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former IAEA Director-General

Trump Continues Obama Nuclear Funding
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July/August 2017
By Kingston Reif

As the Trump administration conducts a comprehensive review of U.S. nuclear weapons policy, its first budget request continues the Obama administration’s costly plans to rebuild the U.S. nuclear triad and its supporting infrastructure.

The Defense Department “must continue with the existing” plans for “recapitalizing” U.S. nuclear forces, Robert Soofer, deputy assistant secretary of defense for nuclear and missile defense, told the House Armed Services Committee on May 25.

Although it remains to be seen whether the administration will make changes following the review, its fiscal year 2018 budget proposal, released on May 23, illustrates the rising cost of the nuclear mission and the challenge those expenses may pose to the administration’s other national security priorities.

A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report in February estimates that the United States will spend $400 billion on nuclear weapons from fiscal years 2017 through 2026. (See ACT, March 2017.) That is an increase of $52 billion, or 15 percent, from the CBO’s previous 10-year estimate of $348 billion, which was published in January 2015.

The budget office’s latest projection suggests that the cost of nuclear forces could far exceed $1 trillion over the next 30 years.

The Trump administration’s fiscal year 2018 submission contains significant increases for several Defense and Energy department nuclear weapons systems, including increases for some programs above what the Obama administration projected in its final fiscal year 2017 budget submission. The request does not make significant changes to the planned development timelines for these programs.

The largest increase in the budget request is for the nuclear weapons account of the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration. The proposal calls for $10.2 billion, an increase of roughly $1 billion above the fiscal year 2017 appropriation and $570 million above the projection in the Obama administration’s final budget request.

In a December 2015 letter to the Obama White House, then-Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said substantially more money would be needed in future years to meet anticipated weapons program shortfalls. (Photo credit: Yuri Gripas/AFP/Getty Images)Despite the request for additional funding, none of the additional funds would be spent to accelerate life extension programs for warheads or begin research and design on new warheads. Rather, the increase reflects cost growth in some programs, notably the refurbishment program for the B61 gravity bomb, and a commitment to address infrastructure issues. (See ACT, June 2017.)

The seeds for much of the increase were planted by President Barack Obama’s energy secretary, Ernest Moniz. In a December 2015 letter to the Obama White House, Moniz said that an addi­tional $5.2 billion above the five-year funding plan contained in the fiscal year 2017 budget request would be needed to meet weapons program shortfalls.

The Defense Department’s budget submission also includes larger-than-planned increases for the programs to build new fleets of nuclear air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Both of these programs saw their price tag rise during Pentagon reviews last summer.

In the case of the new ALCM program, known as the long-range standoff weapon, Defense Secretary James Mattis notably has yet to express support for the program. “[C]oming into the job [of defense secretary], that was one of the weapons that I focused on initially,” Mattis told the Senate Appropriations Committee on June 14. “I’ve not yet completed my own review,” he said. “I’ve got to do more study.”

In addition, an independent Pentagon cost estimate conducted last summer found that the cost of the new ICBM program could be more than double the Air Force’s initial estimate. (See ACT, March 2017.)

In a Jan. 27 executive order, President Donald Trump directed Mattis to undertake a Nuclear Posture Review that should “ensure that the United States nuclear deterrent is modern, robust, flexible, resilient, ready, and appropriately tailored to deter 21st-century threats and reassure our allies.”

The review, which commenced in April, is being led by the deputy secretary of defense and the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and includes other agencies and departments. The process is scheduled to produce a final report by the end of the year.

If the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review does not alter the current spending trajectory or accelerates or expands on it, spending on nuclear weapons could pose a threat to other national security programs, including non-nuclear military spending, which Trump has pledged to increase.

Trump has declared his ambition to “greatly strengthen and expand” U.S. nuclear weapons capabilities and has criticized the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia, suggesting he may be looking to change nuclear policy in significant ways.

What makes the growing cost to sustain the nuclear mission worrisome for military planners is that costs are scheduled to peak during the mid-2020s and overlap with large increases in projected spending on modernization programs for conventional weapons systems.

Numerous Pentagon officials and outside experts have warned about the affordability problem and said that the nuclear spending requirements cannot be sustained without significant increases to defense spending or cuts to other military priorities. For example, a recent report published in April by the Government Accountability Office disputed as “optimistic” the Energy Department’s claim that its long-term plans to sustain and rebuild U.S. nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure are affordable. (See ACT, June 2017.)

Defense Secretary James Mattis, flanked by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford (left) and Under­secretary of Defense (Comptroller) David Norquist, testifies June 13 at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the administration’s defense budget request. (Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee on June 12 that the cost to sustain and upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal is affordable if appropriately prioritized.

