New START for Less Money

Volume 2, Issue 13, October 13, 2011

Next month the congressional “super committee” is expected to propose major reductions in federal spending. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Oct. 11 that the Pentagon will reduce projected spending by more than $450 billion over the next ten years as a result of Congress’ debt agreement, and that "every program, every contract and every facility will be scrutinized for savings.”

Congress must now tackle the question of how large the spending reductions will ultimately be and what programs will get the axe. The size of the reductions could double depending on what the super committee decides to do. And, according to Panetta, some of the biggest savings will come from “reduced levels of modernization in some areas.”

The same day as Panetta spoke, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) announced that he and 64 other House members had signed a letter to the super committee asking for major reductions to nuclear weapons programs. Reducing “outdated and unnecessary nuclear weapons,” they wrote, would “allow us to continue funding the national defense programs that matter most.”

Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, shot back later that same day that “what Mr. Markey proposes amounts to unilateral disarmament of the [United States].”

A closer look at what Rep. Markey and his colleagues propose reveals that Rep. Turner’s accusation is off the mark. In fact, both congressmen should be able to agree that the Pentagon could save tens of billions of dollars on new strategic submarines and bombers while still fielding as many nuclear warheads as already planned. Doing so would also allow Russia to scale back its modernizations plans, making both sides safer.

Under the recent U.S.-Russian New START treaty, both nations are limited to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads. Outgoing Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn said Oct. 5 that defense planners are looking to stay at New START limits “but to do it in a more fiscally responsible fashion.”

For example, Rep. Markey pointed to the Navy’s new $350 billion nuclear-armed submarine program as a prime target for spending cuts, saying that, “reducing America’s submarine fleet from 14 to 8 and delaying procurement of new submarines will save $27 billion over the next ten years.”

At $29 billion per boat, this is the most expensive nuclear weapons program by far. If the Navy were to rightsize the force to 8 subs, it could save $27 billion over 10 years and $120 billion over the life of the program. And we wouldn’t have to give up any nuclear firepower to do it. Eight operational boats would allow the Pentagon to deploy the same number of sea-based warheads (about 1,000) as planned under New START.

Is this “unilateral disarmament”? Hardly.

Key to this plan is the fact that the Navy has extra space on its missiles. Each Trident missile deployed on subs can carry up to 8 nuclear warheads, but the Navy currently loads each with 4 or 5. So, if we made more efficient use of the space on each missile, the Navy could buy fewer missiles and subs.

And this extra space costs big money. Is it worth $120 billion to buy four subs and 64 missiles just to have warhead slots that are unlikely to ever be used? No. Those billions could buy a lot of body armor for troops in the field.

Maintaining an expensive “upload potential” may have made sense during the Cold War when the Pentagon wanted the ability to expand its nuclear force quickly in case of unforeseen threats. But today there is no threat that would justify expanding the U.S. arsenal. Moreover, upload capacity will still exist on strategic missiles and bombers.

Meanwhile, the Air Force wants a new strategic bomber that would cost at least $50 billion in procurement alone. But its current strategic bombers (B2s and B52s) are being modernized to last until 2040. There is no rush to field a new bomber, and the Pentagon’s plan to deploy 60 bombers under New START can be achieved with existing aircraft. Delaying this program would save almost $4 billion over the next decade.

The budget saving potential from U.S. nuclear forces is so compelling that Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) recently proposed reducing nuclear weapons spending by $79 billion over ten years, in part by curtailing and delaying the new submarine and bomber programs.

Russia has already cut its nuclear forces below New START, and would need to rebuild some systems if it wants to maintain these levels. But just like us, Moscow has better things to do with its scarce resources.

To reduce the deficit, Republicans and Democrats will need to put away the alarmist rhetoric and make some tough choices. This one, however, is just common sense.  By being more efficient in how it fields warheads, the Pentagon can maintain a New START force and save tens of billions over ten years and more than $100 billion beyond that.  If policy-makers are serious about reducing defense budgets, this is one example of fiscal responsibility that we cannot afford to ignore. --Tom Z. Collina