"Though we have acheived progress, our work is not over. That is why I support the mission of the Arms Control Association. It is, quite simply, the most effective and important organization working in the field today." 

– Larry Weiler
Former U.S.-Russian arms control negotiator
August 7, 2018
Congress Boosts Missile Defense Spending
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May 2018
By Kingston Reif

Lawmakers in March approved a record increase in spending on U.S. ballistic missile defense programs amid concern about the significant progress North Korea made last year to advance its ballistic missile capabilities.

Congress approved $11.5 billion for the Missile Defense Agency, an increase of $3.6 billion, or 46 percent, from the Trump administration’s May 2017 initial budget request. The appropriation is the largest Congress has ever provided for the agency after adjusting for inflation.

At a signing ceremony March 23, President Donald Trump gestures toward the $1.3 trillion spending bill passed by Congress, as Vice President Mike Pence and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis stand behind him. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)The big jump in missile defense spending is part of the fiscal year 2018 omnibus appropriations bill, which President Donald Trump signed into law March 23. Fiscal year 2018 started Oct. 1, 2017, and runs until Sept. 30.

The law provides all of the extra $4 billion for missile defense programs requested by the administration in a November 2017 amendment to its fiscal year 2018 budget request. (See ACT, December 2017.) Trump said at a news conference at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, last August that he would be increasing the missile defense budget “by many billions of dollars because of North Korea and other reasons having to do with” missile defense.

The Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system, designed to protect the United States against a limited intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) attack from North Korea or Iran, received $568 million more than the budget request to begin increasing the number of long-range missile defense interceptors by up to 20 beyond the currently deployed 44. Congress doled out $393 million more than requested to accelerate the development of a new, more effective kill vehicle to arm the interceptors.

In addition, the law provides $1.3 billion in extra funds for the purchase of additional interceptors for the Navy’s Aegis missile defense program and the Army’s Theater High Altitude Area Defense system.

The Defense Department is still conducting a congressionally mandated review of the U.S. approach to missile defense, which it began one year ago. (See ACT, May 2017.) The review report had originally been slated for completion in February, but the Pentagon now anticipates a May release.

The omnibus appropriations law is a nearly $1.3 trillion conglomeration of 12 appropriations bills that had to be passed to keep the government operating. For the first six months of the fiscal year, Congress passed a series of continuing resolutions that extended funding for most discretionary governmental programs at the previous year’s levels, although several programs, including some missile programs, received fresh funding at the fiscal year 2018 request level.

In February, Congress agreed to a new, two-year budget deal that lifted the spending cap on national defense funding for fiscal year 2018, imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act, from $549 billion to $629 billion. That act places limits on discretionary spending, including military spending.

The omnibus law largely supports the Trump administration’s proposed budget request for programs to sustain and rebuild nuclear-armed missiles, submarines, and bombers and their associated nuclear warheads and supporting infrastructure.

The law includes $1.93 billion for the Navy’s Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine program, an increase of $44 million from the request level. The law provides the requested amounts of $216 million for the Air Force’s effort to develop a replacement for the Minuteman III ICBM system, an increase of almost $102 million over 2017 levels and $489 million for a new fleet of nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missiles, almost five times as much as Congress appropriated last year.

The law funds the nuclear-capable B-21 “Raider” bomber program at $20 million below the budget request level of $2.0 billion.

Costs of Selected Nuclear Weapons Programs

B-21 “Raider” Long-Range Bomber
$2.3 billion: FY 2019 request
$2.0 billion: FY 2018 appropriation
$2.7 billion: FY 2019 projection (as of FY 2018 request)
Program Description and Cost: Will initially replace the B-1 and B-2 bombers. The current plan is to procure at least 100 new bombers that would begin to enter service in the late 2020s. The Air Force has refused to release the value of the engineering and manufacturing development contract awarded to Northrop Grumman Corp. in October 2015 to develop the B-21, citing classification concerns. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the cost of the program at $97 billion (in fiscal year 2017 dollars). The Defense Department attributes 5 percent of the acquisition cost of the program to the nuclear mission.

Columbia-Class Submarine
$3.7 billion: FY 2018 request
$1.9 billion: FY 2018 appropriation
$3.7 billion: FY 2019 projection (as of FY 2018 request)
Program Description and 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. Estimates put the acquisition cost of the program at $128 billion (in then-year dollars).

B61-12 Warhead Life Extension
$794 million: FY 2019 request
$789 million: FY 2018 appropriation
Not Available: FY 2018 projection (as of FY 2018 request)
Program Description and 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 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) and says it will take longer to complete.

Long-Range Standoff Weapon
$615 million: FY 2019 request
$489 million: FY 2018 appropriation
$620 million: FY 2019 projection (as of FY 2018 request)
Program Description and 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 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).

W80-4 Warhead Life Extension
$655 million: FY 2019 request
$399 million: FY 2018 appropriation
Not Available: FY 2019 projection (as of FY 2018 request)
Program Description and Cost: Would refurbish the aging air-launched cruise missile warhead for delivery on the Long-Range Standoff Weapon. The National Nuclear Security Administration estimates the cost of the program will be between $8 billion and $11.6 billion (in then-year dollars). The first refurbished warhead is scheduled for production in 2025.