“I believe that we can…afford survival,” Mattis said.

“We have gone through this [recapitalizing the arsenal] twice before in our history,” Mattis added, referring to major upgrades of the arsenal in the 1960s and 1980s. “Both times, the Congress rose to it.”—KINGSTON REIF

Costs of Selected Nuclear Weapons Programs

B-21 “Raider” Long-Range Bomber

$2 billion: FY 2018 request
$1.34 billion: FY 2017 appropriation
$2.17 billion: FY 2018 projection (as of FY 2017 request)
Program Description/Cost: Would eventually replace the B-52 and B-1 bombers. The current plan is to procure at least 100 new bombers that would begin to enter service in the mid- to late-2020s. A nuclear capability is planned for the new bomber but certification is not planned until two years after initial operating capability. The Air Force has refused to release the value of the first development contract awarded to Northrop Grumman Corp. in October 2015 to develop the B-21 citing classification concerns. Independent experts put the total acquisition cost of the program at north of $110 billion (in then-year dollars).


Columbia-Class Submarines

$1.88 billion: FY 2018 request
$1.86 billion: FY 2017 appropriation
$1.93 billion: FY 2018 projection (as of FY 2017 request)
Program Description/Cost: Would replace the current fleet of 14 Ohio-class submarines with 12 new submarines. The first new submarine is scheduled to enter service in 2031. The funding request includes $1.04 billion in research and development and $843 million in advance procurement funding. The Pentagon last year estimated the acquisition cost of the program at $128 billion (in then-year dollars).


B61-12 Warhead Life Extension

$788.6 million: FY 2018 request
$616.1 million: FY 2017 appropriation
$727.2 million: FY 2018 projection (as of FY 2017 request)
Program Description/Cost: Would refurbish the aging B61 nuclear gravity bomb by consolidating four of the five existing versions into a single weapon known as the B61-12. The first B61-12 is slated to be produced in 2020. The upgraded weapon will be equipped with a new tail-kit guidance assembly. The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) estimates the cost of the life extension program will be $7.6 billion but the agency’s independent cost estimate is $10 billion (in then-year dollars).


Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) Weapon

$489.3 million: FY 2018 request
$95.6 million: FY 2017 appropriation
$419.82 million: FY 2018 projection (as of FY 2017 request)
Program Description/Cost: Would develop a replacement for the nuclear-capable AGM-86B air-launched cruise missile (ALCM). The new missile will be compatible with the B-2 and B-52 bombers, as well as the planned B-21. The first missile is slated to be produced in 2026. The current Air Force procurement plan for the LRSO calls for about 1,000 new nuclear-capable missiles, roughly double the size of the existing fleet of ALCMs. The Air Force estimates the program will cost $10.8 billion (in then-year dollars) to acquire.


W80-4 Warhead Life Extension

$399.1 million: FY 2018 request
$220.3 million: FY 2017 appropriation
$462.2 million: FY 2018 projection (as of FY 2017 request)
Program Description/Cost: Would refurbish the aging air-launched cruise missile warhead for delivery on the Long-Range Standoff Weapon. NNSA estimates the cost of the program will be between $7.4 billion and $9.9 billion (in then-year dollars). The first refurbished warhead is scheduled for production in 2025.


B61 Warhead Life Extension (tail kit)

$179.5 million: FY 2018 request
$137.9 million: FY 2017 appropriation
$296.4 million: FY 2018 projection (as of FY 2017 request)
Program Description/Cost: Would provide the B61-12 with a guided tail kit to accuracy. The Air Force plans to procure over 800 tail kits. The program also supports integration of the warhead system on existing long-range bombers and short-range fighter aircraft. The Air Force estimates the tail kit will cost $1.6 billion to develop (in then-year dollars). A 2013 Pentagon report put the total life-cycle cost for the program at $3.7 billion.


Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent

$215.7 million: FY 2018 request
$113.9 million: FY 2017 appropriation
$293.96 million: FY 2018 projection (as of FY 2017 request)
Program Description/Cost: Would design, develop, produce, and deploy a replacement for the current Minuteman III ICBM system and its supporting infrastructure. The system is slated for initial fielding in FY28. The Air Force is planning to procure 666 GBSD missiles and modernize the supporting Minuteman III Infrastructure. The program is estimated to cost $85 billion (in then-year dollars) over 30 years, though the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation Office projects the cost could be as high as $140 billion.

—Kingston Reif

Sources: Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Arms Control Association

Posted: July 10, 2017