missile system is scheduled to begin in 2027. 

In remarks at a June 16 event in Washington, Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, the deputy commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said the United States cannot “continue to sustain” the Minuteman III.

Questions Raised

One former government official said the cost estimate for the replacement system suggested a new ICBM, an approach that he questioned.

It’s “hard to believe” the Pentagon would choose to design and build a new missile because there is no military need to do so, retired Col. Mark Cancian, who recently left the U.S. Office of Management and Budget after seven years as director of its force structure and management division, said in June 15 interview.

Cancian, now a senior adviser in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, added that there is “no way the Air Force can afford” a new fleet of ICBMs given the cost of plans to modernize other elements of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, such as building new ballistic missile submarines and long-range bombers.

A 2014 report by the RAND Corp. on the future of the ICBM force found that “any new ICBM alternative will very likely cost almost two times—and perhaps even three times—more than incremental modernization of the current Minuteman III system.”

The GBSD program is slated to face a key acquisition milestone early next year, when the defense secretary’s office will decide whether the program should proceed to the next stage of the acquisition process. This stage includes maturing the technology, refining requirements, and finalizing cost estimates for the program.

In the lead-up to this decision point, known as a milestone A decision, the Defense Department is reviewing the acquisition strategy for the program.

Cancian said that although the Air Force may be evaluating a new missile, this approach is not yet a formal Air Force plan or recommendation. “A lot could change” when the program “comes up for decision and has to compete with other programs,” he said.

ICBMs make up the land-based leg of the U.S. nuclear triad of delivery systems, which also consists of submarine-launched missiles and long-range bombers. Long-range bombers can carry air-launched cruise missiles and gravity bombs.

In a speech in Berlin on June 19, 2013, President Barack Obama said he would seek to reduce the numbers of U.S. and Russian deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third. (Photo by Mathias Krohn/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

The deployed Minuteman III missiles are dispersed in underground silos at three U.S. bases: Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, and F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming. Each missile is deployed with one nuclear warhead.

The Minuteman III, which has a range of more than 8,000 miles, was first fielded in 1970 with a planned service life of 10 years. Production of the missile ended in 1977. A total of 794 missiles were acquired at a cost of $41.4 billion, as measured in fiscal year 2012 dollars, according to the RAND report.

Several multibillion-dollar life extension programs have kept the Minuteman III in service for more than 40 years. Nearly the entire missile has been refurbished, including the propellant and guidance and propulsion systems.

President Barack Obama determined in 2013 that the United States could reduce “deployed strategic nuclear weapons by up to one-third,” but he conditioned further reductions on negotiations with Russia.

Greg Weaver, principal director for nuclear and missile defense policy in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, told Inside the Air Force on Feb. 20 that given the uncertain prospects for a future arms control agreement with Russia after New START expires in 2021, the GBSD program “is budgeted based on the current policy” and “arms control limits.”

Weaver added that the approach could change if Russia and the United States agreed to further nuclear weapons reductions at some point in the future.

Posted: July 9, 2015

Air Force Clarifies Cruise Missile Plan

The Air Force says that only a portion of the 1,000 new nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missiles it is proposing to build will be deployed with nuclear warheads.

June 2015

By Kingston Reif

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) speaks during a May 6 hearing of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee in this video image. Feinstein questioned the need for the new cruise missile that the Air Force is pursuing. (Senate Appropriations Committee)Only a portion of the 1,000 new nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) that the Air Force is proposing to build will be deployed with nuclear warheads, according to an Air Force official.

Arms Control Today reported last month that the Air Force is seeking about 1,000 new nuclear-capable ALCMs, roughly double the size of the existing fleet of ALCMs. (See ACT, May 2015.)

In a May 7 e-mail in response to the story, an Air Force official said the number of new ALCMs “to be acquired includes a large number of spare and test missiles that will be required throughout the life of the program.” The Air Force has declined to provide additional details on the planned numbers of deployed, spare, and test missiles.

“This means that the planned purchase of 1,000 missiles includes far more missiles than we plan to operationally arm and deploy in our nuclear force,” the official added.

The official said that the requirements issued by President Barack Obama for deployed ALCMs “have not increased.”

The existing ALCM can be carried by the B-52 bomber. The missile, which has a range of more than 1,500 miles, was first fielded in 1982 with a planned service life of 10 years. Multiple life extension programs have kept the missile in service for more than 30 years. The Air Force is planning to retain the missile until 2030.

The Air Force is developing the long-range standoff cruise missile to replace the existing ALCM. The new missile will be compatible with the B-2 and B-52 bombers, as well as the planned long-range strike bomber.

The Obama administration’s fiscal year 2016 budget request proposed to increase spending to accelerate by two years the development of the long-range standoff missile and the modified warhead that it would carry, partially reversing the fiscal year 2015 proposal to delay development of both by three years. (See ACT, March 2015.)

The United States does not maintain any nuclear weapons loaded on its deployed heavy bombers on a day-to-day basis. Nuclear weapons for bombers are stored separately in bunkers on or near their air bases.

The Air Force currently retains 575 nuclear-capable ALCMs, down from the original production run of 1,715 missiles, which concluded in 1986. The service declined to comment on whether the existing ALCM was built with a similar ratio of deployed weapons to spare and test missiles as that proposed for the new 1,000-missile plan.

Some members of Congress continued to express skepticism about the need for any new nuclear cruise missiles.

At a Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing on May 6, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) questioned whether the United States requires a new “cruise missile that can deliver nuclear warheads from great distances in addition to the numerous gravity bombs, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and intercontinental ballistic missiles we’ve armed ourselves with.”

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told Feinstein at the hearing that the reason for a new cruise missile “is to replace the cruise missiles that exist now…in recognition of the fact that air defenses are improving around the world and that keeping that capability to penetrate air defenses with our nuclear deterrent is an important one.”

In a May 14 interview published on the website of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Rose Gottemoeller, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, defended the need for a new cruise missile on the grounds that “air-launched systems are inherently more stabilizing” because bombers are “slow flying” and “if a decision is made to launch the bomber force, then they can also be recalled.”

Gottemoeller added that the plan to build 1,000 new missiles “is not in my view unreasonable.”

Meanwhile, the House-passed version of the fiscal year 2016 National Defense Authorization Act includes a provision that would require the defense secretary to submit to Congress a report on the justification for the planned number of new cruise missiles, including the rationale for building the expected number of missiles and how the number of planned missiles aligns with Obama’s nuclear weapons employment guidance.

The report was proposed by Rep. Michael Quigley (D-Ill.) as an amendment to the defense bill. The amendment, which was cosponsored by Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.), was approved by the full House on a voice vote.

In a May 15 press release, Quigley said his action was prompted by “new information that the Air Force is planning to procure 1,000 [long-range standoff missiles]” and would “promote a more modest and responsible nuclear weapons budget.”

A number of organizations, including the Arms Control Association, have supported efforts this year to reduce funding for the new cruise missile and associated warhead refurbishment programs.

Posted: June 2, 2015

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