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"The Arms Control Association’s work is an important resource to legislators and policymakers when contemplating a new policy direction or decision."

– General John Shalikashvili
former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Kingston Reif

Responses to Common Criticisms of Adjusting U.S. Nuclear Modernization Plans

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Volume 13, Issue 3, May 18, 2021

With the Biden administration set to release its fiscal year 2022 budget request May 27 and conduct a more comprehensive review of nuclear policy later this year, the debate about how the United States should approach nuclear modernization has reached a fever pitch.

The nation is planning to spend at least $1.5 trillion over the next several decades to maintain and upgrade nearly its entire nuclear arsenal. This explosion of spending comes at a time when a devastating global pandemic has redefined how many Americans think about security, China’s growing role on the global stage poses multifaceted challenges, and most experts believe that the U.S. defense budget will remain flat over the next several years.

While the Trump administration expanded the role of and spending on the arsenal and turned its back on arms control as a national security tool, the Biden administration in its interim national security strategic guidance released in March said that it “will take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, while ensuring our strategic deterrent remains safe, secure, and effective and that our extended deterrence commitments to our allies remain strong and credible.”

The Biden administration smartly and quickly agreed with Russia to a five-year extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) without conditions and pledged to “pursue new arms control arrangements.”

But there is more work to do. Current U.S. nuclear weapons policies exceed what is necessary to deter a nuclear attack from any U.S. adversary, and the financial and opportunity costs of the current nuclear modernization plan are rising fast.

The Biden administration’s topline discretionary budget request released in April said that “While the Administration is reviewing the U.S. nuclear posture, the discretionary request supports ongoing nuclear modernization programs while ensuring that these efforts are sustainable.” But there are several modernization efforts that do not meet the “sustainable” criterion.

The administration can and should move the United States toward a nuclear strategy that will continue to ensure an effective nuclear deterrent, reflects a narrower role for nuclear weapons, raises the nuclear threshold, is more affordable, and supports the pursuit of additional arms control and reduction measures designed to enhance stability and reduce the chance of nuclear conflict.

Below are responses to several common arguments advanced by the supporters of the nuclear weapons status quo against proposals for adjusting the current U.S. nuclear modernization plan so that it is less costly and more conducive to efforts to reduce nuclear weapons risks. 


Claim: Nuclear weapons don’t actually cost that much.

Response: The reality is that the financial cost to sustain and upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal is growing increasingly punishing. President Trump’s fiscal year (FY) 2021 budget request of $44.5 billion for nuclear weapons was a 19 percent increase over the previous year.

Though the sunk costs to date have been relatively minimal, spending on nuclear weapons is slated to increase dramatically in the coming years. In contrast, the topline national defense budget will likely be flat at best. (The Biden administration’s FY 2022 defense topline request does not keep pace with inflation.) Nearly the entire arsenal is slated for an upgrade and/or replacement at roughly the same time, and the bulk of the modernization portion of the cost will occur over the next 10 to 15 years.

One oft-heard claim in support of the status quo is that even at its peak in the late-2020s, spending on nuclear weapons is affordable because it will only consume roughly 6.4 percent of total Pentagon spending. But this figure is misleading for several reasons. The estimate, which was prepared to inform the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, is now nearly 4 years old. The projection also does not include spending on nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semiautonomous Energy Department agency whose nuclear weapons activities are part of the national defense budget. Since the end of the Obama administration, NNSA weapons activities spending has grown by roughly 70 percent. When NNSA spending is included, nuclear weapons already accounted for 6 percent of the total FY 2021 national defense budget request.

Program cost overruns and likely schedule delays are poised to exacerbate the financial challenge. Last year, the NNSA requested an unplanned increase of $2.8 billion relative to earlier planning. The agency’s 25-year plan published in December showed that projected spending on nuclear weapons activities has risen to $505 billion. That is a staggering increase of $113 billion from the 2020 version of the plan.

The scope and schedule goals for the nuclear modernization effort are highly aggressive and face major execution problems. As the Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted in a report published in May, “every nuclear triad replacement program—including the B21, LRSO, GBSD, and Columbia class submarine, and every ongoing bomb and warhead modernization program—faces the prospect of delays due to program-specific and” Defense and Energy Department “wide risk factors.” Extending the schedule for these programs will increase their cost.

The growing price tag of the nuclear mission is coinciding with Pentagon plans to recapitalize large portions of the nation’s conventional force. The last time the United States simultaneously modernized its conventional and nuclear forces in the 1980s, it did so alongside an increasing defense budget, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work recently noted. “With such increases, the Pentagon did not have to trade conventional capability for nuclear forces,” Work points out, but “unless something changes, that will not be the case this time.”

Indeed, in order accommodate the multi-billion dollar unplanned budget increase in FY 2021 for the NNSA, the Navy was forced to cut a second Virginia-class attack submarine from its budget submission. Congress ultimately added the second Virginia back to the budget, but the episode illustrates the significant threat that spending nuclear weapons spending poses to other national security and military priorities.

As the cost of nuclear weapons continues to rise, the choices that are made about what not to fund to pay for them are going to get more difficult, especially amid a flat defense budget. And the longer the government waits to make those hard choices, the more suboptimal they are going to get.

Claim: Adjusting U.S. nuclear force structure and modernization plans in the face of growing Russian and Chinese nuclear threats would be unwise.

