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– Hans Blix,
former IAEA Director-General

Weapons Research & Development

Examining the Flawed Rationale for a New Nuclear Air-Launched Cruise Missile

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Description: 

A close examination of the proposed long-range standoff cruise missile (LRSO) reveals that it would be redundant, lack a unique mission, and could have a destabilizing effect with potential adversaries.

Body: 

Volume 8, Issue 2, June 12, 2016

The debate about the necessity and affordability of the Obama administration’s half trillion dollar plan to modernize the nuclear triad of land-based missiles, submarine-launched missiles, and long-range bombers–and their associated warheads and supporting infrastructure–continues to escalate.

The mammoth costs of nuclear modernization prompted Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) to ask on May 19 at the Brookings Institution: “it is very, very, very expensive... Do we really need the entire triad, given the situation?”

President Barack Obama has acknowledged that existing U.S. and global nuclear weapons capabilities already provide more than enough nuclear killing power. Yet, his administration has to date pursued a costly, “all-of-the-above” plan to maintain and upgrade U.S. nuclear forces at force levels that exceed nuclear deterrence requirements.

One of the most controversial pieces of this approach is the Air Force’s proposal to build a new fleet of roughly 1,000 nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) and refurbish the warhead for the weapon. The replacement is known as the long-range standoff cruise missile, or LRSO.

Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) filed an amendment to the fiscal year (FY) 2017 national defense authorization act that would delay development of the new cruise missile and warhead by one year to allow further consideration of the programs. While the Senate is unlikely to debate or vote on the amendment, the Senate and House of Representatives could consider amendments on the issue again later this month when each body takes up the FY 2017 defense appropriations bill.

For its part, the Obama administration appears content to pass on the growing fiscal challenge posed by its nuclear modernization project to its successor.

However, Ben Rhodes, the assistant to the president and deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, said at the Arms Control Association annual meeting on June 6, that the President recognizes the enormous budget challenge posed by the plans and will continue to review them “as he considers how to hand the baton off to his successor.”

Regardless of what happens during the remainder of the Obama administration, the next president will likely face a number of increasingly urgent questions about the modernization effort, including its need, affordability, opportunity costs, impact on global security, and more.

In other words, the debate about modernization, and in particular the new cruise missile, has just begun.

The Defense Department and supporters of replacing the nuclear ALCM in Congress and the think tank community have circulated a number of materials in response to Markey’s amendment and other efforts to raise doubts about the rationale for the new missile.

The following is a rebuttal to some of the top arguments made in favor of the program.

A closer examination of the issue makes it clear that the LRSO is redundant, lacks a unique mission, could have a destabilizing effect, and is not worth its estimated $20-$30 billion acquisition cost.

The LRSO Is Not Needed to Maintain the Air-Leg of the Triad

Proponents argue that air-launched cruise missiles extend the range of strategic bombers and complicate an adversary’s air defense problem. The LRSO will ensure the country has an air-leg of the triad that can penetrate enemy airspace as adversaries enhance and expand their air defense capabilities, they say.

It is important to remember that the United States first fielded a nuclear ALCM in the early 1980s at a time when the country did not have stealth bombers or advanced conventional cruise missiles and sought an additional nuclear system with which to deter and impose costs on the Soviet Union. None of these conditions exist today.

According to Andrew Weber, former assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological matters, had the United States procured even half of the 132 B-2 bombers it had originally planned to build during the late 1980s and early 1990s (the Air Force ultimately bought 21), the Pentagon would have retired the current ALCM and removed the B-52H from the nuclear mission years ago.

The range of America’s existing strategic bombers is being extended by increasingly advanced long-range conventionally-armed air-launched cruise missiles. The planned introduction of 80-100 B-21 strategic bombers, which will be armed with the modernized B61 mod 12 gravity bomb, conventionally armed cruise missiles such as the JASSM-ER, and electronic warfare capabilities for air defense suppression, will further enhance the range of the bomber leg.

Together these improvements will make the bomber leg of the triad much more formidable than it is today. The B-21 is projected to be able to penetrate enemy airspace for decades after its initial fielding in the mid-2020s, which begs the question of why a new ALCM is urgently needed now. Even if the survivability of the B-21 is called into question in the future, the Pentagon has yet to demonstrate that the LRSO, which is being procured at the same time as the B-21, will be inherently more survivable or that a B-21 armed with conventional air-launched cruise missiles won’t be able to blow holes in air defenses. If the Air Force believes the stealth of the B-21 could be compromised soon after it is deployed, the service shouldn’t procure it in the first place.

The LRSO Is Not Needed to Deter Limited Nuclear Escalation, Nor Should We Want It for Waging Limited Nuclear War

Proponents argue that new air-launched cruise missiles would provide low-yield nuclear war-fighting options for responses to limited adversary attack, which is important for escalation control and maintaining a credible deterrent.

