“[A]s we transform our military, we can discard cold war relics and reduce our own nuclear forces to reflect today’s needs.”
—President George W. Bush, February 2001
“We have every incentive to reduce the number [of nuclear weapons]. These are expensive. They take away from soldier pay. They take away from [operation and maintenance] investments. They take away from lots of things. There is no incentive to keep more than you believe you need for the security of the Nation. “
—Secretary of State Colin Powell, June 2002
The United States plans to spend at least $355 billion to maintain and rebuild its nuclear arsenal over the next decade, according to a Dec. 2013 report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Over the next 30 years, the bill could add up to $1 trillion, according to another independent estimate.
The largest share of the projected costs for nuclear delivery systems would go to strategic submarines. The Navy wants to buy 12 new ballistic missile submarines with a total production cost of about $100 billion. The Air Force is seeking up to 100 new, nuclear-armed strategic bombers that would cost about $80 billion, as well as new intercontinental ballistic missiles and air-launched cruise missiles. The Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is also pursuing a $60 billion plan to upgrade five nuclear warhead types, including the B61 gravity bomb.
These eye-popping projections come at a time that defense budget growth is declining, and spending on these weapons systems at these levels cannot be sustained. And given the declining role of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense strategy, planning to maintain an unaffordable, Cold War-sized force is unnecessary.
It is not too late, however, to chart a different course. The Departments of Defense and Energy are in the process of making long-term, multi-billion dollar decisions about how many new missiles, submarines, bombers and nuclear warheads the nation will build and deploy over the next 30 years. These plans should be reevaluated before major budget decisions are locked in.
Arms Reductions Create Opportunity
Fortunately, ongoing U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenal reductions under New START open the door to major budget savings at this pivotal time.
The U.S. nuclear stockpile has dropped by 80 percent since its peak in 1967, but is still a formidable force of about 4,800 warheads. The arsenal’s high cost, combined with shrinking budgets, stockpiles, and missions, should compel the Pentagon to rethink its oversized plans to rebuild U.S. nuclear forces in the years ahead.
The United States maintained a total nuclear stockpile of 4,804 warheads as of September 2013. This includes a deployed arsenal of about 2,100 strategic and tactical warheads and associated delivery systems--missiles, submarines, and bombers--and the rest in reserve. As of 2014, the U.S. government reported that there are approximately 1,642 New START-accountable deployed nuclear warheads.
New START will take the United States and Russia down to 1,550 treaty-accountable, deployed strategic warheads by 2018. Other than Russia, the only potential U.S. adversary with a long-range nuclear capability is China, which has no more than 75 single-warhead, intercontinental ballistic missiles, according to the Pentagon.
In June 2013, President Obama announced the United States would pursue a new agreement with Russia to further reduce strategic weapons, as well as to reduce tactical weapons. The U.S. military leadership has determined it can reduce deployed strategic warheads to 1,000-1,100, or about one-third below New START levels.
Renewed U.S.-Russian tensions and domestic political opposition may delay nuclear force reductions for some time. Nevertheless, the United States can maintain New START warhead levels and still achieve significant cost savings over the next decade and beyond by making smarter choices regarding nuclear weapons spending.
A More Cost-Effective Approach
This analysis describes realistic, common sense options for reducing U.S. military spending on nuclear weapons that would save U.S. taxpayers about $70 billion from FY 2014-2023 (see Figure D). The baseline for this analysis is the CBO estimate of current plans to maintain U.S. nuclear forces, build a new “triad” of delivery systems (submarines, bombers, and missiles), and extend the service life of nuclear warheads.
These options take advantage of arsenal reductions under New START, but do not assume additional reductions beyond that. They are designed to meet New START warhead requirements in a more cost-effective way and to postpone major procurement decisions where possible. If the United States does implement additional arsenal reductions in the future (either by treaty or reciprocal reductions), further budget savings would be possible.
STRATEGIC SUBMARINES: 10-year savings, $16 billion
The United States Navy currently operates 336 Trident II D-5 SLBMs on 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) based out of Bangor, Washington (eight boats) and Kings Bay, Georgia (six boats). The Ohio-class submarines have a service life of 42 years, including a four-year, mid-life nuclear reactor refueling. Due to the refueling process and other maintenance, only 10-11 SSBNs are typically available for deployment at any given time. The Ohio-class SSBNs were launched between 1983 and 1996 and will be retired at a rate of approximately one boat per year between 2027 and 2040.
The Navy plans to replace the retiring boats, starting in 2031, with a new class of 12 ballistic missile submarines, referred to as the SSBN(X) or the Ohio Replacement (OR). The Navy is seeking 12 rather than 14 because the new submarine will not need a four-year mid-life refueling, but only a two-year overhaul. This shorter overhaul means that only two SSBN(X)s (rather than three or four Ohio class subs) would be out of service at any given time during the middle years of the sub’s life span.