Response: The Biden administration is undoubtedly inheriting a less hospitable security environment than what existed when President Obama left office in 2016. On the nuclear front, Russia and China are modernizing their arsenals, developing new weapon capabilities, and, according to U.S. intelligence estimates, projected to increase the size of their nuclear warhead stockpiles over the next decade.

But this does not mean the United States should follow suit – or maintain a nuclear arsenal in excess to what is needed for deterrence.

China’s much smaller nuclear arsenal has grown only modestly over the past decade. While the Defense Department projects that China may at least double its arsenal over the next decade, it estimates Beijing’s current arsenal to be in the low-200s. Should China’s nuclear stockpile double, it would still be many times smaller than the current U.S. stockpile of about 3,800 warheads. Relative to the many challenges China poses to the United States and its allies, the Chinese nuclear challenge is not among the most pressing.

With respect to Russia, in 2013, the Obama administration determined the security of the United States and its allies could be maintained while pursuing up to a one-third reduction in deployed nuclear weapons below the level of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and 700 deployed delivery systems as stipulated by New START.

The case for a one-third reduction in deployed strategic forces remains strong. The size of the Russian strategic nuclear force has not changed since then and remains lower than that of the United States. What nefarious opportunities would Moscow be able to exploit in the face of a U.S. nuclear arsenal by 2030 consisting of, for example: 1,000-1,100 deployed warheads on 10 ballistic missile submarines, 300 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and at least 60 long-range bombers; two low-yield warhead delivery options; and 1,500-2,000 warheads in reserve?

The Biden administration should seek to make further reductions in the U.S. arsenal in concert with Russia, as well as bring China off the arms control sidelines. But it should not give Moscow or Beijing veto power over U.S. force adjustments as further reductions will not compromise U.S. national security. Decisions about force needs must take into account the long-term funding challenges posed by maintaining the U.S. arsenal at its current size and consider the opportunity costs.

After all, planned U.S. spending on nuclear weapons poses a major threat to security priorities more relevant to countering Moscow and Beijing and assuring allies, such as pandemic defense and response as well as pacing China’s advancing conventional military capabilities.

As Adm. Philip Davidson, the former head of Indo-Pacific Command, put it earlier this year: “The greatest danger to the future of the United States continues to be an erosion of conventional deterrence.” How does cutting attack submarines to pay for cost overruns at the NNSA address this greatest danger? How does replacing conventional sea-launched cruise missiles on attack submarines with a planned fleet of new nuclear cruise missiles address this greatest danger?

Claim: Adjusting U.S. nuclear modernization plans won’t save money.

Response: Supporters of the current modernization approach claim that the only choice is to proceed full steam ahead with the status quo or allow the U.S. nuclear arsenal to rust into obsolescence. This is a false choice. Adjusting long-standing and more recently adopted nuclear planning assumptions would enable changes to the current nuclear modernization effort and could produce scores of billions of dollars in savings to redirect to higher priority national security needs.

Of course, pressure on the defense budget cannot be relieved solely by reducing nuclear weapons spending, as a significant portion of the overall cost of nuclear weapons remains fixed. That said, changes to the nuclear replacement program could make it easier to execute and ease some of the hard choices facing the overall defense enterprise.

For example, reshaping the spending plans consistent with an up to one-third reduction in deployed nuclear warheads could save at least $80 billion through 2030 while still allowing the United States to maintain a nuclear triad. Such an amount would, for example, be more than enough to fulfill Indo-Pacific Command’s request earlier this year for $22.7 billion to augment the U.S. conventional defense posture in the region through fiscal year 2027 via the Pacific Deterrence Initiative.

Claim: The Minuteman III missile system can’t be life extended again.

Response: ICBMs are the least valuable, least essential, and least stabilizing leg of the nuclear triad. What the nation invests to sustain ICBMs should reflect this reality. Spending approximately $100 billion to buy a new ICBM system over the next 10-15 years and billions more on an upgraded ICBM warhead and the production of plutonium pits for the warhead fails to reflect the limited utility of ICBMs.

The United States currently deploys 400 ICBMs across five states. Supporters argue that the ICBM force presents an attacker with hundreds of targets on the U.S. homeland and is a hedge against a potential future vulnerability in the sea-based leg of the triad. However, even if one supports these arguments, there are cheaper options than going forward with the ICBM replacement program, called the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program.

Past independent assessments indicate that it is possible to extend the life of the existing Minuteman III missiles beyond their planned retirement in the 2030 timeframe, as the Defense Department has done before, by refurbishing the rocket motors and other parts.

In 2017, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected that deferring the new missile portion of GBSD by two decades, extending the life of the Minuteman III missiles, and proceeding with refurbishment of the system’s command and control infrastructure as planned could save $37 billion (in 2017 dollars) through the late 2030s. The option value of this approach would be significant as the Pentagon seeks to navigate the daunting conventional and nuclear modernization bow wave that is now upon it.

Defense officials have put forward several arguments against extending the Minuteman III based on the program analysis of alternatives conducted in 2014, but all of the arguments merit greater scrutiny.

The Defense Department claims that the price to build and operate a new missile system would be less than the cost to maintain the Minuteman III. But it seems the Pentagon arrived at this conclusion by comparing the total life-cycle cost of the two options through 2075. Since Minuteman III missiles cannot be extended for the full period, the department assumed a new missile eventually would be needed. Might comparing the two options over a shorter period produce a different answer? The CBO’s analysis suggested the answer is yes.