B61-12 Life Extension (Tail Kit Assembly)
$254 million: FY 2019 request
$180 million: FY 2018 appropriation
$231 million: FY 2018 projection (as of FY 2017 request)
Program Description and Cost: Would provide the B61-12 with a guided tail kit for accuracy. The Air Force plans to procure more than 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 System
$345 million: FY 2019 request
$216 million: FY 2018 appropriation
$348 million: FY 2019 projection (as of FY 2018 request)
Program Description and Cost: Would design, develop, produce, and deploy a replacement for the current Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile system and its supporting infrastructure. The system is slated for initial fielding in fiscal year 2028. The Air Force is planning to procure 666 missiles and modernize the supporting Minuteman III infrastructure. The program is estimated to cost $85 billion (in then-year dollars) over 30 years, although 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

The law also provides $10.6 billion for nuclear weapons activities conducted by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), an increase of $1.4 billion, or 15 percent, from the fiscal year 2017 appropriation.

The law does not provide funding for the new nuclear capabilities proposed by the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review report, which was released in February. These “supplements,” as the report describes them, include the near-term deployment of low-yield nuclear warheads on submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and, in the longer term, development of a new nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile.

The Defense Department’s budget request for fiscal year 2019, released Feb. 12, includes $22.6 million for developing the missile variant. The department plans to spend a total of $48.5 million on the effort over the next five years.

The proposed budget for the NNSA, which maintains nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure, initially did not include the funds needed to modify SLBM warheads. (See ACT, April 2018.) But the White House notified Congress on April 13 that it seeks to reallocate $65 million within the NNSA weapons budget to modify a small number of 100-kiloton W76-1 SLBM warheads to detonate at a less powerful yield.

Congress Moves to End MOX Fuel Project

Congress in March took a significant step toward terminating the construction of a controversial mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication plant in South Carolina in favor of a cheaper alternative.

The plant, located at the Energy Department’s Savannah River Site, is designed to turn 34 metric tons of surplus plutonium from the U.S. nuclear weapons program into fuel for power reactors. The MOX fuel effort has experienced major cost increases and schedule delays that put the project in jeopardy. The Energy Department has sought to end the program since 2014, but Congress, led by South Carolina’s congressional delegation, has blocked such moves.

The fiscal year 2018 omnibus appropriations bill includes $335 million to continue construction of the MOX fuel facility, an increase of $65 million from the initial budget request. But the bill, which was signed by President Donald Trump on March 23, accepts a provision in the fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act that would allow the energy secretary to stop construction if there is a cheaper alternative. (See ACT, December 2017.)

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semiautonomous Energy Department agency, estimates the total construction cost of the MOX fuel project at $17 billion, of which approximately $5.4 billion has been spent. The agency projects the annual cost to operate the facility at $800 million to $1 billion.

The authorization act requires that a life cycle cost report on the non-MOX fuel alternative be delivered to Congress and that the alternative option “be less than approximately half of the estimated remaining [life cycle] cost” of the MOX fuel program. The Energy Department has identified what it describes as a cheaper alternative, known as “dilute and dispose.”

The dilute-and-dispose process would down-blend the plutonium with an inert material for direct disposal in a repository. The omnibus bill provides $10 million to continue preliminary work on this option, an increase of $1 million from the initial budget request.

The NNSA claims that the dilute-and-dispose process can be implemented decades sooner at a much lower cost and with fewer risks. (See ACT, June 2015.) The agency said in 2017 that it planned to spend $500 million to get the alternative approach operational and $400 million annually to implement it.

Edwin Lyman, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote in a March 23 blog post that “the ball is in the [Energy Department’s] court to complete its life-cycle cost analyses for both dilute-and-dispose and the remainder of the MOX program as accurately, comprehensively, and quickly as it can.”

The department “needs to document that conclusion in an iron-clad fashion to protect its analysis from the MOX supporters in Congress who may seek to undermine it,” Lyman added.

The Trump administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget request submitted in February would provide $220 million to continue termination of the MOX fuel project and $59 million to support the dilute-and-dispose option.—KINGSTON REIF

The Congressional Budget Office estimated last fall that the plans Trump inherited from the Obama administration to maintain and upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal over the next 30 years would cost $1.2 trillion. (See ACT, December 2017.) The figure does not include the effects of inflation.

The law includes $2 billion for NNSA fissile material security and nonproliferation efforts, an increase of $206 million above the budget request and $116 million above last year’s appropriation. The additional funding supports stepped-up efforts to secure and eliminate radiological materials that could be used in a so-called dirty bomb and to minimize the use of highly enriched uranium to produce molybdenum-99, a medical isotope.

This increase could be short-lived. The Trump administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget request proposes to reduce funding for NNSA programs to secure and eliminate nuclear weapons-usable materials by $115 million, a 26 percent reduction from the omnibus level.