In reality, U.S. nuclear capabilities would remain highly credible and flexible even without a nuclear ALCM. The arsenal includes other weapons that can produce more “limited” effects, most notably the B61 gravity bomb. Moreover, intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) or submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) warheads could be configured to produce limited effects at a lower cost than the LRSO and its warhead, if necessary.

Regardless, has the U.S. intelligence community produced an assessment showing that failing to replace the current ALCM would increase the risk of limited adversarial nuclear use? Under what scenario has the intelligence community concluded that an adversary might believe the United States would be self-deterred from using a higher-yield ICBM or SLBM in response to limited nuclear use?

More importantly, the notion that the use of nuclear weapons can be fine-tuned to carefully control a nuclear war is very dangerous thinking. It is highly unlikely that an adversary on the receiving end of a U.S. nuclear strike would (or could) distinguish between a large warhead and a small warhead. The fog of war is thick. The fog of nuclear war would be even thicker. Large or small, nuclear weapons are extremely blunt instruments, both in terms of their destructive power and the taboo associated with the fact they have not been used in 70 years.

Finally, under what scenario could one ALCM or LRSO reliably circumvent the most sophisticated adversarial air defense capabilities and destroy a target that a B-21-borne gravity bomb or conventional cruise missile could not? If such a scenario does not exist, and the United States needed to launch more nuclear cruise missiles to ensure penetration, how would such a strategy not unavoidably escalate the conflict?

The LRSO Would Be a Costly “Hedge on a Hedge”

Proponents argue that ALCMs (and later the LRSO) complement the nuclear triad and will provide an important and rapidly uploadable hedge against technical problems with the sea and ground based legs of the triad. They also argue that the weapon allows the military to take advantage of the counting rules in the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which counts each strategic bomber as one launcher and one warhead, regardless of the number of cruise missiles and gravity bombs they can carry.

It is not surprising that military planners would want many different ways of attacking a target. But how much added deterrence value do air-launched cruise missiles actually provide in the minds of potential adversaries?

The weapons associated with the other two legs of the nuclear triad–namely, SLBMs and ICBMs–can penetrate air defenses and strike targets anywhere on the planet with high confidence. The United States possesses far more warheads for these missiles than does Russia and could upload hundreds of warheads to its deployed ballistic missiles and bombers. In addition, the Navy’s sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missile is also a highly capable and continually improving conventional standoff weapon, and it has an even longer range than the JASSM-ER.

Has the military identified possible technical or other problems that could compromise the sea and ground based legs of the triad? What specific targets cannot be effectively and credibly held at risk by other nuclear and standoff weapons, together with gravity bombs, that could only be held at risk by the current ALCM and later, the LRSO force? How large and unique is that target set?

The Defense Department believes SLBMs, ICBMs and gravity bombs have different characteristics than ALCMs and are not perfect substitutes. At least a portion of the total ALCM force can also be more quickly uploaded to the deployed force than non-deployed ballistic missile warheads. (Note: nuclear ALCMs are not deployed on B-52H bombers on a day-to-day basis. Roughly 200 of these missiles are believed to be deployed at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota armed with the W80-1 nuclear warhead.)

Yet as Hans Kristensen with the Federation of the American Scientists notes, “the bottom line for an effective nuclear deterrent is the credible capability to hold at risk the targets that an adversary values most.” On the issue of timing, how essential for deterrence is the quicker generation time for ALCMs? It is also important not to forget that B61 bombs can be rapidly uploaded to the B-2 and later the B-21.

Finally, regarding the New START bomber counting rule, it has been reported that the United States originally preferred an agreement that would count the actual number of nuclear bombs and ALCMs at air bases for use by bombers, but compromised and agreed to a discount rule that attributes each deployed bomber as one warhead. If such an agreement had been reached would reductions in the ALCM force have been required? There have also been reports that the United States was prepared to go lower than the 1,550 accountable warhead cap in the treaty.

Russia’s Actions Do Not Require Pursuit of a Costly New ALCM

Some LRSO advocates suggest that because Russia is fielding nuclear and conventional cruise missiles on aircraft, submarines, and surface ships, the United States must retain a nuclear cruise missile option.

Such arguments ignore the fact that the United States did not acquire the ALCM because the Soviet Union had such a capability, and it does not maintain or need to replace the ALCM because Russia has nuclear cruise missiles. It is not in the U.S. interest to engage in a new tit-for-tat arms race with the Russians to rebuild an excessively large nuclear force. This is especially true if it comes at the expense of needed conventional improvements that are more relevant to countering Russia and maintaining America’s military technological edge.

Questions about ALCM's Role in Current U.S. Strategy

Proponents consider a new ALCM necessary to maintain an effective U.S. nuclear deterrent because the current missile is losing its ability to penetrate increasingly sophisticated air and missile defenses.