The Pentagon also argues that a new missile is essential to maintain the current force of 400 deployed ICBMs. While true that there eventually will not be enough Minuteman III motors to maintain a force of 400 ICBMs at the current rate of testing, this problem can be solved by reducing the number of deployed missiles to, say, 300. How did 400 deployed ICBMs through 2075 become a sacrosanct requirement for a modernization decision covering half a century? Furthermore, future arms control agreements could result in the need for fewer ICBMs in the U.S. arsenal, and presidents can also change military requirements to call for fewer ICBMs.

In addition, defense officials say that the ICBM leg of the triad requires new capabilities that the Minuteman III cannot provide, such as additional target coverage and the ability to penetrate advancing adversary missile defenses. These are curious claims.

First, what and how many targets are Minuteman III missiles unable to hit? Targets in China or North Korea that would require overflying Russia? Can these targets not be hit by other U.S. nuclear capabilities, notably the best mobile intercontinental-range missile on the planet: the Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile?

Regarding the missile defense concern, is this a 2030 problem or a 2075 problem? Are the Russians and Chinese on the verge of unlocking the secret to intercepting scores of hypersonic ICBMs armed with decoys and countermeasures – a secret the United States has been unable to unlock? When the Russians express similar concerns about unconstrained U.S. missile defenses posing a threat to the credibility of their nuclear deterrent, U.S. officials dismiss their concerns as paranoia.

These are questions that need far more compelling answers before proceeding full steam ahead with GBSD. There is no evidence the Pentagon has studied the extension option across a wider range of parameters than those considered in 2014. Adm. Charles Richard, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, conceded in April that the Pentagon “may be able to chart,” a life extension of the Minuteman III, “but there is an enormous amount of detail that has to go into that.” The Pentagon appears to have no choice but to consider alternatives. According to the GAO, GBSD “program schedule delays are likely.”

Might continuing to rely on the Minuteman III system beyond the 2030s entail some technical risk? Yes. Would it be preferable to replace the aging Minuteman III supporting infrastructure, which in many cases relies on parts that are no longer made, in one fell swoop rather than via incremental upgrades? Probably. Would a common configuration for all launch facilities, which GBSD would provide, make maintenance easier? Yes. Would new missiles built to accommodate future technology upgrades be easier to maintain in the long run? Yes.

But while building a new ICBM system might be preferable, it is not essential. Not given the limited utility of ICBMs. Not given the enormous cost of the GBSD program. Not given the availability of the extension and the incremental upgrade option. Not given other pressing priorities amid a flat defense budget. And not given that future arms control agreements could reduce U.S. nuclear forces.

Claim: Adjusting U.S. nuclear modernization plans would undermine the assurance of allies amid allied concern about the threats posed by Russia and China and the strength of the credibility of the U.S. commitment to their security.

Response: The Trump administration attempted to buttress extended deterrence with new nuclear capabilities and more ambiguous language about when it might consider the use of nuclear weapons. These changes do not appear to have assured allies, which suggests that the assurance challenge is more of a political “software” than a military “hardware” problem. Moreover, the most proximate threat Russia and China pose to allies comes from non-nuclear and asymmetric “grey-zone” capabilities that are harder to deter and more likely to lead to conflict escalation. Improving conventional deterrence and alliance cohesion would be more appropriate for this problem than greater reliance on nuclear weapons.

The United States can continue to assure its allies and partners as it reduces the role of nuclear weapons in its strategy, maintains second-to-none conventional military forces, and, most importantly, strengthens political relationships through reaffirmations of the value of alliances, stronger economic and cultural ties, and stepped-up dialogue that tie the United States more closely to the security of its allies.

As former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy Elaine Bunn recently put it:

“The precise make up...of the nuclear force [is] not likely to have the greatest impact on allies’ views of extended nuclear deterrence. That's about the overall relationship, the peacetime consultations, the crisis management exercises. It’s about that whole web of interactions that we have with allies. And so as long as there’s a baseline of an effective nuclear arsenal, I think if we are confident in our nuclear deterrence capabilities then with right consultation allies will be too.”

Claim: Adjusting U.S. nuclear modernization plans would reduce U.S. leverage to achieve new arms control agreements.

Response: First, a close examination of the history of U.S.-Russian arms control raises doubts about the strength of the link between increased U.S. spending on nuclear weapons and arms control success. For example, the U.S. and NATO decision to field new ground-launched nuclear missiles in Europe in the early 1980s is often cited as being essential to convincing Moscow to agree to the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty prohibiting such weapons. But the actual fielding of the new weapons beginning in 1983 prompted Moscow to walk out of arms control talks. The talks did not resume until 1985 following the major political change in the Soviet Union that accompanied Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascension to leader.

Second, even if the modernization program were an effective bargaining chip, the chip can’t be cashed in anytime soon. The program won’t produce an appreciable number of new delivery systems until the late 2020s at the earliest. Third, the Trump administration’s repeated threats to build up the U.S. nuclear arsenal did not force the current Russian and Chinese leadership to capitulate to maximalist U.S. demands for a new arms control agreement.

Fourth, an up to one-third reduction in deployed strategic forces would still leave the United States with ample nuclear capability with which to trade as part of new arms control arrangements with Russia (or in the future China). Even after such a reduction, the United States would retain rough parity with Russia in the number of strategic delivery systems and warheads. Moreover, while past strategic nuclear arms control agreements have included equal ceilings on strategic forces, some agreements have included ranges for the ceilings.