The Navy and NNSA will spend $82 billion on strategic submarines from 2014 to 2023, according to CBO, including $38 billion to operate the current fleet and $44 billion for the Ohio Replacement.
The Navy originally planned to start deploying the replacement boats in 2029, but in 2012 the Pentagon announced a two-year delay to the program, pushing back completion of the first SSBN(X) to 2031. As a result, the Navy will field only 10 ballistic missile submarines in the 2030s, and it is an open question whether the last two SSBN(X)s will be built in 2041-2042.
Current military requirements call for 10 strategic submarines to be operational at all times. The eleventh and twelfth subs would not be needed until the first SSBN(X)s start to undergo extended maintenance after two decades of operation. Such requirements, set by the president, are reportedly under review as part of the nuclear policy guidance issued in 2013.
The FY 2015 budget request for SSBN(X) development is $1.3 billion, up from $1.1 billion in FY 2014. Building 12 SSBN(X)s would cost about $87 billion, CBO estimates, an average of $7.2 billion each. That includes $13 billion for the lead submarine and $6.7 billion each for the rest. Research and development would cost an additional $10 to $15 billion, for a total program cost of about $100 billion, CBO estimates. The total lifecycle cost of the SSBN(X) program is estimated at $347 billion.
The Navy now plans to purchase (or procure) the first SSBN(X) in 2021, the second in 2024, and one per year between 2026 and 2035. The first boat is scheduled to become operational in 2031.
Each current Ohio-class submarine serves as a launch platform for up to 24 Trident II D-5 Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) that can hold up to eight warheads each. Under the New START treaty, by 2018 the Navy plans to deploy only 20 SLBMs on each Ohio-class submarine rather than 24. This will result in a total of 240 deployed SLBMs. The new SSBN(X) is expected to carry up to 16 SLBMs, for a maximum of 192 deployed SLBMs across a fleet of 12 submarines.
The Ohio Replacement submarine program is the most expensive piece of the nuclear modernization plan and, according to the Navy, the current plan to build 12 submarines and maintain a surface fleet of 300 ships is not affordable.
In its shipbuilding plan for fiscal year 2014, submitted to Congress in May 2013, the Navy warned that, to build the SSBN(X) fleet, it would have to forgo 32 conventional ships it is planning to build. The Navy stated that if it funds the submarines “from within its own resources,” the program will “take away from construction of other ships in the battle force such as attack submarines, destroyers, aircraft carriers and amphibious warfare ships.”
In the fiscal year 2015 shipbuilding plan, submitted in July 2014, the Navy says its funding plan is “unsustainable,” as it will peak at $24 billion in fiscal year 2032, almost twice the historical average of $13 billion per year. The report says that the Navy “can only afford the SSBN procurement costs with significant increases in our top-line or by having the SSBN funded from sources that do not result in any reductions to the [Navy]’s resourcing level.”
To preserve the conventional fleet, the Navy said in 2013 that it would have to get an additional $60 billion—an average of $4 billion per year for the 15-year period that the new subs would be built starting in 2021.
But funding the new submarines from outside the Navy’s budget is no solution. This approach would just take resources from other services, like the Air Force, which is also seeking additional funding for its nuclear programs.
Responding to these budget proposals, Undersecretary of Defense Frank Kendall said in September, “at the end of the day we have to find money to pay for these things one way or another, right? So changing the accounting system doesn’t really change that fundamental requirement. We still need the money and it has to come from somewhere.”
The current fleet of 14 Ohio class submarines and the planned purchase of 12 new replacement subs can both be reduced to eight. This would save $15.7 billion over 10 years and would still allow the Pentagon to deploy more than 1,000 warheads on submarines as planned under New START, according to a Nov. 2013 report by CBO.
CBO’s approach would reduce the current Ohio-class fleet from 14 to eight by retiring one per year from 2015 to 2020. A total of eight subs would be sustained through the 2040s by delaying the first SSBN(X) procurement from 2021 to 2024 and stopping at eight new subs. During the 2030s, this plan would save an additional $30 billion by avoiding the purchase of four SSBN(X) subs, according to CBO.
Eight Subs Are More Than Enough
From a national security perspective, a shift to eight strategic submarines would provide a more than adequate nuclear deterrent. Under the New START Treaty, which entered into force in February 2011, the Pentagon plans to deploy approximately 1,000 nuclear warheads on strategic submarines. Eight fully armed Ohio-class or SSBN(X) submarines can meet this requirement. Therefore, a shift to eight operational submarines would not affect the Pentagon’s planned warhead deployment levels.
This budget-saving approach takes advantage of the excess capacity that currently exists on each Trident II D-5 missile, which is designed to hold eight warheads but is currently loaded with four or five. Although each missile and submarine would carry more warheads under this plan, the submarines would still be invulnerable to attack when deployed at sea.