Multiple sources with knowledge of the existing ALCM have stated that the reliability of the missile is not assured over the next ten years and that there are serious restrictions on the current use of the ALCM due to reliability issues. This suggests that the current ALCM could play more of a "backup" role in U.S. nuclear planning. Consequently, it would be imprudent to spend $20 billion or more to build a new nuclear air-launched cruise missile that could increase the role these weapons play in U.S. policy.

The Imaginary Strategic Bomber Gap

Some advocates of the LRSO erroneously claim that without the new weapon, a strategic bomber "capability gap" will emerge in the late 2020s and last for at least a decade. They argue that because the B-21 bomber will not be available in sufficient numbers for the nuclear mission until the 2040s, the U.S. military will need to continue to use B-52Hs armed with LRSOs until then.

It is important to keep in mind that LRSO production is slated to begin in 2026 and reach only initial operating capability by 2030. It will be several years later before full operating capability is achieved.

In contrast, the B-21 is slated to achieve an initial operating capability in 2025, with nuclear certification to follow two years later. The initial capability could include as many as 24 planes.

Meanwhile, the Air Force has announced a full production rate of 7-8 B-21s per year. Assuming the United States continues to deploy no more than 60 nuclear capable strategic bombers (as it currently plans to do under the New START treaty), the B-52 may need to be removed from the nuclear mission as soon as the early to mid-2030s in order to accommodate the B-21.

In sum, the current bomber force will provide a more than formidable capability and would become even more potent when the B-21 is fielded with the B61 mod 12 and advanced conventional cruise missiles. Fears of a "bomber capability gap" are misplaced.

The New LRSO Would Create New Military Capabilities and Could Prompt Countermeasures

Proponents of the LRSO claim that it would simply sustain an existing capability, not expand that capability. They claim the new missile will not be used for new military missions and air-launched cruise missiles would not pose a destabilizing first-strike threat to potential U.S. nuclear adversaries.

In reality, the president’s nuclear modernization program is vastly increasing the military capability of U.S. nuclear weapons, including the bomber leg, across key attributes such as stealth, accuracy, range, and speed. The LRSO is likely to have greatly enhanced capabilities relative to its predecessor, and will be mated to the B-52H, B-2 and B-21 bombers, whereas the current ALCM can only be delivered by the B-52H. U.S. nuclear stealth bombers have never carried stealthy nuclear cruise missiles.

The LRSO raises serious questions about stability that have yet to be fully explored. Some sources have revealed that the Pentagon is envisioning potential uses for the new cruise missile that go beyond "the original mission space" of the ALCM, namely in limited nuclear war-fighting contingencies involving China. Some supporters of the LRSO emphasize its utility for achieving tactical surprise in combat.

Furthermore, as stressed by William Perry, President Bill Clinton’s defense secretary, and Weber, "cruise missiles are a uniquely destabilizing type of weapon" due to the fact that "they can be launched without warning and come in both nuclear and conventional variants." The possible risk of miscalculation and unintended escalation posed by the LRSO requires far more scrutiny than blithe assertions from administration officials that the missile won’t upset stability.

Bottom Line

While it is uncertain what the military budget will look like a decade from now, there will likely be insufficient funding for the complete portfolio of proposed nuclear and conventional modernization goals. This will force the U.S. government to choose between the nuclear effort and other military priorities.

As senior White House officials have noted, the current "modernization plan was put together in a different budget environment, with a different Congress and varied expectations about our future arms control efforts. Our administration has already made plain our concerns about how the modernization budget will force difficult trade-offs in the coming decades. And the President will continue to review these plans as he considers how to hand the baton off to his successor."

The estimated $20-$30 billion cost to buy the LRSO and W80-4 would be much better spent on other parts of U.S. nuclear and non-nuclear mission areas.

The choice is clear: chart a more realistic path for the nuclear arsenal that doesn’t severely constrain the force-sizing options of future presidents and reduces the risk of doing serious damage to conventional capabilities and other national security programs.

As an early step in this course correction, the Pentagon should cancel its new cruise missile program and prioritize continued investments in the other legs of the nuclear triad and more relevant and usable non-nuclear capabilities, including longer-range conventional cruise missiles and other advanced air defense suppression tools.

—KINGSTON REIF, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy

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The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the dangers posed by the world's most dangerous weapons. 

Posted: June 12, 2016

Air Force Seeks Mobile ICBM Option

Deploying intercontinental ballistic missiles on mobile launchers would represent an unprecedented development in U.S. nuclear strategy.

April 2016

By Kingston Reif

The U.S. Air Force is planning to design a next generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) that will have the capability to be deployed on mobile launchers, a knowledgeable source told Arms Control Today last month.

Initial Air Force estimates suggest that it would cost roughly $400 million in development funding to provide the “modularity” that would allow this option, the source said.