Fifth, Moscow has identified constraints on U.S. non-nuclear weapons, such as missile defense and advanced conventional strike capabilities, as priority conditions for further Russian nuclear cuts, especially cuts to Russia’s new “novel” strategic range delivery systems and large stockpile of non-strategic nuclear warheads. The success or failure new arms control talks will rise or fall in large part based on how these issues are addressed, not whether, for instance, the United States builds a new ICBM.—KINGSTON REIF, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy, and SHANNON BUGOS, research associate

Description: 

Current U.S. nuclear weapons policies exceed what is necessary to deter a nuclear attack from any U.S. adversary, and the financial and opportunity costs of the current nuclear modernization plan are rising fast. Here are responses to several common arguments advanced by the supporters of the nuclear weapons status quo against proposals for adjusting the current U.S. nuclear modernization plan so that it is less costly and more conducive to efforts to reduce nuclear weapons risks. 

Russia Puts Open Skies Withdrawal Process Into Motion

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U.S. Military Debates Ground-Launched Missiles


May 2021
By Kingston Reif

As the Defense Department continues to develop conventional missiles formerly banned by the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, an internal debate within the department about the rationale for the missiles and uncertainty about where they might be based has spilled out into the open.

Air Force Gen. Timothy M. Ray, chief of the Air Force Global Strike Command, is among those questioning the wisdom of plans to develop a suite of conventional ground-launched missiles once banned by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. He is shown speaking to students at Barksdale Air Force Base, La. last November. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)“I genuinely struggle with the credibility” of the Army’s plan to develop the Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon, Air Force Gen. Timothy M. Ray, chief of the Global Strike Command, said April 1 on an Air Force Association podcast. “I just think it’s a stupid idea to go invest that kind of money to re-create something that [the Air Force] has mastered,” he said.

The Army is developing a suite of ground-launched missiles with a range exceeding the 500-kilometer limit prohibited by the INF Treaty, including the Precision Strike Missile, a midrange missile capability, and the Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon. (See ACT, October 2020.) The Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon is slated to have a range of several thousand kilometers, according to Army officials. The projected total cost of the weapon is unknown. Congress provided $861 million for the program in fiscal year 2021.

Several Pentagon officials have made a strong push for the development of longer-range ground-launched missiles to complement the long-range air and sea capabilities already provided by the Air Force and Navy. “A wider base of long-range precision fires…is critically important to stabilize what is becoming a more unstable environment in the western Pacific,” Adm. Philip Davidson, the head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 9. The Army and Marine Corps are enthusiastic “to embrace some of the capabilities that the Navy and Air Force have already developed,” Davidson added.

But Ray’s criticism of the Army’s plans suggests the Pentagon is not unified on the best way forward for the long-range strike mission. “Why would we entertain a brutally expensive idea, when we don’t, as a department, have the money?” he asked in reference to the projected cost of the Army’s long-range missile efforts.

Ray also raised questions about the ability of the Army to find basing options for the weapons. The Army, he said, is trying to “skate right past that brutal reality to check that some of those countries are never going to let you put…stuff like that in their theater…. Just go ask your allies.”

Whether the Pentagon could base the missiles in Europe and East Asia is unclear. Despite their concerns about Russia and China, U.S. allies have not appeared eager to host the missiles. Stacie Pettyjohn, the director of the defense program at the Center for American Security, raised concerns about rushing to develop a military capability without knowing where it might be based. “Building a missile [without] base access is risky [because] its location dictates range requirements,” she said in a March 30 tweet. “Unlike aircraft a missile’s range cannot be extended by in-flight refueling.”

Some Army officials have acknowledged the diplomatic challenge associated with basing. “It may be that none of our allies and partners in the Pacific want long-range fires” on their soil, Col. Jason Charland, a senior Army strategist at the Pentagon, told Breaking Defense on March 26. Meanwhile, Davidson noted that there needs to be “policy interaction” with allies in order to field the missiles on their territory.

Regarding the potential deployment of ground-launched missiles in Europe, Gen. Tod Wolters, the head of the U.S. European Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 13 that NATO allies are “becoming more comfortable” with that prospect. But he did not provide further information about the status of formal discussions between the United States and NATO on basing.

It remains to be seen how much emphasis the Biden administration will place on continuing to develop longer-range ground-launched missiles. An initial version of the administration’s fiscal year 2022 budget request published on April 9 stated that the intention is to invest “in the development and testing of hypersonic strike capabilities while enhancing existing long-range strike capabilities to bolster deterrence and improve survivability and response timelines.”

Meanwhile, Russia continues to denounce U.S. efforts to develop ground-launched missiles and warned of the potential fallout should the United States move ahead with deployment of the weapons. “We want to point out again that the deployment of American land-based intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles, regardless of what they carry, in various parts of the world, including in the Asia-Pacific Region, would have an immensely destabilizing effect in terms of international and regional security,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said on March 12.

Zakharova also reiterated Moscow’s proposal for a moratorium on the deployment of missiles previously banned under the INF Treaty and some associated mutual verification measures. The Trump administration had dismissed that proposal.

A general is asking: Can the United States afford these new weapons and will allies agree to let them be based overseas?

U.S. Hypersonic Glide Vehicle Fails Test


May 2021
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

A long-anticipated, first booster flight test of the Air Force’s air-launched hypersonic boost-glide vehicle, known as the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), failed on April 5.