Subs On Station
The Navy wants 12 new submarines to meet current military requirements, but the United States can deter nuclear attack with fewer and save money. In 2011 the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) recommended that the number of new submarines be reduced to 10. The Navy reportedly pushed back by claiming that 10 submarines would not be enough to support five submarines “on station” at all times. Submarines on station are deployed far off the U.S. coasts, ready to launch their missiles on a moment’s notice.
“It is mandatory that we sustain our survivable sea-based nuclear deterrent with about the same level of at-sea presence as today,” Rear Adm. Richard Breckenridge, the Navy’s director of undersea warfare, testified at a Sept. 12, 2013 congressional hearing.
For the Navy to operate five submarines on station, it would need 12 submarines in total: five in the Atlantic, with two on station and the rest in transit or in port (such as for maintenance), and seven in the Pacific with three on station and the rest in rotation. Initially, only 10 subs are needed to meet these goals.
The need for on-station submarines is mainly driven by the military’s existing requirement to deploy submarine-based nuclear weapons within range of their targets so they can be launched promptly, within an hour or so.
The need for 12 subs, then, has as much to do with where the warheads are deployed and how promptly they could reach their targets as it does with the number of warheads. An eight sub-fleet can carry 1,000 warheads, but it can’t support five subs that are forward deployed near Russia and China, ready for quick launch.
However, new nuclear guidance could relax those requirements, which are based on nuclear policy and targeting assumptions that have changed little since the Cold War ended 25 years ago. Instead of forward-deploying subs ready for prompt launch, they could be kept out of harm’s way, as an assured retaliatory force if ever needed. If prompt launch is required, land-based missiles can serve that mission.
If the Obama administration determines—as it should—that the United States does not need to hold so many targets in Russia and China at risk with a “prompt” submarine attack, then the requirement for 12 subs can be reduced. And if this administration, or a future one, were to change its New START deployment plan, or achieve additional arsenal reductions, the requirement for deploying as many as 1,000 sea-based warheads could go away too.
Pentagon procurement decisions worth hundreds of billions of dollars should not be based on obsolete nuclear strategy. By the time the first new submarines are launched twenty years from now, they will be sailing into a very different world.
Expensive Empty Space
One argument for deploying extra submarines and missiles is that it would maximize the U.S. ability to “upload” additional warheads if needed. Each Trident II D-5 SLBM can carry up to eight warheads; yet if the Navy spreads 1,000 warheads across 12 SSBN(X) subs and 192 missiles, as it plans to do, each SLBM would carry only 5-6 warheads. Thus each SLBM would have space for another 2-3 warheads, or another 500 warheads across the SSBN(X) fleet. The United States also has extra space for hundreds of additional warheads on ICBMs and gravity bombs on long-range bombers.
However, Russia does not have a comparable ability to upload warheads and has indicated it is interested in reducing the imbalance in this area. Therefore, the United States may want to trade some of its extra storage space for Russian concessions on, for example, consolidating and reducing Moscow’s stockpile of tactical weapons.
President Obama has also talked about reducing the number of warheads that the United States keeps in reserve. Known as the “hedge,” this reserve force could be used to upload missiles in a crisis or to replace warheads that had unexpected technical problems. It is unlikely that either of these hypothetical situations will arise. With a smaller hedge force, the United States would not need such a large upload capacity.
Moreover, this extra space for warheads comes at a significant cost, as “real estate” on SLBMs is not cheap. Assuming each new SSBN(X) submarine costs $7 billion and can carry 128 warheads, each warhead spot costs an average of $55 million. If each sub has six warheads on each missile, or 96 warheads per boat, then 32 slots go empty. That adds up to $1.7 billion worth of unused warhead capacity on each sub, or $20 billion of extra space across a 12-sub fleet.
dHowever, if the Navy felt it absolutely has to have open space on its missiles for extra warheads, it could design the SSBN(X) to carry more than 16 missiles. For example, if each SSBN(X) carries 20 SLBMs, eight subs could carry 1,000 warheads with 6-7 warheads on each missile, leaving 1-2 open slots on each.
LONG-RANGE BOMBERS: 10-year savings, $32 billion
The Air Force operates a fleet of 159 long-range bombers: 76 B-52Hs built in the 1960s, 63 B-1Bs from the 1980s, and 20 B-2As from the 1990s. Under New START, the Pentagon plans to reduce the nuclear-capable, long-range bomber force to 60 (18 B-2s and 42 B-52s) by 2018. The Air Force plans to continue modernizing the B-2A and B-52H fleets, which are expected to operate into the 2050s and 2040s, respectively. B-52s are deployed at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, and Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota. B-2s are deployed at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri. Although still part of the nuclear mission, none of these aircraft are loaded with nuclear weapons on a day-to-day basis.