A decision by the United States to deploy ICBMs on a mobile platform would represent an unprecedented development in U.S. nuclear strategy. The United States explored two mobile ICBM options during the Cold War—the Peacekeeper, which would have been carried by railcars, and the small ICBM, or Midgetman, which would have been carried by trucks—but both programs were canceled before they became operational.

Developing transportable ICBM forces would cost at least $80 billion more over the next 50 years than retaining only silo-based missiles, according to Air Force estimates.

In an email exchange last month, Maj. Robert Leese, an Air Force spokesman, confirmed that the service is pursuing a replacement for the silo-based Minuteman III system “that will provide the option for alternative modes of operation in the future.” The replacement is known as the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD).

Leese declined to provide additional details, saying that “[t]he design features and the total cost required to support this option will be evaluated” later in the acquisition process.

A 2014 report by the RAND Corp. on the future of the ICBM force said a “mobile missile must be designed and built to more-demanding specifications then a silo-based ICBM,” such as remaining “reliable under the rigors of periodic movement.” The Minuteman III currently is not capable of being put on a mobile platform.

The requirement to examine future ICBM mobility appears to have originated with the 2010 “Nuclear Posture Review Report.” The document stated that the Defense Department would study “new modes of ICBM basing that enhance survivability and further reduce any incentives for prompt launch.” Under this argument, a mobile ICBM would enhance the overall survivability of the ICBM force by making the missile more difficult to target and destroy, thereby reducing the pressure the president might feel in the event of a nuclear attack to use ICBMs quickly lest they be destroyed.

The current Air Force proposal for replacing the Minuteman III calls for procuring 642 replacement missiles and rebuilding the existing missile infrastructure at an estimated acquisition cost of $62.3 billion (in then-year dollars) over the next 30 years. (See ACT, July/August 2015.)

That number of missiles would allow the United States to have a capability extending into the 2070s to deploy 400 ICBMs, the number that the United States will have in 2018 under the terms of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START).

To meet the treaty limits, the Defense Department has said it will reduce the U.S. arsenal from its current level—441 deployed missiles as of September 2015—while retaining 50 nondeployed missile launchers.

Leese said that, under the GBSD program, the Air Force is proposing to build “an improved system” that replaces the entire Minuteman III flight system, including the re-entry vehicles, guidance system, and propulsion system. The program also would renovate the associated missile-launch facilities, launch control centers, and command-and-control system, he said. The Nuclear Security and Deterrence Monitor reported last August that the plan is to replace the missiles first, followed by the support systems. The program is scheduled to achieve an initial operating capability of nine missiles by fiscal year 2029, the report said.

The Obama administration is requesting $114 million for the program in fiscal year 2017, an increase of almost $39 million over the appropriation for the current fiscal year. (See ACT, March 2016.)

The knowledgeable source said that, under the Air Force plan, the replacement missiles that will be fielded between 2028 and 2036 will not include mobile missiles.

ICBMs make up the land-based leg of the U.S. nuclear triad of delivery systems, which also consists of submarine-launched missiles and long-range bombers. The bombers can carry air-launched cruise missiles and gravity bombs.

The Minuteman III, which has a range of more than 8,000 miles, was first fielded in 1970 with a planned service life of 10 years. Several multibillion-dollar life extension programs have kept the missile in service for more than 40 years.

Costs Revealed

In 2014 the Air Force completed an analysis of alternatives to sustain the ICBM force beyond the anticipated end of the Minuteman III’s service life in 2030.

The analysis focused on three alternatives: a “baseline” option that would extend the life of the Minuteman III through 2075, a “replacement system” that would “capitaliz[e]” on the existing Minuteman III silo infrastructure, and a “hybrid” option that would mix the existing Minuteman III silo infrastructure with new road-mobile ICBMs.

The analysis ultimately recommended that the Air Force proceed with the replacement option. The total life-cycle cost of this approach was estimated at $159 billion (in fiscal year 2014 constant dollars) between fiscal years 2016 and 2075, according to Leese.

The baseline option was estimated to cost $160 billion and the hybrid option $242 billion.

Leese said that mobile forces would not have been deployed until around 2050 under the hybrid option. 

Incremental Upgrade Rejected

Like the Air Force, the 2014 RAND study ruled out basic sustainment of the Minuteman III as a realistic follow-on option, noting that “replacement of failed items with exact replicas is not possible in some instances.”

The RAND study took a more favorable view of an approach to sustaining the Minuteman III beyond 2030 that the authors called “incremental modernization,” which differed from the three main alternatives that the Air Force considered. The report said maintaining the missile through continued life extension programs and “gradual upgrades is a relatively inexpensive way to retain current ICBM capabilities.”