U.S. Air Force crews secure the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) under the wing of a B-52H bomber at Edwards Air Force Base, California, in 2020. The first booster flight test of the ARRW, an air-launched hypersonic glide vehicle, failed when it took place in April. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)The test vehicle was meant to launch from a B-52 bomber, but “the test missile was not able to complete its launch sequence,” and the bomber returned to Edwards Air Force Base in California, according to an Air Force statement.

The test followed seven captive-carry flight tests, in which the aircraft carries the vehicle but does not release it, during 2019 and 2020. The April test, which was delayed from a scheduled December 2020 date, was intended to assess booster performance and simulate the separation of the booster from the boost-glide vehicle.

“The ARRW program has been pushing boundaries since its inception and taking calculated risks to move this important capability forward,” said Brig. Gen. Heath Collins, the program executive officer for weapons and director of the armament directorate at the Air Force Materiel Command, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. “While not launching was disappointing, the recent test provided invaluable information to learn from and continue ahead. This is why we test.”

The Air Force plans to achieve an initial operating capability for the program in fiscal year 2022. Congress appropriated $387 million for it for fiscal year 2021.

The program is one of several prototype hypersonic boost-glide vehicle development programs underway at the Pentagon. The Army and the Navy have teamed up on the development of a common hypersonic glide-body vehicle, which conducted a successful flight-test experiment in March 2020. (See ACT, April 2020.) The Army plans to use the vehicle on mobile ground platforms in its Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon program, while the Navy aims to pair it with a submarine-launched booster system for its Conventional Prompt Strike program.

Congress in fiscal year 2021 appropriated $861 million for the Long-Range Hypersonic Program and $768 million for the Conventional Prompt Strike program.

Hypersonic weapons travel at least five times the speed of sound. Hypersonic boost-glide vehicles are distinguished from traditional ballistic missiles by their ability to maneuver and fly at lower altitudes.

The ARRW test followed the release of a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on March 22 that called for the Pentagon to clarify the roles and responsibilities of the 78 or more U.S. government organizations involved in hypersonic weapons development.

The GAO identified 70 efforts to develop hypersonic weapons and related technologies across the Defense Department in collaboration with the Energy Department and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, at a projected price tag of about $15 billion from fiscal years 2015 through 2024. “Without clear leadership roles, responsibilities, and authorities,” says the GAO report, the Defense Department “is at risk of impeding its progress toward delivering hypersonic weapon capabilities and opening up the potential for conflict and wasted resources as decisions over larger investments are made in the future.”

The report added that defense officials describe “their development approach as acknowledging and accepting technology risk early in the program in order to achieve an operational hypersonic capability sooner, in line with [Defense Department] modernization priorities and in accordance with senior leaders’ guidance.”

Pentagon officials have given varying rationales for rushing forward with development. One involves keeping pace with China and Russia as they build similar weapons. Others include augmenting U.S. conventional war-fighting capabilities to defeat the air and missile defenses of advancing adversaries and to destroy time-sensitive targets.

Some experts have warned that new hypersonic weapons could increase the risk of rapid escalation in a conflict or crisis. (See ACT, January/February 2018.)

The GAO report also highlighted sharp cost increases in two hypersonic weapons programs in particular, the ARRW and Conventional Prompt Strike programs, and the “ambitious” and “difficult to achieve” flight-test schedules for U.S. hypersonic weapons programs.

“Current plans call for as many as 40 flight tests over the next 5 years,” says the report, and the Defense Department relies on one long-range flight-test corridor that cannot handle such a busy schedule.

“If programs are unable to conduct as many flight tests as they planned, they will be forced to either proceed to an operational capability with fewer tests (and thus less knowledge), or to accept the delay, with schedule and cost consequences,” according to the report.

The test vehicle was unable to complete its launch from a B-52 bomber, a setback as the Air Force hastens to make the weapon operational in fiscal year 2022.

 

U.S. Open Skies Aircraft Destined for Scrapyard


May 2021
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The U.S. Air Force plans to send the two Boeing OC-135B aircraft used for overflight missions under the 1992 Open Skies Treaty to the scrapyard in Arizona in May or June, sparking concern that the Biden administration may not return the United States to the accord.

The United States' decision to junk two Boeing OC-135B planes used for overflight missions under the 1992 Open Skies Treaty could mean the country's participation in the confidence-building agreement is over. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)The Air Force will also dispose of the suite of cameras, called sensors, on the planes after spending $41.5 million in fiscal year 2020 to replace the wet-film cameras with new digital sensors for both aircraft. The Trump administration’s fiscal year 2021 budget request did not include any request for overflight funding.

The Trump administration withdrew the United States from the treaty in November 2020, a move that President Joe Biden had condemned as illustrative of President Donald Trump’s “short-sighted policy of going it alone and abandoning American leadership.” At the time of withdrawal, a senior U.S. official said that the Pentagon had begun to liquidate the equipment. (See ACT, November 2020.)

The Biden administration has “determined they’re not going to do Open Skies anymore,” Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) told the Omaha World Herald, which first reported on the fate of the aircraft on April 3. “It treats it as matter-of-fact that we’re out of the treaty,” he said, adding, “I wish it wasn’t that way, but it is.”

But a spokesperson for the National Security Council told The Wall Street Journal on April 5 that the administration’s decision on U.S. participation in the accord “is separate from previously scheduled activities relating to aging equipment.”