The Air Force estimates that production of a new Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRSB) will cost about $55 billion for up to 100 planes, not including development costs which are projected to be at least $25 billion. The Air Force plans to start initial production of the new bomber in the mid-2020s. CBO estimates that the Air Force and NNSA will spend $73 billion on strategic bombers, both current and future, over the next decade.
Given the decades of service left in the current bomber fleet, the new bomber program can be delayed until the mid 2020s, saving $32.1 billion over 10 years, according to CBO. By moving this funding into the future, the Air Force would free up resources for other priorities, such as buying KC-46A tankers and F-35A fighters.
Even with a 10-year delay, a new bomber would still be ready by about the time current bombers are reaching the end of their service life, according to CBO, and the delay would allow the new bomber to incorporate technological advances made during that time. “Taking advantage of future technological developments can be particularly valuable for weapon systems that are expected to be in use for several decades,” CBO states.
This would not be the first time this program has been delayed for lack of urgency. The incoming Obama administration initially cancelled the new bomber program in its FY2010 budget request. At the time, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) decided not to pursue a new bomber “because the current fleet is performing well” and “as a result of ongoing efforts to upgrade the existing bomber fleet with new electronic and weapons systems, current aircraft will be able to meet the threats expected in the foreseeable future.” OMB found “no urgent need to begin an expensive development program for a new bomber,” and said that the Pentagon would take its time to “develop a better understanding of the requirement and to develop the technologies most suitable for a long-range bomber.”
The primary mission for the LRSB is to allow the Air Force to continue to provide a conventional long-range penetrating bomber, and it would not be certified to carry nuclear weapons until two years after it is first deployed. Only a small percentage of the LRSB’s costs would go directly to making the bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons. However, if the bomber did not have a nuclear mission, the overall program could be significantly less expensive. For example, the bombers would not need to operate in a nuclear environment and would not need to use pilots, but could be operated remotely.
The B-2, the last U.S. bomber built, provides a cautionary tale. In the 1980s, plans called for 132 B-2s, and then 75, but the dissolution of the Soviet Union led to growing congressional opposition. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush announced that production would be limited to 20 aircraft. Twenty-one B-2s were ultimately built, at a cost of more than $2 billion each, far above initial estimates. Its predecessor, the B-1, also was never built in the numbers envisioned.
AIR-LAUNCHED CRUISE MISSILE (ALCM): 10-year savings, $3 billion
The new Air Force bomber would carry two types of nuclear weapons: a rebuilt gravity bomb (the B61-12) and a cruise missile, known as the Long-Range Stand-Off (LSRO) weapon or Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM). The current ALCM, carried by B-52 bombers, was first deployed in the 1980s and is scheduled for retirement in 2030.
A new ALCM has no official price tag, but is expected to cost around $20 billion. The Air Force plans to spend $4.9 million on missile development in FY2015 and $221 million over the next five years, down from $1 billion over five years due to a three-year delay in the program. The delay pushes $960 million of program funding into the second half of the decade.
Last year, the Pentagon completed an assessment to determine whether and how to replace the current ALCM. In December, the office of the Secretary of Defense deferred the program for three years “due to concerns over the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) funding profile for the associated warhead as well as other nuclear enterprise priority bills such as the B61 Tail Kit Assembly.”
The refurbished nuclear warhead for the ALCM would cost an additional $12 billion, according to NNSA, with about $2 billion to be spent in the next decade.33 NNSA is requesting $9.6 million in fiscal 2015 to begin work on the warhead.
The program is already in trouble in Congress. In 2014, the Senate Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee zeroed out the administration’s request of $9.6 million for the warhead, and the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee cut the request for the missile by $3 million, or 60 percent. In the House, the Appropriations Committee cut the request for the missile by $1.5 million, or about one-third.
Twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War, we can no longer remain on autopilot, replacing nuclear systems just because we had them before. Each replacement system must have its mission justified as if it were new. So, if we did not have an ALCM already, would we buy a new one now? That is not likely.
The United States no longer needs a bomber with stand off nuclear missiles that are shot from afar, like the ALCM. The new Air Force bomber will be designed to penetrate enemy air defenses, so it needs bombs that can be dropped from above. In the current arsenal, the B-2 stealth bomber also is a penetrator.
The Pentagon may be concerned that an adversary’s air defenses will improve in the future and that U.S. bombers someday wont be able to defeat them. But the United States has other standoff weapons if needed, such as submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
There also are sound security reasons to forgo nuclear cruise missiles. Their dual-use nature makes them inherently destabilizing. Conventional cruise missiles are indistinguishable from nuclear-armed ones. If one is coming at you, there is no way to tell if it is carrying a nuclear warhead or not. It would be better to know that all are conventional.
