Over the next 30 years, the United States plans to rebuild its “triad” of nuclear delivery systems—land-based missiles, submarines, and bombers—and the warheads they carry. But the expected price tag for this new generation of weapons is rising just as the defense budget is tightening. Current plans to modernize the triad are simply not sustainable in an age of budget constraints.
Faced with increasing pressure to reduce military spending, a bipartisan, independent report commissioned by Congress and the Defense Department recently called the Obama administration’s plans to rebuild the nuclear arsenal “unaffordable” and a threat to “needed improvements in conventional forces.”
The July report, “Ensuring a Strong U.S. Defense for the Future” by the National Defense Panel, found that current plans to modernize all three legs of the nuclear triad would have a “substantial cost” of $600 billion to $1 trillion over 30 years.
The panel, which supports retaining the triad, states that “the merits of some aspects of this expensive recapitalization can be debated,” and calls on the administration and Congress to “urgently and jointly” conduct a nuclear review to “find cost-efficient ways to modernize the force.”
The Barack Obama administration is already moving in this direction, and announced in August that it is overseeing an interagency review of its multibillion-dollar plans to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal. “This is Obama’s legacy budget,” a senior administration official told the New York Times. “It’s his last chance to make the hard choices and prioritize.”
U.S. nuclear weapons do not address today’s most pressing security threats, including extreme terrorism, unsecured nuclear material and dangerous pathogens, and the further spread of nuclear weapons. Moreover, the size of the U.S. nuclear force exceeds what the U.S. military believes is necessary to deter nuclear attack against the United States and its allies.
The United States needs to sustain a strong international coalition to secure nuclear materials across the globe and turn back nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea. Continued U.S. and Russian arms reductions are essential to achieving these goals in the future.
Twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War, the United States can ill-afford to spend more than necessary on nuclear weapons, especially if it comes at the expense of other, more urgent defense and national security programs.
Contrary to the claims of some, nuclear weapons are not “cheap.” Independent estimates of total U.S. spending on nuclear weapons, which include significant costs borne by the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), add up to $355 billion over the next decade, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), and may rise to $1 trillion over 30 years as older delivery systems and warheads are replaced.
For example, the U.S. Navy wants 12 new ballistic missile submarines that would cost about $100 billion to build. The Air Force is seeking up to 100 new, nuclear-capable strategic bombers for at least $80 billion, as well as new land-based ballistic missiles and air-launched cruise missiles. NNSA plans to spend more than $60 billion for a new family of “interoperable” warheads for the arsenal.
Meanwhile, sequestration limits on defense spending will force budget trade-offs among various Pentagon programs. For example, the defense budget still needs to be cut by $115 billion from 2016-2019 to meet sequester targets, or about $29 billion per year on average. The actual funding shortfall could be as large as $200-300 billion, according to some estimates.
Now is the time to reevaluate these plans, before major budget decisions are made. This report outlines ways to save roughly $70 billion over the next decade across all three legs of the triad and the warheads they carry. To save needed funds, the Pentagon can scale back or delay expensive new delivery systems and take a more disciplined approach to rebuilding the nuclear warheads that will remain in the arsenal even as deeper nuclear reductions are pursued in the years ahead.
The money-saving approach described here would not require the United States to negotiate new nuclear arms reduction agreements, but only to take advantage of those already in force. Even if the United States stays at nuclear warhead levels set by the 2010 New START Treaty indefinitely, it can save billions by buying fewer delivery systems, delaying procurement schedules, and scaling back warhead rebuilds. Additional nuclear stockpile cuts, such as those proposed in 2013 by President Obama, would allow for more savings.
Over the last 40 years, the United States and Russia have reduced their stockpiles of nuclear weapons to the benefit of U.S., Russian and global security. Successive administrations, on a bipartisan basis, have reduced the U.S. nuclear arsenal as a way to verifiably draw down Russia’s arsenal, build international support for nonproliferation, and save money. These rationales still hold true today.
Current tensions between the United States and Russia over Ukraine and Moscow’s compliance with the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty may delay future arms control agreements, but should not reverse the overall trend toward smaller nuclear arsenals. The United States and its allies have responded to Russian moves in Ukraine and Crimea primarily with diplomacy and economic tools and secondarily by shoring up NATO conventional forces. Beyond symbolism, nuclear forces have not played a role in the crisis.
The U.S.-Russian arms reduction process has weathered similar crises, such as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Russian non-compliance with the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in the 1980s, and U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in 2002. Further U.S. and Russian nuclear arms reductions are likely, with or without treaty negotiations, because they are in the mutual security interest of both nations.
Some members of Congress, however, claim that arms reductions have gone far enough and, despite their long history of success, should not continue.
These arguments ignore the fact that additional arms reductions have important benefits, including the prospect of a smaller Russian arsenal, engaging other nuclear-armed states in the nuclear-risk reduction enterprise, building a stronger international coalition against nuclear terrorism and the spread of nuclear weapons, and saving tens of billions of dollars.