The study identified two challenges to this approach. First, the number of Minuteman III missile bodies is declining due to test launches. Based on the current testing pace, maintaining a force of 400 missiles, as is the plan under New START, would deplete the test inventory by 2035. Second, the report said incremental modernization would be “viable” only if the capability the Minuteman III provides “is not substantially changed.”

In the March email exchange, Leese said the analysis of alternatives “looked at a ‘phased’ implementation of” system “improvements” but did not recommend this option. “Incremental modernization is hindered by” the near-term need to upgrade key parts of the missile “and the remaining elements of the weapon system,” such as ground security and communications, he said.

This approach would also increase the near-term cost of sustaining the Minuteman III, Leese added.

Meanwhile, an Air Force official told Politico last October that “as enemy capabilities continue to progress...more advanced technologies are required to meet” the ICBM mission. The official did not specify what new technologies would be required or if a future mobile option is desired to enhance the U.S. capability.

A Feb. 17 story in The Daily Beast cited concerns among some military officials that the Minuteman III lacks the required accuracy to destroy key hardened targets.

In addition, Gen. Robin Rand, the commander of the Air Force Global Strike Command, told lawmakers at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on March 2 that the Minuteman III “will have a difficult time surviving” against missile defenses or other anti-missile capabilities—known as “anti-area access denial”—that potential adversaries are expected to possess “in the 2030 and beyond time period.”

When asked to clarify whether future Russian or Chinese missile defenses could prevent the Minuteman III from delivering nuclear warheads to their targets, a second Air Force spokesman said in an email last month that the “[s]pecifics regarding the survivability of the Minuteman III weapon system are classified.” The spokesman added that the GBSD program will “address future threats, especially those that may emerge in a post-2030 Anti-Access/Area Denial environment.”

A second knowledgeable source who has been briefed on the GBSD program questioned the Air Force’s approach to replacing the Minuteman III. The source said in an interview that the Air Force had yet to adequately explain why the Minuteman III could not be sustained until the 2040s, thereby allowing the Air Force to defer until then its decision on whether to build a replacement system.

Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in a January report that “delaying GBSD by five years would yield savings in the early 2020s averaging $2 billion annually.”

What's New Text: 

Posted: March 29, 2016

New Missile Defense Concepts Advance

The Obama administration’s fiscal year 2017 budget request would increase funding to improve the capability of the U.S. homeland missile defense system.

April 2016

By Kingston Reif

The Obama administration’s fiscal year 2017 budget request would increase funding to improve the capability of the U.S. system intended for protection of the U.S. homeland against long-range missiles launched from North Korea or Iran and the pursuit of advanced technology efforts to ensure the system stays ahead of foreign missile threats.

These proposed increases come amid growing concerns from high-ranking military officials that the current U.S. strategy to defeat adversary ballistic missiles is “unsustainable.”

Some of the advanced anti-missile technologies the Defense Department is pursuing, such as airborne lasers to zap missiles in the early stages of their flight, have been unsuccessfully pursued in the past.

Overall, the administration is asking for $8.5 billion for missile defense efforts in fiscal year 2017, a decrease of $500 million, or 5.5 percent, below what the administration requested for fiscal year 2016. In the request for fiscal year 2017, $7.5 billion would be for the Missile Defense Agency (MDA).

Congress appropriated $8.3 billion for the MDA, which is part of the Defense Department, for fiscal year 2016.

At a Feb. 9 press briefing at the Pentagon, Vice Adm. James Syring, the director of the MDA, said that although the agency’s fiscal year 2016 budget request projected a decrease in funding for fiscal year 2017, the bipartisan budget deal approved by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama last October set new spending levels that reduced the MDA’s fiscal year 2017 request by an additional $300 million.

The program to protect the U.S. homeland against a limited long-range missile attack, known as the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, would receive $862 million under the budget proposal, a decrease of $408 million, or 32 percent, from last year’s enacted level of $1.3 billion. The request keeps on track the Defense Department’s plan to increase the number of interceptors in Alaska and California from 30 to 44 by the end of fiscal year 2017 in response to concerns about North Korea’s growing nuclear and long-range missile capabilities. (See ACT, April 2014.) Fiscal year 2017 begins on Oct. 1.

In addition, the request would provide $274 million to design a new kill vehicle for the GMD system, a slight decrease of $5 million below the fiscal year 2016 appropriation of $279 million. Over the next five years, however, the MDA is seeking $2.2 billion for this effort, a major increase over the $626 million the agency was projecting to request from fiscal years 2016 through 2020.

The kill vehicle sits atop the interceptor’s booster rocket and is intended to collide with a target in outer space.

There have been serious concerns about the GMD interceptors since they were rushed into service by the George W. Bush administration in 2004. In response to these concerns, the MDA announced in March 2014 that it would build and deploy by 2020 a redesigned kill vehicle that would be more reliable and cost effective than the current versions. (See ACT, July/August 2014.)