The United States, Russia and France are the only nations to currently deploy nuclear cruise missiles. However, China, Pakistan and others are working on nuclear-capable cruise missiles, and U.S. security would benefit if they would stop. Chinese nuclear-armed cruise missiles would add to U.S. concerns about Beijing’s capabilities and would be able to fly under U.S. missile defenses, which are designed to defend against ballistic missiles. Pakistan’s program would add to tensions in South Asia and could motivate India to follow suit.
Rather than spend billions on a weapon that is not needed to deter potential adversaries, the old ALCM might have more value as a bargaining chip to trade for a global ban on all nuclear-armed cruise missiles. This would be a win-win for the military budget and U.S. security.
It Pays to Wait
The historic trajectory of nuclear arsenals is down. If the United States can wait to buy new systems, it will likely need fewer of them. As just one example, the U.S. Navy built 18 Ohio-class nuclear-armed submarines from 1981-1997 only to decide later that it needed just 14. Why? The Cold War ended, and U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals declined under the 1991 START Treaty. These four extra subs and their conversion to non-nuclear missions cost about $16 billion.23 This is a classic case of over-building for a threat that is declining over time.
Similarly, the United States deployed 50 MX “Peacekeeper” ICBMs, each carrying ten warheads, starting in 1986 at a cost of $20 billion. All MX missiles were retired by 2005, as a result of the 1993 START II Treaty, which banned ICBMs with more than one warhead. The missiles were fully deployed for less than ten years before the U.S. Senate ratified START II in 1996.
B61 LIFE EXTENSION PROGRAM (LEP): 10-year savings, $4 billion
NNSA plans to extend the service life of about 400 B61 gravity bombs through a Life Extension Program (LEP) that would consolidate four versions of the bomb into one, called the B61-12. The B61 is the only U.S. nuclear weapon based in Europe, with about 180 tactical (short range) versions, the B61-3 and -4, stored in five NATO countries. A strategic version, the B61-7, is stored in the United States for use on B-2 bombers.
NNSA says it will begin production of the B61-12 in 2020, and that the entire project will cost about $8 billion. The two major cost drivers are the plan to consolidate four versions of the bomb into one and to refurbish some of the nuclear components, such as the bomb’s uranium secondary components.
A 2012 Pentagon review estimated that the program would cost $10.4 billion, or roughly $25 million per bomb. In addition, a new tail kit, needed only if the tactical bombs are refurbished, would cost an extra $1.1 billion.
Reflecting congressional concerns over rising costs, in 2013 the Senate Appropriations Committee reduced the FY14 NNSA budget for the program by $168 million, or one third, but it was later restored to $537 million in the omnibus appropriation.
However, the program continues to face budget pressures in Congress. The administration’s fiscal year 2015 request for the B61 LEP is $643 million, a 20-percent increase over the 2014 budget.
The B61 is the first of an expensive series of LEPs in the pipeline. According to the FY2014 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, NNSA wants to upgrade four additional warhead types between now and 2038, each of which will cost more than the B61.36 All told, NNSA plans to spend more than $60 billion on upgrading five warhead types over the next 25 years, requiring a significant increase in annual funding.
To significantly reduce the B61 program’s high costs, the NNSA should rescope the current plan and choose a more cost effective option, such as one that does not replace nuclear components or consolidate different types of the bomb.
President Obama said in Berlin in 2013 that he will “work with our NATO allies to seek bold reductions in U.S. and Russian tactical weapons in Europe.” As the only U.S. nuclear weapon in Europe, it would be a waste of scarce resources to upgrade B61 tactical bombs that may no longer be deployed by the time the program is completed a decade from now.
Despite the crisis in Ukraine, the Cold War is not resuming, the Warsaw Pact is long gone, and there is no threat of a Soviet land-attack across central Europe. There is no military justification for keeping B61 tactical bombs forward-deployed at NATO bases in Europe. These weapons can and should be returned to the United States and kept in secure storage. The United States can continue to reassure NATO allies and deter any nuclear weapons threat against NATO with nuclear weapons based in the United States and on submarines at sea.
If B61 bombs must stay in Europe for political reasons, then they should be allowed to age out over the next decade and then retired. The tactical B61s in Europe need not be refurbished at enormous cost to the American taxpayer.
Former Air Force Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz recently recommended that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter should not be made capable of carrying the B61 unless NATO helps pay the bill. He argued that those funds should instead be used to make new long-range strike bomber nuclear-capable. “B61 life extension is necessary independent of F-35 nuclear integration,” he said. “It must proceed in any case, in my view, focused on modernization and long range strike bomber.”
If the B61 LEP were focused just on the long-range bomber mission, the strategic B61-7 could be refurbished while the tactical versions were not. This would allow for a more cost-effective upgrade of the B61-7 by itself and would not require the expensive consolidation with the tactical bombs.
