Op-ed: Looking for defense cuts? Go nuclear

By Tom Collina, Research Director, Arms Control Association


The following entry was originally posted on The Hill's Congress Blog on August 2, 2011.

As the dust settles on the just-passed budget deal, one thing is becoming clear: there is now high-level bipartisan agreement that the U.S. defense budget will be reduced in a major way, anywhere from $350 to $850 billion over the next decade, according to the White House. And despite defense hawk grumblings, reductions of this magnitude can actually make America safer by forcing leaders to cancel low-priority programs and focus on the ones that really matter. It’s time to get serious about our top security priorities and cut the dead wood.

For example, can the Nation really afford to spend more than $200 billion over the next ten years to rebuild the U.S. nuclear arsenal? Republican senators demanded, and won, a promise from the Obama administration to do just that when the New START treaty was approved last year. But that was then. Can all of this funding be justified in the post-budget-deal era? No, it can’t.

The Department of Defense and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) plan to use this $200 billion to build a new generation of submarines, bombers and missiles for the nuclear “triad,” upgrade the nuclear warheads they carry, and rebuild the warhead factories. But we will be better off—from a fiscal as well as a security perspective--if a large fraction of this money is invested elsewhere.

One of the Senate’s most conservative Republicans, Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), recently called for cutting $79 billion from the U.S. nuclear weapons budget over the next decade. Coburn’s plan calls for reducing the U.S. nuclear stockpile below New START limits of no more than 1,550 warheads on 700 deployed long-range delivery systems by 2018.

Russia, however, has already dropped its forces below these limits, so now the United States deploys hundreds of weapons more than Moscow. Does this make us safer? No, since maintaining a larger arsenal than Russia will likely prompt its leaders to build back up to New START levels, to the detriment of U.S. security. Meanwhile China, often cast as the next U.S. competitor, has just a few hundred nuclear weapons, and only about 50 that could reach the United States. Washington can safely reduce its arsenal to match Russia’s, and negotiate a follow-on treaty to get to lower numbers.

The main way that nuclear reductions save money is by reducing the need to buy new, expensive delivery systems. The new submarine, called the SSBN(X), with 12 boats at $7 billion each, is projected to cost around $100 billion including development. The new bombers are projected to cost at least $50 billion over their lifetime. These cost estimates are likely to go up. Similarly, the NNSA is planning to spend billions rebuilding the factories that make key nuclear warhead parts. But if the nuclear arsenal is reduced, we will need fewer submarines, bombers and warheads. By delaying procurement decisions until future needs are clearer, we can save billions.

Case in point: the Pentagon is in the midst of reviewing the roles and missions of U.S. nuclear weapons, which will ultimately determine how many weapons we need. This review is an important opportunity to revisit the central assumptions of U.S. nuclear weapons policy, many of which have not changed since the Soviet Union ceased to exist. For example, do we still need a nuclear triad, or will a “dyad” do? Looking to the future, if all 12 submarines are built, they would likely carry over 700 nuclear warheads when completed in the 2030s. What are they for?

Early in his first term, President George W. Bush declared that “Russia is no longer our enemy.” The Cold War has been over for 20 years, and today’s top threats—terrorism, proliferation, dictators—do not lend themselves to a nuclear response. By carefully reducing our nuclear forces and scaling back new weapon systems, the United States can save billions. Moreover, by reducing the incentive for Russia to rebuild its arsenal, these budget savings can make America safer. Saving money has never made so much sense.