Last year’s bipartisan deal to increase funding for the U.S. nuclear arsenal, reached during the debate on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), is now being challenged by a new bipartisan deal to cut defense spending. 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.”
Responding to political pressure to reduce the national debt, the Obama administration announced in April that it would reduce growth in national security spending by $400 billion over 12 years; similar cuts received bipartisan support through an August budget agreement between the administration and Congress. The bipartisan compromise to cut U.S. budget deficits by more than $2 trillion over 10 years would reduce planned increases in defense spending by setting ceilings on “security” spending, which includes the departments of Defense, State, Veterans Affairs, and Homeland Security; the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA); the Agency for International Development; and the CIA. White House officials estimate that these spending caps will translate into $350 billion in defense cuts over 10 years.
In addition, if the new joint congressional committee, known as the “super committee,” fails to agree on a deficit reduction plan by the end of the year or if Congress fails to approve a plan, the deal, formally known as the Budget Control Act of 2011, would automatically reduce defense spending starting in 2013 by $500 billion more, the White House estimates.
The Defense Department has embraced the first round of reductions, but not the second. Newly confirmed Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta wrote to Pentagon employees Aug. 3 that the department could implement the initial cuts “while maintaining the excellence of our military.” The department is conducting a review of its roles and missions, due this fall, to determine where to make these budget adjustments. As for the additional reductions, Panetta wrote that they could “trigger a round of dangerous across-the-board defense cuts that would do real damage to our security, our troops and their families, and our ability to protect the nation.”
Neither the White House nor congressional leaders from either party appear to favor these automatic cuts. However, given how difficult it will be for the 12 members of the super committee, split evenly between the parties, to reach agreement on a deficit reduction plan, the automatic cuts cannot be ruled out. For this reason, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments wrote in August that the Defense Department “should immediately begin contingency planning for how to handle such a reduction.” According to the center, if enacted, the total reduction in defense spending over 10 years, including both sets of cuts, would be $968 billion below the administration’s fiscal year 2012 budget and future-year projections.
These budget reductions, although large, are roughly equivalent to proposals made by the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform in late 2010 and the “Back in Black” plan released by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) this July.
These looming budget reductions appear to spell trouble for any military program that is seeking a large infusion of funds over the next decade, such as the nuclear weapons accounts. “We’re not going to be able to go forward with weapon systems that cost what weapon systems cost today,” Strategic Command chief Gen. Robert Kehler, who manages U.S. nuclear forces, told a Capitol Hill audience July 26. Referring to a proposed new generation of strategic bombers and submarines, he said, “Case in point is [the] Long-Range Strike [bomber]. Case in point is the Trident [submarine] replacement…. The list goes on.” As to how the budget situation would ultimately affect the nuclear force, Kehler said that “everything is on the table.”
As it sought Senate ratification of New START last year, the Obama administration agreed to demands from Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and others for a 10-year funding commitment to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal. (See ACT, January/February 2011.) As recently as May, Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Policy James Miller testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the administration was planning to spend $125 billion over the next 10 years to build a new generation of strategic delivery systems, including 12 new ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) to replace the current 14 Trident boats; refurbished Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs); a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM); a new long-range, nuclear-capable, possibly unmanned bomber; and a new nuclear-capable cruise missile for the bomber. In addition, the NNSA plans to spend $88 billion over 10 years to refurbish the nuclear warheads for those systems and to maintain and upgrade the warhead production infrastructure, including construction of two major new facilities. (See ACT, March 2011.)
Now, some Republicans are seeing the nuclear weapons budget as a prime target for defense cuts. For example, Coburn’s deficit reduction proposal includes $79 billion in cuts to nuclear weapons funding. He proposes reducing the U.S. nuclear arsenal to below the New START limit of 1,550 deployed warheads and cutting the number of ICBMs, SSBNs, bombers, and warheads in reserve.
Similarly, a 2010 Cato Institute report on the defense budget recommended $87 billion in savings from nuclear weapons spending, including arsenal reductions to a level of 500 deployed warheads; a 50 percent cut in delivery systems, keeping just six SSBNs and eliminating the bomber leg of the triad; and consolidation of NNSA weapons laboratories.
The nuclear weapons budget still has its defenders. House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Michael Turner (R-Ohio) told Global Security Newswire Aug. 5 that additional cuts to the NNSA made by the super committee “would jeopardize our nuclear deterrent, and our defense posture.” Turner’s concern was shared by Kyl, who believes that “modernization of our nuclear deterrent should be fully funded,” a Kyl spokesman told the newswire. Kyl has been named to serve on the super committee, which, while seeking a compromise position on overall spending levels, is not expected to recommend funding levels for specific national security programs.