Reality Check: Nuclear Weapons Spending and New START

Volume 3, Issue 4, March 19, 2012

In recent weeks, a handful of Congressional Republicans have charged that the Obama administration and the Defense Department are failing to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal and weapons production complex "as promised" in 2010 during consideration of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).

A March 12 Senate Republican Policy Committee paper claims, for example, that the President's FY2013 budget request "broke his promise by significantly underfunding nuclear modernization."

In addition, some House Republicans are threatening to block the implementation of New START through legislation such as H.R. 4178, introduced March 8 by Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee.

Such approaches ignore key facts and, if adopted, would harm U.S. national security interests.

Only In Washington Is More Considered Less

Assertions about "failing to meet funding commitments" ignore the reality that spending for nuclear weapons maintenance and infrastructure programs has increased significantly under Obama's watch.

Actual funding for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA)'s nuclear weapons complex has increased by 13% since 2009. The administration's $7.6 billion FY2013 request would boost NNSA weapons programs funding even more-by 5% over last year's appropriation of $7.2 billion-even as other federal program budgets are being downsized.

The critics base their arguments on the fact that the exact funding levels projected in 2010 for NNSA nuclear weapons activities do not match those in the President's FY2013 budget request. As Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said at a March 14 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing: "I don't know exactly what the amount of money [is that] we need.  But the amount that was committed [in 2010] is not provided for in this budget."

That is the wrong metric to use. What really matters is whether the resources are adequate for the stockpile stewardship activities that maintain the effectiveness of the existing U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. At well over $7 billion per year, the nuclear weapons labs have more than enough to get the job done.

Congress, Not the White House, Appropriates

Congressional critics of the administration's nuclear weapons and arms control strategy also conveniently ignore the fact that it was Congress that decided not to approve the administration's full budget request for higher funding for NNSA weapons work.

In fact, it was the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee that refused to fully fund the administration's nuclear weapons request in the FY2012 budget. Although the committee increased the NNSA weapons activities budget over the previous year, the appropriations bill allocation for fiscal 2012 is $500 million less than the Obama administration's whopping $7.6 billion request.

Budget Control Act Changes Everything

In addition, between the 2010 New START debate and the FY2013 budget request, Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress passed the bipartisan Budget Control Act, which dramatically altered the fiscal environment and forced both sides to reexamine their funding priorities and commitments.

The Pentagon and NNSA are now planning to reduce budget growth by $487 billion in "050" defense-related spending over the next decade, and this cut may double if the current law requiring "sequestration" is not changed before January 2013.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said at the March 14 hearing that since the New START debate took place "nine months before the Budget Control Act became law, falling 4 percent short of the [2010-derived] target is reasonable given the fiscal reality facing us today."

In this fiscal context, the administration had little choice but to adjust its defense spending projections, as it did in many budget areas. Rather than asking "has the budget changed," the right question is "does the new the budget achieve the mission?" The answer is yes.

The bottom line is that small changes in the defense budget, as mandated by the Budget Control Act, do not alter the fact that the administration is meeting its commitments to the Senate under New START. Planned defense spending for nuclear weapons modernization is more than adequate. Claims to the contrary are incorrect.

The Nuclear Weapons Complex Budget Has Increased Significantly

As required by the Senate's December 22, 2010 Resolution of Advice and Consent to Ratification of New START, the President certified to the Senate on Feb. 2, 2011 that he would:

"...accelerate, to the extent possible, the design and engineering phase of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement (CMRR) building and the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF)..." and request full funding for these facilities upon completion of their design and engineering phase. (Emphasis added.)

The FY2013 budget request for NNSA contains no funding for the CMRR, to be built at Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico, and deferred work for at least five years. The House Appropriations energy and water subcommittee cut CMRR by $100 million, or 33 percent, as part of the FY2012 budget process, indicating bipartisan concern about the need for CMRR.

With total cost estimates of $6 billion for CMRR and $6.5 billion for UPF, and given current NNSA budget realities, it is simply not possible to build both of these facilities at the same time. The delay of CMRR is a reasonable response to tight budgets given that other NNSA facilities have "inherent capacity" to support ongoing and future plutonium activities, according to NNSA.

As a result, the CMRR deferral will not compromise NNSA's ability to maintain the nuclear stockpile. In addition, the delay allows NNSA to prioritize construction of UPF at the Y-12 Plant in Tennessee, which would be funded at $340 million in FY2013, a $180 million increase over FY2012.

Moreover, NNSA's FY2013 request for weapons activities is $7.6 billion, an increase of $363 million or five percent above enacted FY2012, and $1.2 billion more than FY2010. Historically, this funding level is higher than at any time since the Cold War.

When asked at a February congressional hearing if the FY2013 budget request fully meets the requirements to maintain the nuclear stockpile, NNSA Administrator Thomas D'Agostino said: " absolutely does, fully meets the requirements, and we'll be able to take care of the stockpile... So the stockpile is safe, secure, and reliable."

Nuclear Weapons Delivery Systems Are Being Modernized

The Defense Department is also modernizing U.S. nuclear delivery systems, and there is no basis for claims to the contrary.

