A new report published Aug. 25 by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) further strengthens the already no-brainer of a case for extending the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) and eviscerates the irresponsible claim by the Trump administration’s top arms control official that the United States can spend Russia and China “into oblivion” in a new arms race.
The report demonstrates that the already excessive, surging, and unsustainable financial costs to maintain and modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal could soar even higher if the treaty expires in five months and the United States chooses to increase the size of the arsenal.
According to the report, requested last year by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the Defense Department could incur costs as high as $439 billion upfront (in fiscal year 2020 dollars) and $28 billion a year if the arsenal grows beyond the treaty limits.
This spending would come on top of a record post-Cold War spending increase proposed by the Trump administration this year and the at least $1.5 trillion projected cost of the administration’s nuclear weapons spending plans over the next several decades.
These plans exceed what is necessary to maintain a credible deterrent and their financial and opportunity costs are exacting a growing toll. The budget challenge is sure to grow as the devastation to the economy wrought by COVID-19 puts pressure on defense spending.
Among the many benefits of extending New START is that prolonging the treaty limits and association verification regime would continue to aid U.S. military planning by reducing the need to make worst-case assessments that could prompt additional costly nuclear force investments. But the collapse of the treaty would provide Washington and Moscow with a greater incentive to grow their forces.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration continues to make specious attacks on New START and condition its extension on progress toward a more ambitious – and unachievable in the near term – arms control framework with Russia and China.
To make matters worse, some Trump administration officials inexplicably think that threatening a quantitative arms race with Russia (and China) could help the United States secure an unprecedented trilateral arms control agreement. “We know how to win these races, and we know how to spend the adversary into oblivion,” Marshall Billingslea, President Trump’s special envoy for arms control, said in May.
But more U.S. spending on nuclear weapons won’t force the current Russian and Chinese leadership to capitulate to maximalist U.S. demands and would be fraught with peril. A new arms race that could follow the collapse of New START would further undermine stability between the United States and Russia, the health of the global nonproliferation regime, and higher priority U.S. national and health security priorities.
The CBO report estimated the cost if the United States increases its deployed strategic nuclear forces to the levels of three previous arms control treaties: the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), which limited warheads to 1,700 to 2,200; START II, which sought to limit warheads to 3,000 to 3,500 but was never entered into force; and the 1991 START I treaty, which capped warheads at 6,000.
New START limits the United States and Russia to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads on 700 deployed strategic delivery vehicles. The treaty is slated to expire February 5, 2021, but can be extended by up to five years if the U.S. and Russian presidents agree.
CBO examined two approaches for expanding U.S. forces to higher levels. The lower-cost and less flexible approach would involve increasing the number of warheads allocated to each missile and bomber and minimize any potential purchase of additional delivery systems. The more flexible yet more expensive approach would purchase more delivery systems to reach the number of desired warheads.
On the modest end, expanding forces to reach the limits set by SORT would not increase the Pentagon’s cost relative to its current plans, since the New START limits are comparable to the SORT limits.
At the high end, under the limits set by START I, the Pentagon could pay $410 billion to $439 billion as a one-time cost and $24 billion to $28 billion annually in pursuit of a more flexible approach that involves buying more delivery systems.
The United States could also take an approach that lies between those two approaches, CBO noted.
CBO said that the projected cost to increase the arsenal could be even higher, as the office’s estimates did not include the production of additional warheads by the Energy Department, any new operating bases or training facilities if needed, or expansion in delivery system production capability.
The only military reason to allow New START to expire is to free the United States to increase the size of its deployed nuclear arsenal. But there is no national security need to do so, and the Pentagon and National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) are unprepared to do so anyway.
In a 2012 report, the Defense Department said that Russia “would not be able to achieve a militarily significant advantage by any plausible expansion of its strategic nuclear forces, even in a cheating or breakout scenario under the New START Treaty, primarily because of the inherent survivability of the planned U.S. strategic force structure.”
Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office revealed in July that revealed the Defense Department is “basing its plans on the assumption that New START will be extended, and it currently has no plans to change its existing force structure.” The NNSA has also not considered the effects of the treaty’s expiration on its programs and future spending projections, according to the report.
Ever-increasing spending on nuclear weapons without an arms control framework that bounds U.S. and Russian nuclear forces is a recipe for a less secure United States. Such an approach also flies in the face of longstanding bipartisan Congressional support for the pursuit of modernization and arms control in tandem.
Congress must not give the Trump administration a blank check for a new and dangerous arms race. Congress should seek to prohibit funds to increase the size of the arsenal above the New START limits, as former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy has recommended, and rein in the many unsustainable excesses of the Trump modernization program.
The United States already has a more than adequate nuclear deterrent in place under the limits set by New START. It cannot, despite claims to the contrary, afford – nor should it want to try – to spend adversaries into oblivion.