The budget request also seeks a funding increase for a new ground-based sensor to provide enhanced tracking and discrimination capabilities for the GMD system. The program would receive $317 million in fiscal year 2017, an increase of $180 million over the current-year level.

In a Feb. 17 report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) repeated its warnings about the strategy the MDA is pursuing to improve the GMD system. According to the report, the MDA “has not demonstrated several key homeland missile defense capabilities and is relying on high-risk acquisition practices to achieve its goal of fielding 44 interceptors by the end of fiscal year 2017.”

The report also raised concerns that the MDA is pursuing “an aggressive schedule to begin fielding” the redesigned kill vehicle by 2020 and that it is “unclear whether MDA has allowed enough time for modifying and maturing” the desired components and technologies for the redesign.

Advanced Technology Sought

According to budget documents released on Feb. 9, the fiscal year 2017 proposal supports the MDA’s efforts to develop advanced technologies “to adapt as the threat changes in the future.”

The request includes $72 million, an increase of $21 million above the fiscal year 2016 appropriation, to advance work on a next-generation laser system “capable of defeating advanced threats and [missile] raids more efficiently than existing missile interceptors.”

The request would provide $90 million, an increase of $63 million from the current-year level, to place a sensor on the MQ-9 reaper drone to improve missile tracking and design a laser that could be put on unmanned aerial vehicles, as drones are more formally known, to destroy intercontinental ballistic missiles in their boost phase—that is, the early part of the missile’s ascent when the missile’s rocket motor is still burning.

Syring told lawmakers at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on March 19, 2015, that the MDA’s goal is to deploy a laser-armed drone by 2025.

The MDA also is requesting $72 million, an increase of $10 million above the fiscal year 2016 enacted level, to develop a new “multi-object kill vehicle” to allow a single GMD interceptor to destroy multiple targets. The program is envisioned as a follow-on to the redesigned vehicle the MDA is seeking to deploy by 2020.

Syring said at the March 2015 hearing that kill vehicles capable of destroying multiple objects “will revolutionize our missile defense architecture, substantially reducing the interceptor inventory required to defeat an evolving and more capable threat to the homeland.”

The George W. Bush administration initiated programs to put a high-powered laser on a Boeing 747 and develop a multiple-object kill vehicle, but both efforts were discontinued by the Obama administration during its first term due to concerns about their effectiveness and cost. The airborne laser program was canceled in 2012 after $5.3 billion had been spent on the program. The Defense Department spent $700 million developing a multiple-object kill vehicle concept before shelving it in 2009.

Cost Effectiveness Questioned

The MDA’s efforts to improve the effectiveness of the GMD system against current and potential threats come as senior military leaders are raising alarms about the sustainability of current U.S. missile defense efforts.

Adm. Bill Gortney, the head of the North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 10 that the U.S. missile defense system “is in an unsustainable cost model, which has us postured to shoot down inexpensive rockets with very expensive ones.”

Gortney said that the Defense Department must augment current defenses with capabilities “designed to defeat ballistic missile threats in the boost phase as well as before they are launched.”

He added that the MDA “is working on emerging technology that will enable us to employ...methods to defeat ballistic missile threats” without physically destroying them with an interceptor “when we receive indications that a launch is imminent.” Gortney did not specify what these methods would entail.

Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work stated in March 2015 that the Pentagon is seeking to develop electronic warfare tools to provide additional options to defeat the increasingly sophisticated missile capabilities of U.S. adversaries. (See ACT, April 2015.)

What's New Text: 

Posted: March 29, 2016

Budget Would Raise Nuclear Spending

The budget calls for increases even as officials warn the plan may be unsustainable. 

March 2016

By Kingston Reif

In this video image, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work speaks to reporters about the fiscal year 2017 defense budget request at the Pentagon on February 9. Photo credit: Defense Department)The Obama administration on Feb. 9 released a final budget request that proposes to continue increasing spending for programs to rebuild the U.S. nuclear triad as Defense Department officials repeated warnings that the modernization plans may become unsustainable.

Comments by U.S. civilian and military officials suggest that several programs will hit their periods of peak spending at about the same time, forcing the U.S. government to choose between the nuclear modernization effort and other military priorities unless overall defense spending rises significantly above the levels currently projected.

The Air Force and Navy are seeking approximately $3.6 billion in fiscal year 2017, which begins on Oct. 1, to build new fleets of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), ballistic missile submarines, long-range bombers, and short-range tactical aircraft, an increase of roughly $1.2 billion, or 50 percent, over the amount that Congress approved for fiscal year 2016. The request keeps the expected production timeline for these programs largely on schedule.

Meanwhile, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semiautonomous agency of the Energy Department, is requesting $9.2 billion for its nuclear weapons activities, an increase of almost $400 million, or 4 percent, above the enacted level for the current year.