Without the consolidation, a new tail kit would not be needed. The B61-12 would have a maximum yield of up to 50 kilotons, but would replace a bomb (the B61-7) with a yield of up to 360 kilotons. The tail kit increases the accuracy and thus the effective yield of the B61-12. However, if NNSA were to upgrade the B61-7 on its own and not consolidate it into the B61-12, there would be no need for the new tail kit.
In addition, the number of parts to be refurbished could be scaled back. NNSA’s plan involves replacing and modifying hundreds of parts, including the bomb’s uranium secondary. But NNSA has studied other options that would cost billions less.
There is no need to spend $10 billion on upgrading 400 B61 bombs. Instead, the United States could choose to refurbish only the strategic B61-7, eventually retire the tactical bombs, and scale back the LEP, saving up to $4 billion.
INTERCONTINENTAL BALLISTIC MISSILES (ICBMS): 10-year savings, $16 billion
The Air Force currently deploys 450 Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) located at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming; Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana; and Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota. First deployed in the 1970s, today’s Minuteman weapon system is the product of 40 years of continuous enhancement. A $7 billion life extension program is underway to keep the ICBMs safe, secure and reliable through 2030. Under New START, the Air Force plans to reduce the current ICBM fleet to 400.
The Air Force is expected to decide in 2016 whether to continue to extend the life of the Minuteman after 2030 or to replace it with a new missile and, if so, what kind. Recent media reports suggest the Air Force is leaning toward building a new system that would provide a future option for mobile basing.
A detailed 2014 RAND study supports extending the life of the current Minuteman III, which it found to be “a relatively inexpensive way to retain current ICBM capabilities.” RAND found that a new missile would be needed only if “warfighting and deterrence demands push requirements for an ICBM system to beyond what an incrementally modernized Minuteman III can offer.”
RAND said that the biggest obstacle to simply maintaining the existing ICBM fleet is the inventory of test missiles, which would be depleted by 2030. However, if the number of deployed Minuteman IIIs were reduced to 300, the Air Force would have enough test missiles to last for decades. This smaller ICBM force would still be comparable to Russia’s.
The RAND report found that keeping the Minuteman IIIs in silos is the cheapest option, costing $1.6-2.3 billion per year, or $60-90 billion over a 39-year life cycle. In comparison, building a new silo-based ICBM would cost $84-$125 billion and a mobile version (rail or road) would cost $124-$219 billion.
According to RAND, “Any new ICBM alternative will very likely cost almost two times—and perhaps even three times—more than incremental modernization of the current Minuteman III system. The only viable argument for developing and fielding an alternative would therefore have to be requirements driven.”
It is hard to imagine what would justify a military requirement for a new ICBM capability beyond that offered by a life-extended Minuteman III.
As the RAND report points out, only Russia is capable of attacking all U.S. ICBMs. Such an attack is highly unlikely, as Moscow could not expect to escape a nuclear response, either from ICBMs or other U.S. nuclear forces, such as submarines. Silo-based Minuteman IIIs are survivable against all other potential nuclear adversaries, including China, and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future.
If the Air Force decides to extend the life of the Minuteman indefinitely, there would be no need to develop a new ICBM and no additional costs to maintain the Minuteman over the next decade. According to RAND estimates, a new missile would cost about $3 billion per year, and more for mobile basing.
Thus, forgoing a new ICBM would allow the Pentagon to save roughly $15 billion by 2023, assuming the program development would have started in 2019. After 2023, avoiding production of a new ICBM would save tens of billions more.
By 2030, the Air Force may want to reduce the number of Minuteman IIIs to 300 to replenish the stock of test missiles. Eliminating one wing of 150 missiles would save about $300 million annually, according to RAND. A 2013 report by the Stimson Center reached a similar conclusion.
The Minuteman III is armed with either a W78 or W87 nuclear warhead, which both have yields of 300 kilotons or more. NNSA is planning to develop an interoperable warhead to replace the W78, which is the older of the two. As described in the section below, the W78 should be retired and replaced by the W87, saving $1 billion that would have been spent on the interoperable warhead over the next decade.
Warhead Life Extensions
In March, the Obama administration announced it would delay key elements of its “3+2” plan to rebuild the U.S. stockpile of nuclear warheads amidst growing concern about the program’s high cost and its technically ambitious approach.
Now, the administration and Congress should use this opportunity to reevaluate the program and shift to a more straightforward and affordable path for maintaining the U.S. nuclear stockpile.
Announced last summer by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the 3+2 strategy has a sticker price of $60 billion and calls for extending the service life of five nuclear warhead types, three of which would be “interoperable” on land-based and sea-based ballistic missiles. Two other warhead types would be used on bombers, and two types would be retired.
Congress, on a bipartisan basis, has been skeptical of the 3+2 plan from the start, particularly the proposal for interoperable warheads. The Senate Appropriations Committee wrote last year that the concept “may be unnecessarily complex and expensive, increase uncertainty about certification” and “fail to address aging issues in a timely manner.”
