As the possibility of automatic cuts looms over the ongoing debate on reducing U.S. defense spending, the former head of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) has called for cutting the nuclear weapons budget by roughly $120 billion over the next two decades.
Gen. James Cartwright, who oversaw U.S. nuclear weapons under President George W. Bush and served as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff until he retired last year, testified before the Senate Appropriations energy and water subcommittee July 25 that his proposal to reduce U.S. nuclear forces by 80 percent from current levels could save about $100 billion in delivery system costs and $20 billion in nuclear warhead costs. Cartwright presented testimony jointly with former U.S. ambassador to Russia and the United Nations Thomas Pickering.
Cartwright chaired a panel that in May called for deep reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, doing away with all intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and removing the threat of a “decapitating” first strike against Russia. (See ACT, June 2012.) The panel would keep 900 warheads in the U.S. force, compared to about 5,000 today, with half of them deployed but off alert and half in storage.
Cartwright testified that, of the 900 warheads, 720 would be assigned to Trident Ohio-class submarines, with future sub production reduced from 12 to 10. The remaining 180 warheads would be assigned to 18 B-2 bombers. B-52 bombers no longer would carry nuclear warheads, and the order for the planned new strategic bomber would shrink from up to 100 planes to about 30. In addition, all Minuteman ICBMs would be retired, the Minuteman’s replacement canceled, and all tactical nuclear weapons eliminated.
At the hearing, Cartwright and Pickering did not release a detailed accounting of their budget estimate. However, according to preliminary estimates provided by Global Zero, which sponsored the May report, savings over 10 to 15 years would come largely from taking U.S. nuclear weapons out of NATO ($3 billion), eliminating current ICBMs and canceling a new version ($13 billion), scaling back current Ohio-class submarines and buying fewer new ones ($25 billion), retiring B-52 bombers and the associated refueling tanker fleet ($12 billion), and reducing investments in nuclear command, control, and communications and in early-warning satellites. Over 15 to 20 years, buying only 30 new bombers instead of 100 would save about $38 billion, Global Zero said.
The $10 Billion Bomb
In addition to saving $100 billion on delivery systems, Cartwright and Pickering estimated saving $20 billion from the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semiautonomous part of the Energy Department that oversees the nuclear weapons production complex. Half of this amount would be saved by decreasing the number of warhead types in the U.S. active stockpile from seven today to four by 2022, which would reduce the need to refurbish warheads through the life extension program (LEP), Cartwright and Pickering said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the energy appropriations subcommittee, opened the July 25 hearing by revealing that NNSA estimates for the cost of the B61 bomb LEP had doubled from $4 billion to $8 billion. Moreover, she said that an independent Defense Department review pegged the cost at $10 billion. This new price tag requires the NNSA to find billions of dollars “at a time when budgets are shrinking and sequestration is a real possibility,” she said.
Sequestration is a mechanism under which congressional funding of government agencies is cut automatically if it exceeds the amount that Congress had previously budgeted. Under the 2011 Budget Control Act, growth in the Pentagon budget will be reduced by roughly $500 billion over the next decade if Congress cannot find an alternative way to cut the federal deficit by January. Although sequestration once was considered an unlikely prospect, congressional inability over the last eight months to agree on how to tackle the deficit has increased anxieties in Washington that the automatic cuts actually may occur. Even if full sequestration is avoided, the Pentagon may face hundreds of billions of dollars in budget cuts beyond the approximately $490 billion in spending-growth reductions that are already planned.
The NNSA could save money by not building a new $6 billion plutonium facility, called the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Facility Replacement (CMRR), at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, Cartwright said. The new facility would not be needed for a 900-warhead stockpile, which would require only 18 new plutonium “pits,” or warhead cores, per year, not 80 as currently planned, Cartwright said. Even so, Cartwright said that, through extra shifts and additional equipment, the capacity of the current facility could be increased from 20 pits “to perhaps as high as 80 per year.”
The Obama administration announced in February that it had decided to delay construction of the CMRR by five years to redirect money to other programs, such as the $7 billion Uranium Processing Facility at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee. (See ACT, March 2012.) According to an April Los Alamos study on alternatives to the CMRR, which was not made public until August, the lab could support a production rate of 30 pits per year with assistance from other labs, such as Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, at a cost of $800 million over 10 years.
‘Not Your Father’s Nuclear Force’
Speaking to reporters Aug. 8 in Omaha, current STRATCOM head Gen. Robert Kehler said he agreed with the administration’s decision to give construction of the uranium facility priority over the CMRR. He also said that some of the need for pits could be met by reusing existing ones in storage rather than new production. “We don’t differentiate at all” between new pits and reused ones, he told reporters.
Kehler, seeking to show how STRATCOM has moved away from Cold War thinking, told a July 12 forum in Washington that “this is not your father’s nuclear force” and said that the U.S. nuclear stockpile had been reduced by 75 percent from the day the Berlin Wall fell. These are “very positive changes,” he said.
Regarding the triad of submarines, bombers, and ICBMs, Kehler said that “the triad is not a theological argument for me.” He said the triad continued to serve the country well today, but “it may not be true in the future.” Kehler said that if the president determines that U.S. deterrence needs have changed, “then we will make the adjustments that are necessary.”
On ICBMs, which Cartwright recommended retiring, Kehler said, “[T]here’s a big difference between a force that you can use promptly and one that you must use promptly. And I no longer see us in a scenario where we must use ICBMs promptly.” This reflects confidence among officials that U.S. submarine-based nuclear forces could survive a Russian first strike, and thus U.S. ICBMs would not have to be launched on warning of an attack.
Kehler said that the threat of a sudden nuclear war involving Russia and the United States “has receded by almost every measure” and is “at the lowest level that I have seen in my 37 years in the United States Air Force and military.”
Meanwhile, a State Department advisory group said that the United States and Russia could avoid “costly or destabilizing modernization efforts” by accelerating reductions under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and pursuing additional arsenal cuts.
The comment came in an Aug. 14 draft report by the department’s International Security Advisory Board. Arms Control Today obtained a copy of the draft report.
That preliminary report was drafted for the advisory board by a study group that is chaired by Harvard professor Graham Allison and includes former top officials of U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories. For the near term, the report recommends that Russia and the United States seek additional reductions below New START levels on the basis of a mutual understanding rather than a formal treaty. Such reductions “could improve stability by reducing Russia’s incentive to build a new heavy ICBM,” they wrote.
It is not clear when the final report will be released.