Nuclear modernization costs are scheduled to peak during the 2020s and overlap with large increases in projected spending on modernization programs for conventional weapons systems. Todd Harrison, the director of defense budget analysis and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), wrote in a January report that “if not altered from current plans,” these modernization programs “will require either an increase in defense spending or a reallocation of resources within the defense budget.”

At a Feb. 9 series of press briefings at the Pentagon, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work said that if funding for nuclear modernization “comes out of our conventional forces, that will be very, very, very problematic for us.”

Similarly, Pentagon Comptroller Mike McCord said at a CSIS event on Nov. 30 that the long-term cost to modernize the triad is “a concern.” He explained that the “easy solution” would be to “bump up” resources for nuclear weapons for the next 15 years but that such a funding increase is “probably not realistic.”

Overall, the administration requested $551 billion for national defense in fiscal year 2017. That figure includes the Defense Department’s regular budget activities and the Energy Department’s nuclear weapons programs.

Spending on Delivery Systems Rises

The highest-priority nuclear triad replacement program remains the Navy’s plan to replace its current fleet of 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines with 12 new subs, called the Ohio replacement program. Under the Navy’s budget request, the program would receive $1.9 billion in fiscal year 2017, an increase of $360 million above the fiscal year 2016 appropriation.

The request includes $1.1 billion in research and development and, for the first time, $778 million in advance procurement funding to build the first boat in the new class.

An Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine moves through the Hood Canal on its way to Naval Base Kitsap in Washington state on February 15. (Photo credit: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Amanda R. Gray/U.S. Navy)Navy officials have repeatedly warned that the service’s projected long-term budget is not large enough to accommodate the program to build the new submarines and meet its needs for conventional ships. (See ACT, October 2013.) The Navy estimates that the 12 planned boats, which are slated to be purchased between 2021 and 2035, will cost $139 billion to develop and build.

In another high-profile program, proposed funding for the Air Force’s plan to build approximately 1,000 nuclear-capable cruise missiles in the coming years continues to rise. The service is seeking $95.6 million in fiscal year 2017 for research and development for a long-range standoff weapon, almost six times as much as the $16.1 million that Congress appropriated for the current fiscal year. The new standoff missile would replace the Air Force’s nuclear-armed air-launched cruise missile (ALCM), which has been operational since 1986.

Government and think tank estimates suggest that the total cost of building the new missile and refurbishing the associated warhead would be about $25 billion over 20 years. 

In addition, the Air Force is seeking $1.4 billion in fiscal year 2017, an increase of $624 million over the fiscal year 2016 appropriation, for the program to build a new fleet of 80-100 nuclear-capable long-range strategic bombers. The new bombers are scheduled to enter service in the mid-2020s, and the entire fleet could cost more than $100 billion to produce, according to some nongovernmental estimates.

In the budget documents, the Air Force said it is planning to request $12.1 billion for the new bomber program between fiscal years 2017 and 2021, a significant reduction relative to the five-year budget projection of $15.6 billion cited in last year’s budget documents. Carolyn Gleason, a senior Pentagon budget official, told reporters during the Feb. 9 briefings that the change reflects a revised cost estimate for the program in the wake of the awarding of a contract to Northrop Grumman last fall to build the bombers.

The program to develop a replacement for the current force of land-based Minuteman III ICBMs also would get a boost under the administration’s request. The Air Force is requesting $114 million for the program, an increase of almost $39 million over the appropriation for the current fiscal year.

The service is currently planning to procure 642 replacement missiles and update the existing missile infrastructure at an estimated cost of $62.3 billion over the next 30 years. (See ACT, July/August 2015.) According to the new budget documents, the projected deployment date for the replacement missiles is 2028. That represents slippage of a year since last year’s request.

Air Force officials have expressed growing alarm about the cost of the service’s nuclear modernization plans. “Our problems become unmanageable” when the costs for the ICBM replacement program begin to peak, said Lt. Gen. James Holmes, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and requirements, at a Feb. 12 press briefing at the Pentagon.

Warhead Request Grows

The NNSA is requesting $220 million to refurbish the existing ALCM warhead that would be delivered by the new ALCM under development by the Air Force. That is an increase of $25.2 million above the fiscal year 2016 appropriation.

The NNSA weapons budget also would increase funding to update a key part of the W88 submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead and build a new uranium-processing facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. In contrast, the budget would slightly decrease spending to rebuild the B61 gravity bomb.

In a Feb. 10 press call with reporters, retired Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz, the NNSA administrator, said the NNSA is facing a “formidable” planned increase in spending on life extension programs and infrastructure improvements. Peak funding for these efforts occurs earlier than the Defense Department’s expected peak funding years for triad modernization, he said.

