Administration Poised to Trim Costly Nuclear Weapons Excess

Volume 4, Issue 1, February 8, 2013

According to a new report published today by the Center for Public Integrity, the Barack Obama administration has determined that the United States can further reduce its nuclear force while maintaining a strong deterrent against any threat. The report cites administration sources who say the reductions will not occur immediately nor would they be undertaken unilaterally, but they suggest the administration will seek to pursue deeper nuclear arms cuts in tandem with Russia.

Further reductions in the U.S. arsenal have been expected for some time. The Pentagon's Jan. 2012 strategy document, "Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense," found: "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."

In a March 26, 2012 speech President Obama said:

"My Administration's nuclear posture recognizes that the massive nuclear arsenal we inherited from the Cold War is poorly suited for today's threats, including nuclear terrorism. So last summer, I directed my national security team to conduct a comprehensive study of our nuclear forces.  That study is still underway.  But even as we have more work to do, we can already say with confidence that we have more nuclear weapons than we need. I firmly believe that we can ensure the security of the United States and our allies, maintain a strong deterrent against any threat, and still pursue further reductions in our nuclear arsenal."

Budget Realities

The decision to seek further U.S. nuclear force reductions will not only help reduce excess Russian and U.S. nuclear stockpiles and reduce nuclear risks, but as the Center for Public Integrity report notes, the administration's decision "opens the door to billions of dollars in military savings."

If Congress and the White House are serious about reducing the growing federal deficit, they must seize the opportunity to scale-back costly schemes for building a new generation of strategic nuclear delivery systems and rebuilding tactical nuclear bombs. The Department of Defense is on the verge of making major, long-term decisions worth hundreds of billions of dollars about how many new missiles, submarines and bombers the nation needs for the next 50 years. Overbuying now would have adverse budget implications down the road.

Existing U.S. Navy plans call for 12 new ballistic missile submarines with a lifetime cost of almost $350 billion. The Air Force is seeking up to 100 new, nuclear-armed strategic bombers that would cost at least $68 billion, as well as a new fleet of land-based ballistic missiles (price unknown). The Pentagon and National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) have been pursuing a costly, $10 billion plan for upgrading B61 nuclear bombs in Europe, which may no longer be there by the time the upgrades are finished.

With an unlimited federal budget, some might argue that these new programs should continue until it is clear how much further the U.S. and Russia might reduce their nuclear stockpiles. But given the current budget crisis, it simply makes no sense to build major weapons systems that we can't afford and that the United States clearly does not need.

The United States spends about $31 billion annually, according to independent estimates, to support an arsenal of about 1,700 deployed strategic warheads and associated delivery systems-missiles, submarines, and bombers-and to maintain the other warheads (including non-deployed and non-strategic) in the active nuclear stockpile, which total approximately 5,000 weapons.

The 2010 New START Treaty will take the United States down to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads by 2018; Russia is already below that level.

Other than Russia, the only potential U.S. adversary with a long-range nuclear capability is China, which has no more than 50 to 75 single-warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles, according to the Pentagon.

After signing New START, President Obama said he would pursue a new treaty with Russia to further reduce strategic weapons, as well as seek new limits on tactical weapons and warheads in storage.  According to the latest Center for Public Integrity report, the administration has determined it can and will reduce U.S. strategic forces to 1,000-1,100, or about one-third below New START levels.

Modest Nuclear Cuts Produce Major Budget Savings
There are several pathways that the administration and the Congress can reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal and save billions. The following are some potential options:

  • Right-size the Strategic Sub Fleet. The strategic submarine program is where the big money is, and the United States can safely reduce the size of the force. In January 2012, the Pentagon said it would delay deployment of the new replacement submarine (called the SSBNX) by two years, from 2029 to 2031, saving $6-7 billion over the next 10 years. Without a reduction in the size of the force, however, the overall cost of the program will remain the same (or even rise) and take resources away from the Navy's other high-priority shipbuilding projects.

    By reducing the existing Ohio-class nuclear-armed sub fleet from 14 to 10 or fewer boats and building no more than eight new nuclear-armed subs, the United States could save up to $18 billion over 10 years. By revising Cold War-era prompt launch requirements and increasing the warhead loadings on each submarine, the Navy could still deploy the same number of strategic nuclear warheads as currently planned under New START (about 1,000) at sea on a smaller fleet of eight subs.

    Procurement of the first new SSBNX can be delayed until 2024 and its deployment postponed until the Ohio class fleet is reduced to seven in 2033. Savings include personnel costs, procurement costs from pushing back the SSBNX purchase dates, and operations and management costs saved by   reducing the current Ohio class fleet.
  • Delay Spending on New Strategic Bombers. The United States can postpone work on a new $68 billion, nuclear-armed strategic bomber fleet. There is no rush to field a fleet of new bombers given the Pentagon's plan to retain 60 of the existing nuclear-capable, long-range B-2 and B-52 bombers into the 2040s. Delaying development of the new bomber would save $18 billion over the next decade.
  • Trim the ICBM Force. The Air Force can trim the land-based intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force from 450 to 300 or fewer by cutting one squadron at each of the three Air Force bases where such missiles are deployed. This move would save approximately $360 million in operations and maintenance costs in the coming fiscal year and $3-4 billion over the next decade.

    As for a new ICBM, in January the Air Force requested proposals to build a new force starting in 2025, including the possibility of basing the missiles on underground railcars, or above ground on trucks. Another option is to keep the current Minuteman III until 2075.
  • Scale Back the B61 Tactical Nuclear Bomb. The White House and Congress must enforce greater budgetary discipline for the B61 bomb life extension program (LEP). According to a 2012 Pentagon audit, the cost of upgrading about 400 bombs is estimated to exceed $10.4 billion, or roughly $25 million each. This is an increase of $6 billion over the NNSA's original estimate.

    It is possible that a future agreement between Russia and the United States would, as the Senate has directed, address tactical nuclear weapons, which could reduce or eliminate these warheads. Thus, B61 tactical bombs might not be deployed a decade from now, when the proposed rebuilding program would be complete. There is time to reevaluate the LEP plan and scale it back, or to delay the program into the mid 2020s.

Fresh thinking is in order. The United States does not need and cannot afford an oversized nuclear arsenal. Programs that address low-priority threats can be scaled-back to make room for more pressing national priorities and reduce the deficit.

By revising outdated nuclear war-fighting plans, President Obama is opening the way for lower U.S.-Russian nuclear force levels, reductions involving the world's other nuclear-armed states, and much needed federal budget savings.--Daryl G. Kimball and Tom Z. Collina


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