Instead of flying its own equipment, the United States could resume participation in the treaty by working with allies who are states-parties on joint missions and using their aircraft for overflights.

The Biden administration has not officially announced its position on a possible return to the treaty.

“No decision has been made on the future of U.S. participation” in the treaty, a State Department spokesperson told Arms Control Today on April 12. “The United States is actively reviewing matters related to the treaty and consulting with our allies and partners.”

“Russia’s continuing noncompliance with the treaty is one of several pertinent factors. As this process continues, we encourage Russia to take steps to come back into compliance with the agreement,” the spokesperson added.

Defense News reported on April 7 that the State Department sent a diplomatic note to allies and partners on March 31 expressing concern that “agreeing to rejoin a treaty that Russia continues to violate would send the wrong message to Russia and undermine our position on the broader arms control agenda.”

“While we recognize that Russia’s Open Skies violations are not of the same magnitude as its material breach of the 1987 INF [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces] Treaty, they are part of a pattern of Russian disregard for international commitments—in arms control and beyond—that raises questions about Russia’s readiness to participate cooperatively in a confidence-building regime,” the note read according to Defense News.

But the note reportedly also said that the administration believes “there are circumstances in which we return to” the treaty “or include some of” the treaty’s “confidence-building measures under other cooperative security efforts.”

The Biden administration did not detail its concerns about Russian noncompliance in the diplomatic note but, in the annual State Department compliance report released April 15, echoed two assertions made by the Trump administration when it withdrew from the accord. The report cited concerns that Russia was violating the agreement because it has limited the distance for observation flights over the Kaliningrad region to no more than 500 kilometers and it has prohibited missions over Russia from flying within a 10-kilometer corridor along its border with the conflicted Georgian border regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Last year, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also claimed that Moscow used overflights to gather intelligence on crucial U.S. infrastructure, although another Trump administration official simultaneously argued that the treaty relies on outdated technology and aircraft. (See ACT, July/August 2020.) Russia has denounced the claims as “far-fetched” and argued that Washington has created “barriers” to the implementation of the treaty.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on April 8 that Russia does not have “any idea whether the Americans will return to the treaty or not, but we hope that this matter will be sorted out soon.”

In December 2020, Russia sought written guarantees from the remaining states-parties that they would neither transfer information obtained under the treaty to the United States nor prohibit flights over U.S. bases in Europe, but multiple states-parties dismissed Moscow’s request. The following month, Russia began domestic procedures for withdrawing from the treaty and said it plans to conclude those procedures by the end of May. (See ACT, March 2021.) After officially notifying states-parties, Moscow could withdraw in six months’ time, as stipulated by the treaty.

But Russia has said that it would reconsider its move to withdraw from the accord if the United States returned to the agreement. Lavrov commented on April 8 that Moscow would “respond constructively and reconsider” its plan to withdraw if Washington decided to rejoin the treaty but that Russia “cannot wait indefinitely.”

Kommersant, a Russian newspaper, reported on March 27 that Moscow rejected the first request, which came from France, for an overflight following the U.S. withdrawal, out of concern that the information gathered would be shared with Washington. The official reason attributed the rejection to restrictions in place due to the coronavirus pandemic. Two sources told the newspaper that Moscow has maintained the possibility of not accepting overflights at all and not conducting any treaty flights itself until the Biden administration determines whether to return to the accord.

Signed in 1992 and entering into force in 2002, the treaty permits each state-party to conduct short-notice, unarmed observation flights over the others’ entire territories to collect data on military forces and activities. Treaty proponents say such information sharing promotes stability.

The decision to scrap the planes has raised concerns that President Joe Biden may not return the United States to a treaty that his predecessor had repudiated.

UK to Increase Cap on Nuclear Warhead Stockpile


April 2021
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

In a significant departure from an earlier pledge, the United Kingdom announced in March that it will raise the ceiling on its nuclear warhead stockpile by more than 40 percent above its previous target and would no longer publish information about the number of warheads it maintains in an operational status.

The HMS Vengeance returning to its homeport on the River Clyde in Scotland in 2007. Vengeance is one of four Vanguard-class nuclear-armed submarines operated by the British Royal Navy. (Photo: Tam McDonald/MOD)The decision prompted concern around the world and raised questions about the UK’s commitment to its nuclear disarmament obligations under Article VI of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

London will raise the ceiling on its overall stockpile to 260 warheads by the middle of the decade, according to an integrated review of security, defense, development, and foreign policy published March 16. The new ceiling is a 44 percent increase above the level of 180 warheads that was first announced in the UK’s 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review and reiterated again in 2015. (See ACT, December 2015; November 2010.)

The UK currently has about 195 nuclear warheads, of which 120 are operational, according to an estimate by researchers at the Federation of American Scientists. The UK deploys its entire nuclear arsenal aboard four Vanguard-class submarines, each of which is armed with Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles. At least one submarine is always at sea on deterrence patrol. London maintains that a submarine on patrol would require several days’ notice to launch a missile.

The integrated review attributed the change in the warhead stockpile to “the evolving security environment, including the developing range of technological and doctrinal threats” and cited “risks to the UK from major nuclear armed states, emerging nuclear states, and state-sponsored nuclear terrorism.” But the document did not provide further detail about these threats.

