U.S. Nuclear Arms Spending Set to Rise

Tom Z. Collina

Despite pressure to reduce military budgets, the Obama administration is planning to increase spending significantly to modernize nuclear-armed missiles, submarines, and bombers and to maintain nuclear warheads in the decades ahead, according to budget documents released in March.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel testified before the House Armed Services Committee on March 6 that “tough, tough choices are coming” if the Pentagon is forced to make deep spending cuts as required by law. The services are considering cutting 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers and retiring an aircraft carrier, among other money-saving steps.

But the Pentagon is not proposing to scale back its highest-priority nuclear modernization programs. The Pentagon’s proposed $496 billion budget for fiscal year 2015, released March 4, would “preserve all three legs of the nuclear triad,” Hagel said, and includes hefty down payments for new delivery systems. The nuclear warhead programs, overseen by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semi-autonomous unit of the Energy Department, also would get a budget increase. The administration would pay for these increases in part by cuts to some lower-priority programs.

Submarines, Bombers, and Missiles

The Defense Department is just beginning a decades-long effort to modernize the triad of long-range nuclear delivery systems, which includes submarines, bombers, and land-based missiles. These programs are in the early stages of development and will see major cost growth as they move into the production phase over the next 10 to 20 years.

The highest-priority and most costly program is the Navy’s plan to replace its current fleet of 14 Ohio-class strategic submarines with 12 new subs, called the SSBN(X). Under the administration’s request, the program would receive $1.3 billion for fiscal year 2015, an increase of $190 million, or 11 percent, over the fiscal year 2014 appropriation. The 12-sub fleet would cost about $100 billion to produce, with the first boat entering service in 2031. To afford the SSBN(X), the Navy is seeking an infusion of $60 billion over 15 years from outside its budget. It is not clear where this money will be found. (See ACT, October 2013.)

The Air Force is seeking to build as many as 100 new strategic bombers under a program that would get $914 million in fiscal year 2015, an increase of $554 million, or 150 percent, from the fiscal year 2014 appropriation. The Air Force plans to spend $11.4 billion on the program over the next five years, and the fleet would cost up to $80 billion to build.

The Air Force also wants a new air-launched cruise missile and possibly a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The program to develop the cruise missile, which would be carried by the new bomber, is one area where funding would be reduced. It would get $5 million in fiscal year 2015, the same amount that Congress provided in 2014, but the start of hardware development was delayed from 2015 to 2018, which would push it into the next administration. Because of the delay, the projected spending for the next five years has dropped sharply, from $1 billion to $221 million.

Lt. Gen. Stephen Wilson, commander of the Air Force Global Strike Command, testified before the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee on March 5 that the Defense Department deferred the cruise missile program last December “due to concerns over [the NNSA’s] funding profile for the associated warhead” and the need to address other funding priorities such as the tail kit assembly for the B61 gravity bomb.

The Air Force is building a new tail kit for the refurbished B61, which would make the bomb more accurate. The Air Force is requesting $198 million for the tail kit, a five-fold increase of $165 million over fiscal year 2014. The tail kit will cost an estimated $1.1 billion to build.

The Air Force is still deciding what to do about its aging Minuteman III ICBMs. A decision is expected in June whether to extend the life of the current missile or replace it with a new one, either silo based or mobile. A recent RAND Corp. study recommended upgrading the current missile, which it found to be “a relatively inexpensive way to retain current ICBM capabilities.” The study authors said that a new missile would not be needed unless new military requirements emerged that were “beyond what an incrementally modernized Minuteman III can offer.”

Warheads Get a Boost

Nuclear warhead maintenance and infrastructure, funded by the NNSA, would receive $8.3 billion in fiscal year 2015, which is $534 million, or 6.9 percent, above the fiscal year 2014 appropriation. The NNSA plans to spend $45.7 billion on nuclear weapons over the next five years, an average of more than $9 billion per year.

The NNSA weapons budget would increase spending to rebuild the B61 gravity bomb, but cut funding for other projects.

The B61 life extension program (LEP) would refurbish about 400 of the gravity bombs that are used on long-range bombers in the United States and tactical fighter aircraft in Europe. The program would be funded at $643 million for fiscal year 2015, an increase of $106 million, or 20 percent, over fiscal year 2014.

Cost overruns have made the program controversial in the Senate, which last year provided only two-thirds of what the administration requested. But the fiscal year 2014 omnibus appropriations bill, passed in January after House-Senate negotiations, provided the full amount. (See ACT, March 2014.) The fiscal year 2015 budget request delays first production of the rebuilt bomb by one year, from 2019 to 2020. The program would receive $3.4 billion over the next five years and cost a total of $8-10 billion to build.

The nuclear weapons budget would zero out initial funding for a new program to rebuild four other warhead types in the arsenal. Called the “3+2” plan, this program would develop “interoperable” warheads that could be used on more than one delivery system, at an estimated cost of about $14 billion per warhead type over 25 years. (See ACT, September 2013.)

The first interoperable warhead, called the IW-1, would have replaced the land-based W78 and sea-based W88 warheads and would have been used on ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. But the proposed budget provides no money for this program, which is receiving $38 million in fiscal year 2014, and no money for the next five years. According to the NNSA, the IW-1 would have cost $14 billion to produce.

Similarly, the NNSA has delayed developing a $12 billion warhead for the Air Force’s new cruise missile by three years. Although this warhead would get just $9 million in fiscal year 2015, the program to build it is projected to ramp up and receive $482 million over the next five years.

The NNSA has not yet decided which warhead to use on the new cruise missile. In November 2013, according to NNSA budget documents, the Nuclear Weapons Council, a joint NNSA-Pentagon working group, “eliminated the B61 as an option” to be the cruise missile warhead and is now developing variations of the W80 and W84 “for further consideration.” The W80 is used on the current air-launched cruise missile, slated for retirement in 2030, and the W84 was used on the ground-launched cruise missile, which was removed from Europe under the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The ground-launched missiles were dismantled, but the warheads were stored.