"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
Nuclear and Missile Systems We Can't Afford, Don't Need
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Volume 3, Issue 12, July 18, 2012

If the Congress and the White House are serious about reducing the booming federal deficit, they must work together to scale back previous schemes for a new generation of strategic nuclear weapons delivery systems and unnecessary spending on a ground-based missile defense system that doesn't work for a threat that doesn't exist.

It has been more than two decades since the end of the Cold War, yet the United States maintains--and is poised to rebuild--a costly strategic nuclear triad that is sized to launch far more nuclear weapons than necessary to deter nuclear attack against the U.S. or its allies.

Today, the United States deploys some 1,737 strategic nuclear warheads, while Russia deploys some 1,492 strategic nuclear warheads. Each side has thousands more warheads in reserve.

Other than Russia, the only potential adversary with a long-range nuclear capability is China, which has no more than 40-50 warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles. The United States' has more than 30 times as many. Just one U.S. nuclear-armed submarine--loaded with 24 missiles, each armed with four 455-kiloton warheads--could kill millions.

As the Pentagon's new defense strategy correctly asserts, "It is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force...."

However, current plans call for 12 new nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines to carry more than 1,000 strategic nuclear warheads into the 2070s, at a total cost of almost $350 billion.

The Air Force is seeking a new, nuclear-armed strategic bomber that would cost at least $68 billion, as well as a new fleet of land-based ballistic missiles. Modernization and operation of the United States' 450 Minuteman III land-based ballistic missiles would cost billions more.

As, then-Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright explained last year, "... we have to recapitalize all three legs [of the nuclear triad], and we don't have the money to do it."

In a time of budget austerity, these ambitious and expensive schemes for a new generation of strategic nuclear weapons delivery systems can and must be scaled back in manageable, cost-effective way.

Likewise, U.S. ballistic missile interceptor programs should be cost-effective, proven through real-world testing, and sized to address threats that actually exist. The fiscal year 2013 budget request would already provide $9.7 billion for all ballistic missile defense programs, and the administration projects spend another  $47.4 billion for these programs from 2013 to 2017.

The administration's missile defense budget includes $903 million for operating 30 ground-based interceptor (GBI) missiles in Alaska and California to deal with a potential limited limited, long-range missile attacks from North Korea or Iran, neither of which have successfully tested such missiles. The system failed in their last two intercept tests, in January and December 2010. The MDA plans to have 52 GBI missiles by 2017.

Despite the GBI program's severe shortcomings and high-costs, some would have the taxpayer spend even more on the program than the administration has requested.

There are four principal ways in which the president and the Congress can trim unnecessary strategic nuclear force modernization programs and trim excess spending from the unproven Ground-Based Mid-Course strategic missile interceptor program--and still retain more than enough megatonnage to deter nuclear attack by any current or future adversary.

1. Rightsize the Strategic Nuclear Sub Fleet

The first step is to reevaluate and reduce the size of the future nuclear-armed strategic submarine force. In January 2012, the Pentagon said it would delay procurement of the proposed Ohio-class replacement nuclear-armed submarine (SSBNX) by two years, starting in 2031 not 2029, which could save some $6-7 billion in the next ten years.

However, without a reduction in the size of the force, the overall cost of the program will remain the same, and take resources away from the Navy's other priority shipbuilding projects. The Pentagon has requested $565 billion for the SSBNX program for fiscal 2013.

By reducing the Trident nuclear-armed sub fleet from 14 to 8 or fewer boats and building no more than 8 new nuclear-armed subs, the United States could save roughly $27 billion over 10 years, and $120 billion over the 50-year lifespan of the program.

Furthermore, by changing prompt launch requirements developed during the Cold War and increasing the number of missile tubes and warhead loadings on each submarine, the Navy could still deploy the same number of strategic nuclear warheads at sea on a smaller, 8 sub fleet, as currently planned under the New START treaty (about 1,000).

2. Postpone Work on a New Strategic Bomber

Second, work on a new strategic bomber should be delayed. There is no rush to field a fleet of new bombers given the Pentagon's plan to retain 60 of its existing nuclear-capable, long-range B-2 and B-52 bombers into the 2040s, which will already cost approximately $4 billion to refurbish over the next 4 years. Delaying work on the new bomber program would save $18 billion over the next decade and approximately $292 million in fiscal year 2013 alone, according to the Pentagon.

3. Trim the Cold War ICBM Force

For additional savings, the Pentagon should reduce its land-based intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force from 420 to 300 by cutting one squadron at each of the three Air Force bases where such missiles are deployed and foregoing a follow-on missile program to replace the existing force. This move would save approximately $360 million in operations and maintenance costs in fiscal 2013 alone and far more in future years.

Prudent U.S. strategic nuclear force reductions could also induce Russia to further reduce its deployed strategic nuclear arsenal, which is already 200 warheads fewer than the United States, and prompt Moscow to delay or cancel some of its own costly plans for modernizing its strategic nuclear delivery systems.

4. Don't Spend More Taxpayer Money for Ground-Based Mid-Course Missile Interceptors That Don't Work

The United States already has two GMD sites on the west coast, with 30 interceptors deployed in California and Alaska, to counter a potential, limited long-range ballistic missile volley from a rogue state. Neither Iran nor North Korea has yet deployed long-range missiles that could reach the United States.

The administration's budget request also includes $1.5 billion for the European Phased Adaptive Approach, which involves the SM-3 interceptor system to handle potential attacks involving short- and medium-range missiles from Iran. Iran does have such missiles.

Spending even more for the GBI system--which has not had a successful intercept test since 2008; has had two flight test failures in 2010; and cannot yet deal with decoys--is not prudent. Because the GBI cannot be relied upon to work in real-world conditions and because Iran and North Korea has not successfully tested long-range missiles, pouring more money into the program doesn't improve U.S. national security and drains resources from other, higher priority programs.

More Security for Less Money

Fresh thinking is in order. Programs that address low-priority threats must be scaled back to make room for more pressing national priorities and reduce the deficit. Smart reductions in spending on unnecessary new nuclear weapons systems would enhance U.S. security.--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.