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab justified the plan to increase the warhead stockpile as “the ultimate insurance policy against the worst threat from hostile states” in an interview with the BBC.

UK Defense Minister Ben Wallace told the BBC on March 21 that the change is a response to what “the Russians and others have been up to in the last few years,” specifically citing Russian investments in ballistic missile defense and new offensive capabilities.

The integrated review also states that the UK will “no longer give public figures for our operational stockpile, deployed warhead or deployed missile numbers” as such “ambiguity complicates the calculations of potential aggressors, reduces the risk of deliberate nuclear use by those seeking a first-strike advantage, and contributes to strategic stability.”

The Johnson government’s decision to increase the warhead stockpile was controversial within the UK.

Keir Starmer, the head of the Labour Party, said the plan “breaks the goal of successive prime ministers and cross-party efforts to reduce our nuclear stockpile. It doesn’t explain, when, why, or for what strategic purpose.”

Foreign governments also criticized the new direction in policy.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on March 18 that “this move is at odds with London’s many statements about its commitment to obligations to promote nuclear disarmament under the NPT.”

“The British leadership’s decisions underscore the urgent need to directly involve U.S. nuclear allies in the efforts to reduce and limit nuclear weapons, which Russia never ends to point out,” she said.

Asked about the UK decision to grow its nuclear stockpile, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, “We don’t want nuclear weapons arsenals to grow. If you don’t want that to happen, you can’t expand them.”

Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for UN Secretary-General António Guterres, raised similar concerns in a March 17 press briefing. “[W]e do express our concern at the UK’s decision to increase its nuclear weapons arsenal, which is contrary to its obligations under Article VI of the NPT,” he said. “It could have a damaging impact on global stability and efforts to pursue a world free of nuclear weapons.”

But Dujarric walked his remarks back the next day, saying that “we’re not expressing a legal opinion” but rather the view that the UK “announcement is not consistent with the disarmament commitments…all nuclear-weapon states have undertaken.”

A spokesperson for UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on March 16 that the NPT “doesn’t require us to reduce the number of warheads. All of our actions are consistent with our nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty obligations.”

“The 260 figure is a ceiling, not a target,” the spokesperson added. “We will continue to keep this under review in the light of the international security environment and make adjustments as appropriate.”

But skeptics warned that London will need to do more to assuage concerns ahead of the NPT review conference, now scheduled to take place in August after being postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. (See ACT, November 2020.)

“The UK will need to clarify how it plans to contribute to and lead on nuclear disarmament amidst these changes in the stockpile number,” said Heather Williams, a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and lecturer at King’s College London.

The change in policy comes as London lobbies Washington to move forward with development of a newly designed, high-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead, the W93.

The current warhead for the UK’s Trident ballistic missiles is believed to be based on the U.S. W76 warhead. Adm. Charles Richard, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said in February 2020 that the UK has “a parallel replacement warhead program,” although London is responsible for the design and production of its warhead fleet.

The Guardian reported in August that Wallace sent a letter to Congress in April 2020 encouraging funding for the W93. “Congressional funding in [fiscal year 2021] for the W93 program will ensure that we continue to deepen the unique nuclear relationship between our two countries, enabling the United Kingdom to provide safe and assured continuous-at-sea deterrence for decades to come,” he wrote.

Congress in December appropriated the Trump administration’s request of $53 million in fiscal year 2021 to accelerate work on the W93, although not without controversy. (See ACT, January/February 2021.)

A new defense policy review results in raising warhead ceiling by 44 percent.

Pentagon Reviews Nuclear Budget


April 2021
By Kingston Reif

The Defense Department has begun an initial review of aspects of the costly U.S. plan to upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal amid continued support from military leaders for the modernization program and debate in Congress about the need for and affordability of the effort.

The Defense Department has begun an initial review of aspects of the costly U.S. plan to upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal amid debate in Congress about the need for and affordability of the effort. (Photo: U.S. Department of Defense)In a Feb. 17 memo, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks directed the director of the Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) to lead a set of reviews “on a very small number of issues with direct impact on [fiscal year] 2022 and of critical importance” to President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Among those issues is a review of lower-yield nuclear weapons and select command, control, and communications topics.

Although the exact scope of the review of the nuclear enterprise is unclear, the language in Hicks’ memo suggests the review is confined to an assessment of the Trump administration’s proposal to develop and field a new low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead variant, known as the W76-2, and a new nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile. (See ACT, March 2018.)

The Navy began fielding the W76-2 in late 2019. (See ACT, March 2020.) The new cruise missile is currently undergoing an analysis of alternatives to determine possible options for the weapon.

The Biden administration is planning to release the defense budget on May 3. Multiple press reports indicate that the topline for national defense is likely to remain roughly the same level as the $741 billion appropriations for the current fiscal year.

The Hicks-directed review and likelihood of a flat defense budget comes as the ambition and price tag of the U.S. program to maintain and replace the U.S. nuclear triad and its associated warheads and supporting infrastructure grew significantly under the Trump administration.

President Donald Trump’s fiscal year 2021 budget request of $44.5 billion for the arsenal was a 19 percent increase over the previous year. Over the next several decades, spending is likely to top $1.5 trillion.

Administration officials have indicated that the budget review will be followed by a more comprehensive review of U.S. nuclear policy, but it remains to be seen when such a review will commence and what form it will take.