The House Appropriations Committee also raised concerns about an interoperable warhead last year, stating that the committee “will not support dedicating significant funding for new stockpile transformation concepts” unless the administration can show “benefits that justify such a large investment.” The House cut the budget request by $23 million. The omnibus spending bill agreed to in January 2014 cut the budget for the interoperable warhead almost in half, to $38 million.
In response to congressional concerns and budget pressures, the NNSA budget request for fiscal 2015 delays funding for much of the 3+2 program, putting the future of the plan in doubt.
Speaking at George Washington University in March, former Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Director Parney Albright, who supports the 3+2 plan, said, “I just don’t think it’s going to happen.”
It is time to rethink the 3+2 plan. It is too expensive to survive in the current budget climate, takes unnecessary risks with warhead reliability, and has no clear military requirement. It is a solution in search of a problem.
The current warhead life extension program (LEP) is successfully refurbishing warheads. There is no need to adopt a more risky and exorbitantly expensive approach. The NNSA can stick with the traditional path to warhead maintenance and save tens of billions of dollars in the coming 25 years.
No Rush to Refurbish
For fiscal year 2015 and beyond, near-term parts of the 3+2 plan remain on track, but future projects have been significantly slowed. The ongoing life extension for the Navy’s W76 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) warhead is on schedule for completion in 2019, and the B61-12 gravity bomb is on schedule for production between 2020 to 2024, which is a slight delay from earlier plans.
However, the next warheads in the 3+2 queue have been delayed. A rebuilt warhead for a new cruise missile for the Air Force’s proposed long-range bomber has been pushed back by up to three years, from 2024 to 2027. The first interoperable warhead, called the IW-1, has been moved from 2025 to 2030. These delays mean that key development decisions have been pushed into the next administration, increasing uncertainty about whether these programs will continue as now envisioned.
These delays will not put the reliability of the stockpile at risk. NNSA Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs Donald Cook testified before the House Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee on April 3 that the two warhead types IW-1 would replace, the W78 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) warhead and the W88 SLBM warhead, “are aging as predicted.” NNSA budget documents also state that the W78 warhead, the older of the two, is “aging gracefully.”
Much of the congressional concern about the 3+2 plan stems from NNSA’s proposal to develop interoperable warheads to be used on both ICBMs and SLBMs, which has not been done before and would be prohibitively expensive.
The NNSA’s primary rationale for the 3+2 approach is that it would eventually help reduce the number of non-deployed warheads that are stored as a “hedge” in case there is a catastrophic failure with one or more warhead types. Recent NNSA budget documents state that, “Three interoperable ballistic missile warheads with similar deployed numbers will allow for a greatly reduced technical hedge for each system to protect against a single warhead failure.”
Reducing the hedge is a worthwhile goal, but we don’t need the 3+2 plan to get there.
First, the probability of a technical surprise that would disable an entire class of warheads is exceedingly remote. The NNSA’s stockpile surveillance and stewardship programs are designed to prevent such surprises.
Second, the United States maintains—at great expense—a triad of delivery platforms, which allows for an inherent hedge. In the highly unlikely event that any one leg of the triad becomes inoperable or unreliable, the other two legs are there.
Third, given that the 3+2 plan would not be completed for 30 years or more, potential reductions to the hedge stockpile are highly uncertain and would be far in the future if they happen at all. There is no guarantee that promised hedge reductions would ever materialize as a direct result of the 3+2 plan.
“This higher risk, higher cost plan will not lead to further reduction in the total number of nuclear weapons, according to NNSA’s classified plans,” wrote Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA.), chair of the Senate Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee, in an August 2013 letter to President Obama.
Another rationale for interoperable warheads is to have the entire stockpile use insensitive high explosives. Such explosives are in principle a good idea, as they are less prone to accidental detonation than conventional explosives, but they are less energetic and take up more space inside a warhead. Thus, insensitive explosives cannot easily replace conventional ones.
To get around this problem, NNSA is proposing to use parts from two different, existing warheads: a primary from the W87 ICBM warhead, which already has insensitive explosives, and possibly a secondary from the W80 cruise missile warhead. But those parts have never been used together, and such combinations have never been introduced into the nuclear stockpile without explosive nuclear tests, which the United States no longer conducts.
Thus, the IW-1, with a projected price tag of $11 billion, could introduce unwelcome concerns about reliability into an otherwise well-tested and reliable stockpile.
What would be achieved for the added risk and cost? Not much.
The IW-1 would replace the W78 ICBM warhead and the W88 SLBM warhead— neither of which has insensitive explosives. But other warheads on the Air Force’s ICBMs and bombers do have insensitive explosives, so this is really a Navy issue. However, the Navy is questioning whether the high cost of insensitive explosives is worth the limited benefit for its warheads, which spend most of their time protected inside missiles, inside submarines, under the sea.
