White House Reviewing Nuclear Budget

Tom Z. Collina

Faced with increasing pressure to reduce military spending, the White House is overseeing an interagency review of multibillion-dollar plans to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal, an Obama administration spokesman said in August.

This review will inform the administration’s fiscal year 2016 budget request to Congress, Ned Price of the National Security Council (NSC) said in an Aug. 22 e-mail to Arms Control Today. The NSC staff is leading the review, Price said.

The budget request is to be submitted to Congress early next year.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan, independent report commissioned by Congress and the Defense Department and released July 31 calls the administration’s plans to rebuild the nuclear arsenal “unaffordable” and a threat to “needed improvements in conventional forces.”

The report, “Ensuring a Strong U.S. Defense for the Future” by the National Defense Panel, which focuses primarily on broader defense issues, finds that current plans to modernize all three legs of the nuclear triad—land-based missiles, submarines, and bombers—would have a “substantial cost” of $600 billion to $1 trillion over 30 years. Although the panel supports retaining the triad, it states that “the merits of some aspects of this expensive recapitalization can be debated.”

The panel, co-chaired by former Secretary of Defense William Perry and retired Gen. John P. Abizaid, former commander of U.S. Central Command, says that the U.S. nuclear arsenal “could be reduced” if future arms control agreements required that. Either way, the United States will have to stop the “neglect” that has existed since the end of the Cold War and make some “reasonable decisions” about modernization of delivery systems and life extension of nuclear warheads, the report says.

The administration and Congress should “urgently and jointly” conduct a nuclear review to “examine the intellectual underpinnings of our strategic deterrence policy” and to “find cost-efficient ways to modernize the force,” the report says.

Big Plans, Smaller Budgets

Military spending is slowing at the same time as the departments of Defense and Energy are making long-term decisions about how many new missiles, submarines, bombers, and nuclear warheads the United States will build over the next 50 years.

The Navy wants to buy 12 new, nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines with a total production cost of about $100 billion. The Air Force is seeking up to 100 new, nuclear-armed strategic bombers that are expected to cost at least $55 billion, as well as a new fleet of land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs). The Energy Department’s semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is pursuing a $60 billion plan to upgrade five nuclear warhead types, including the B61 gravity bomb. (See ACT, May 2014.)

In June 2013, President Barack Obama announced he would pursue a new agreement with Russia to reduce strategic nuclear weapons, and the U.S. military leadership has determined it can reduce the number of deployed strategic warheads to 1,000-1,100, or about one-third lower than the levels set by the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Russia showed little interest in further arms reductions, even before U.S.-Russian relations worsened over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and actions to support rebels in Ukraine.

At the same time, the administration’s nuclear modernization plans have started to run into trouble as the 2011 Budget Control Act’s limits on defense spending have begun to bite. For example, the defense budget still needs to be cut by $115 billion for fiscal years 2016-2019 to meet the act’s requirements.

As a result, the administration has had to delay producing the Navy’s new submarines by two years, delay certifying the new bombers to carry nuclear weapons, delay developing a new nuclear-armed ALCM by three years, delay rebuilding nuclear warheads, and cancel plans to build a new warhead production facility in New Mexico.

Questions on New Cruise Missile

Seeking to cut spending, Congress has begun to scrutinize administration budget requests for nuclear weapons more closely. Last year, the Senate Appropriations energy and water subcommittee reduced the administration’s funding request for the B61 bomb life extension program by half, only to have the budget restored by a last-minute political compromise. (See ACT, March 2014.)

This year, that panel and the House and Senate Appropriations defense subcommittees all cut the administration’s request for the new ALCM.

In its June 17 report accompanying the bill, the Senate Appropriations energy and water subcommittee said it is “reluctant to provide funding for a new cruise missile warhead when the Air Force cannot identify sufficient funding in its budget planning documents to design and procure a cruise missile to deliver a refurbished warhead.”

To shore up support for the weapon, Frank Kendall, chairman of the joint Pentagon-NNSA Nuclear Weapons Council, wrote a June 24 letter to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) stating that a bomber force armed with nuclear cruise missiles provides the president with “uniquely flexible options in an extreme crisis, particularly the ability to signal intent and control escalation.”

No date has been set for a vote in the full Senate on the defense and energy appropriations bills.