Austin said in response to advance questions prior to his confirmation hearing on Jan. 19 that “[i]n keeping with past practice for incoming Administrations, I would anticipate that President-elect Biden will direct the interagency to conduct a thorough set of strategic reviews, including of U.S. nuclear posture.”

Similarly, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a group of Japanese reporters on March 17 that the Biden administration is “going to undertake something called the Nuclear Posture Review” and “that I think will begin in the weeks ahead.”

Some military officials are counseling the new administration to consider a broader strategic deterrence review that evaluates nuclear, space, cyber, and missile defense issues as a unified whole.

Gen. John Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Air Force Association in late February that strategic deterrence is not “just about nuclear posture…not about missile defense, not just about space…. [I]t’s about all those things together that provide our overall strategic capability and our ability to strategically deter our adversaries.”

Austin and Hicks said at their confirmation hearings that they support the continued maintenance of a nuclear triad and highlighted modernization of the triad as a top priority. They did not commit to continuing the status quo on every modernization program, most notably the program to build a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) system, and instead said they would closely review the current plans before making any recommendations.

But top Pentagon military leaders are continuing to express strong support for the modernization effort.

Adm. Charles Richard, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, told reporters on Jan. 5 that the purpose of a new nuclear policy review should be “[v]alidation, that we like the strategy that we have.”

Richard added that it is no longer possible to extend the life of the existing Minuteman III ICBM, an alternative advocated by critics of the new missile plan. (See ACT, October 2020.)

“It is getting past the point of…not [being] cost effective to life-extend Minuteman III,” he said. “You’re quickly getting to the point you can’t do it at all.”

Meanwhile, supporters and opponents of the current modernization plans in Congress continued to debate the merits of the plans ahead of the release of the Biden administration’s first budget request. (See ACT, January/February 2021.)

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the ranking members on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, respectively, wrote in February that Biden “must prioritize long-overdue investments in the nuclear triad, or risk permanently losing our most effective means for deterring existential military threats.”

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) responded in remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on March 5 by arguing that the United States has more nuclear weapons than it needs for its security and questioning whether the current modernization plans “are really necessary to have a deterrent.”

Other Democrats have been more supportive of continuing forward with the status quo. Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) told Bloomberg in a Feb. 23 interview that bipartisan support for modernizing the nuclear triad is “very strong.” He added that “we need a replacement” for the Minuteman III.

Under evaluation are lower-yield nuclear weapons, and select command, control and communications.

U.S. Nuclear Warhead Costs Surge


April 2021
By Kingston Reif

The projected long-term cost to sustain and modernize U.S. nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure has skyrocketed to unprecedented heights, according to the Energy Department’s latest Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, published last December.

U.S. submarine-launched ballistic missiles carry the W76-1 nuclear warhead. According to the National Nuclear Security Administration, the W76-1 Life Extension Program extends the originally designed warhead service life of 20 years to 60 years. NNSA completed refurbished warhead production in December 2018. (Photo: Getty Images)Prepared annually by the department’s semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the report highlights the growing scope of the NNSA modernization plans and the fiscal challenge they will pose to the Biden administration.

The fiscal year 2021 version projects $505 billion in spending, after inflation, on NNSA efforts related to sustaining and modernizing the nuclear warhead stockpile over the next 25 years. This is an increase of $113 billion, or 29 percent, from the 2020 version of the plan. (See ACT, September 2019.)

The document states that the NNSA “considers this program to be affordable,” but does not provide a detailed explanation of why the agency believes that to be the case or why the cost of the 2021 plan is so much higher than the previous version.

According to an analysis published by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in July 2020, a “reevaluation of the funding needed to meet existing requirements, rather than costs associated with new requirements, was the main factor contributing to the large increase in proposed funding in [the Energy Department’s] fiscal year 2021 budget justification.”

The Trump administration in February 2020 requested $15.6 billion for NNSA nuclear weapons activities account in fiscal year 2021, an increase of $3.1 billion, or 25 percent, above the fiscal year 2020 appropriation and $2.8 billion above the projection for 2021 in the fiscal year 2020 budget request. (See ACT, March 2020.)

An NNSA spokesperson told Arms Control Today in December that “[b]arring unexpected new requirements or additional major programs of record, [the] NNSA’s weapons activities portfolio growth will reach a steady-state period beginning in fiscal year 2021.”

“As new program of record activities begin, previous programs of record will be closing out, and the projected budget trend through fiscal year 2045 will see similar year-to-year increases that account for inflation,” the spokesperson added.

Under the Trump administration, the budget for the NNSA’s nuclear sustainment and modernization program grew well higher than the rate of inflation. The budget for this program has increased by more than 65 percent over the past four years.

The ambition of the agency’s modernization program is unlike anything seen since the Cold War. Allison Bawden, a director at the GAO, told Congress in March 2020 that the federal spending watchdog is “concerned about the long-term affordability of the plans.”

The agency has consistently underestimated the cost and schedule risks of major warhead life extension programs and infrastructure recapitalization projects.

The stockpile plan projects the cost to build a newly designed submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) warhead proposed by the Trump administration, dubbed the W93, at $11.8–18.2 billion. The high degree of cost uncertainty reflects the fact that the proposed warhead is still in the early development phase.

The plan also reveals that, in addition to the W93, the agency is planning to eventually replace the existing W76 and W88 SLBM warheads with new warheads.

Existing plans call for a 29 percent increase in funds to sustain and modernize U.S. nuclear warheads.

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