In a September 2012 memo to the Nuclear Weapons Council, a joint Defense and Energy Department group that coordinates management of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile, the Navy said it does “not support commencing the [IW-1] effort at this time.” In response, the council decided in December 2012 to study an option for the Navy’s W88 warhead that would not be interoperable.
NNSA plans to upgrade non-nuclear parts of the Navy’s W88 warhead anyway, and once that happens, Livermore’s Albright noted that the Navy “almost certainly will argue” that replacing the W88 with an interoperable warhead would cost “too much money.”
Instead, Albright said the Navy would prefer to simply refurbish the W88, “which is what they did on the W76.” The W76 life extension is expected to cost $4 billion, or one-third the price of IW-1.
In turn, doing an independent W88 refurbishment should decrease the Air Force’s incentive to refurbish the W78, which could instead be retired and replaced by the W87 as the only ICBM warhead. The Air Force no longer needs two warhead types for ICBMs, and there are enough W87s to go around. IW-1 would thus be unnecessary.
Beyond that, the proposed IW-2 and IW-3 warheads are distant prospects, with no production planned until 2034 or later, at costs of $15 and $20 billion, respectively.
A Better Way
There is a relatively simple alternative to the 3+2 plan. Instead of developing unproven interoperable warheads by mixing and matching parts from different weapons, NNSA could do things the time-tested way. The Navy’s $4 billion W76 SLBM warhead life extension program (LEP) does not introduce any new fancy bells and whistles. This should be the model for future life extensions. But first, the Pentagon should reassess the need for warhead types before they are refurbished.
Step 1: Retire Where Possible
For starters, there is no need to rebuild the W78 or W80 warheads, and both should be retired. Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, we can no longer remain on autopilot, replacing nuclear systems just because we had them before. Each replacement system must have its mission justified as if it were new.
For the W78, a smaller ICBM force means there is no need to keep two different ICBM warheads. The W87, also used on ICBMs, is newer and has all modern safety features. In the unlikely event of a problem with all W87 warheads, the United States would still have the submarine and bomber legs of the triad to deter any potential attacks. Enough W87 warheads have been produced (more than 500) to arm the entire ICBM fleet. Retiring the W78 would allow the IW-1 project to be cancelled, saving $11 billion.
As for the W80, there is no need for a new air-launched cruise missile (ALCM), and thus no need to rebuild this warhead. The United States no longer needs a bomber with stand off nuclear missiles that are shot from afar, like the ALCM. The new Air Force bomber will be designed to penetrate enemy air defenses, so it needs bombs that can be dropped from above, like the B61. Moreover, the United States has other standoff weapons if needed, such as submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Cancelling the ALCM would save $7 billion for the warhead and another $10 billion or so for the missile.
Step 2: Keep it Simple
The remaining warheads would undergo traditional life extensions as needed. Future LEPs should not introduce technical, schedule and cost risks inherent to interoperable warheads, which are just asking for trouble.
Nor should NNSA conduct the $8-10 billion B61-12 LEP as planned. Consolidating four bomb-types into one is overly complex and expensive. NNSA should scale back this program by refurbishing the strategic B61-7, and separately refurbish or retire the tactical bombs, which could save up to $5 billion.
Once the W78 and W80 warheads are retired, the remaining arsenal would include the W87 (LEP completed in 2004), the W76 (LEP to be finished by 2019), the B61 (LEP about to begin), and the W88 (partial upgrade about to begin). This “2+1+1” plan would maintain warheads for all three legs of the triad: SLBMs would carry both the W76 and W88, ICBMs would carry the W87 only, and bombers would carry rebuilt, strategic B61 bombs.
Assuming an average cost of $5 billion per LEP, based on the cost of the W76 LEP plus inflation, refurbishing this four warhead-type stockpile under this approach would cost roughly $20 billion over 30 years or more, or one-third the cost of NNSA’s $60 billion plan. Over the next decade, this alternative approach would save roughly $6 billion.
In addition, by taking a more straightforward approach to LEPs, NNSA could reuse existing plutonium parts, know as “pits,” rather than producing new ones, and delay the need to spend billions to expand the U.S. pit production capacity.
The NNSA’s 3+2 program does not add up. The United States can maintain its nuclear warheads through traditional life extensions without resorting to expensive, risky schemes. NNSA needs to rethink the program and come back to Congress with a proposal better suited to today’s fiscal and political realities.
Needed: Fresh Thinking
It’s time for a more sensible approach to U.S. nuclear weapons spending. The savings proposed here can be achieved without reducing the number of deployed U.S. warheads below New START levels, so there is no need to wait for Moscow to reduce its nuclear forces any further. Reductions beyond New START would lead to additional budget savings in the years ahead.
Shielding nuclear programs from budget reductions will force deeper cuts into other, higher priority conventional systems. Reducing nuclear weapons spending now is a smart way to trim the budget.