As also required by the New START Resolution of Advice and Consent, the President certified to the Senate on Feb. 2, 2011 that he would:

"...modernize or replace the triad of strategic nuclear delivery systems: a heavy bomber and air-launched cruise missile, an [Intercontinental Ballistic Missile or ICBM], and a nuclear power-ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) and [Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile or SLBM]..." (Emphasis added.)

It is important to note that the President's commitment does not specify that weapon systems have to be replaced (as opposed to modernized), nor does it specify funding levels, numbers of systems, or production schedules.

As then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated in 2010, "The studies and development programs for these [nuclear delivery] systems will consider a range of possible options, with the objective of defining a cost-effective approach that supports continued reductions in U.S. nuclear weapons while promoting stable deterrence."

The Pentagon's FY2013 budget request includes:

  • New Bomber: $292 million for a new long-range bomber ($6.3 billion over five years), with plans to produce 80-100 planes at $550 million each starting in the mid-2020s. The existing fleet of 91 B-52 and 20 B-2 nuclear-capable bombers is expected to stay in service into the 2040s and beyond (2058 for the B-2), and is being upgraded at a cost of $4 billion over the next five years.
  • New Cruise Missile: $2 million to study a new air-launched cruise missile.
  • New ICBM: $11.6 million to study a new ICBM; the current force of 450 Minuteman III ICBMs will remain in service through 2030 or longer.
  • New Submarine: $565 million for a new strategic submarine, the SSBN-X, to replace the current 14 Ohio-class subs starting in 2031. The current sub fleet will stay in service through 2040. The FY2013 budget would defer first procurement of the SSBN-X by two years, a reasonable response to budget pressures that will not adversely affect U.S. security, saving $4.3 billion over five years. The existing D-5 SLBM would be maintained into the 2040s.

At over $6 billion per boat and a total life-cycle cost of almost $350 billion for a fleet of 12, concern about the cost of the SSBN-X is shared across party lines. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said March 15 that, "We are getting to a point where more than half of the Navy's total shipbuilding budget will be required to build extraordinarily expensive nuclear submarines. I am worried that funding needed to modernize the surface fleet is being crowded out..."

As former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright's said in July 2011 "... we have to recapitalize all three legs [of the nuclear triad], and we don't have the money to do it." Some on the Hill may share Cartwright's concern, but there is no basis to claim that the administration is breaking promises on delivery systems made in the context of New START, and no reason to jeopardize New START implementation by tying it to unsustainable spending levels outlined two years ago.

The Obama administration remains committed to maintaining a formidable mix of U.S. nuclear weapons delivery systems (submarines, bombers and missiles) in the years ahead, though the ultimate size and cost of that force can and should be reduced given that the current force is based on outdated "requirements" for deterrence and nuclear war fighting developed more than a decade ago.

New START Resolution of Approval Provides the Path Forward

The New START Resolution of Advice and Consent declared a "sense of the Senate" that the United States is committed to providing the resources needed to maintain the weapons production complex at the levels "set forth in the President's 10-year plan provided to the Congress pursuant to section 1251 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010 (Public Law 111-84)," otherwise know as the 1251 report.

Just in case Congress did not provide sufficient resources in the future, the Resolution of Advice and Consent states that the President shall submit a report detailing how the administration would address the resource shortfall; the proposed level of funding required; the impact of the shortfall on the safety, reliability, and performance of U.S. nuclear forces; and whether "it remains in the national interest of the United States to remain a Party to the New START Treaty."

It is the responsibility of Congress to fund programs, and Congress did not fully fund the administration's request for 1251 report activities in FY2012, nor is it likely to do so in FY2013. It is now up to the administration to submit the required report on how to deal with the shortfall and whether to remain a party to New START.

New START Still In U.S. Interests

New START remains in the U.S. national interest because the treaty reduces the threat to the United States from Russian nuclear forces, and the administration has managed to reduce its funding request for FY2013 while still achieving its goal of modernizing the nuclear arsenal and production complex.

Some congressional Republicans, by contrast, would like to increase spending on nuclear weapons at the expense of other, higher priorities for national defense. Where exactly would the Senate Republican Policy Committee like the nuclear weapons budget increases to come from? Troop pay, body armor, or ammunition? They do not say. But given the budget crunch, these trade-offs cannot be avoided.

Furthermore, the idea that implementation of New START should be frozen unless every dollar is appropriated by Congress for an outdated budget plan defies common sense and the bipartisan will of 71 Senators who voted to approve ratification of New START.

Bottom Line

Nuclear weapons are simply not the security priority they once were. It is in the U.S. national security interest to verifiably reduce excess, Cold War U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear arsenals. As the Pentagon's January 2012 strategy document "Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense" clearly says: "It is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force, which would reduce the number of nuclear weapons in our inventory as well as their role in U.S. national security strategy."

The major threats the United States faces today, such as proliferation, terrorism or cyber attacks, cannot be addressed by nuclear arms. Rather than asking American taxpayers to cough up yet more money for yesterday's weapons, Congress needs to focus on more cost-effective solutions that address the nation's future defense needs.--Tom Z. Collina and Daryl G. Kimball



The Arms Control Association (ACA) is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing information and practical policy solutions to address the dangers posed by the world's most dangerous weapons. ACA publishes the monthly journal, Arms Control Today