What's New Text: 

Posted: March 2, 2016

Statement by Daryl G. Kimball on Rightsizing the U.S. Nuclear Force and Budget

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President Barack Obama promised in the 2010 “Nuclear Posture Review [NPR] Report” that his administration would...

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Rightsizing the U.S. Nuclear Force and Budget
Prepared Remarks by Daryl G. Kimball, Arms Control Association

2016 Nuclear Deterrence Summit
February 17, 2016, Arlington, V.A.

President Barack Obama promised in the 2010 “Nuclear Posture Review [NPR] Report” that his administration would reduce the number, role, and salience of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense strategy.

The “fundamental purpose” of the weapons, the review states, is to deter nuclear attack, not wage a nuclear war.

At the same time, the strategy called for maintaining and modernizing the remaining U.S. nuclear forces on a smaller triad of delivery systems as mandated by the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

Current Pentagon plans call for 12 new nuclear-armed strategic submarines, 80 to 100 new penetrating strategic bombers (some or all of which will be nuclear capable), a fleet of new and stealthier nuclear-capable cruise missiles, and new land-based, intercontinental ballistic missiles that could reportedly be deployed on mobile launchers in the future, all at spending levels that exceed what was originally advertised.

In 2011 the Pentagon claimed that the cost for sustaining and modernizing nuclear delivery systems would be $126 billion and up to another $88 billion for warhead refurbishment and infrastructure modernization, for a total of about $214 billion.

In 2015 the Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost from fiscal years 2015 to 2024 would be about $348 billion, including upgrades to nuclear command and control.

Senior Pentagon leaders warn that there will not be enough money to fund all of the items on the military’s wish list.

By the mid-2020s, the cost of nuclear weapons will consume 7 percent of the entire defense budget, according to Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work.

And it could consume an even bigger slice of the Pentagon’s overall weapons acquisition budget.

The coming nuclear and conventional weapons budgetary “bow wave” has been apparent for some time.

But rather than make common sense adjustments to the nuclear weapons modernization plan, Secretary of Defense Carter and his policy advisors including principal undersecretary for policy Brian McKeon, are pushing an all-of-the-above approach they know we can’t afford without making irrational cuts to other defense programs and they seem to be content to pass on the problem to their successors.

Frankly, that’s an embarrassing failure of leadership.

With one year left in his term, it is past time for Obama to chart a more realistic, affordable, and sustainable course.

We believe that in the near term, there are three important Defense Department programs that should be re-evaluated and adjusted.

First, the president could announce that U.S. deterrence requirements do not require spending at least $62 billion on 642 new land-based missiles to support a deployed force of 400 missiles with a mobile option.

Instead, he could direct the Pentagon to pursue the deployment of a smaller fleet of 300 new or refurbished fixed-silo ICBMs. 

Over the next decade, this approach could save up to $10 billion.

A 2014 RAND study estimated that the 39-year life cycle costs of sustaining the Minuteman III would cost $24-35 billion less than the current Air Force plan to procure a new missile with similar specifications.

Second, Obama also could announce that requirements for the sea-based leg of the triad can be met with a smaller fleet of strategic subs.

Under the current plans, the 12 new boats would carry 192 missiles with up to eight warheads each, at a cost of $140 billion to develop.

But with adjustments to the current launch-under-attack posture which require a larger number of subs on station and ready to fire their missiles at assigned targets quickly, that number of boats could be reduced to 8 boats and still meet current plans for 1,000 sea-based warheads.

As the most survivable of the three legs of the triad, the missiles sub force need not be maintained on a Cold War launch under nuclear attack to the mainland posture.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates such an approach would save approximately $20.9 billion over the next nine years, and more thereafter.

What is $20 billion? That is roughly one year of the Navy shipbuilding budget, or about the cost of an aircraft carrier, an attack submarine, a destroyer, three small surface combatant ships and four logistics ships.

Third, President Obama should order a halt of the program to develop a new nuclear-armed cruise missile, a.k.a. the long-range standoff weapon (LRSO).

The Air Force wants 1,000 to 1,100 new air-launched, nuclear-capable cruise missiles at an acquisition cost of some $20 billion to $30 billion.

But, as former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry wrote last fall in The Washington Post: “The old Cold War requirement for such a capability no longer exists.”

In fact, the current AGM-86B missile only serves a minor “back-up” role in the current U.S. nuclear war plan. The new system, which would be more capable, is for escalation control and nuclear war-fighting, not deterrence.

Given that new nuclear-armed cruise missile would be redundant and destabilizing, why invest $20-30 billion in a completely new system?

Other strategic nuclear weapons delivery capabilities and conventional cruise missile capabilities make the weapon unnecessary.

The current ALCM will be in the arsenal for more than a decade, and the Air Force is poised to spend $100 billion on its stealthy new strategic bombers to penetrate enemy air defenses with newly refurbished B61 nuclear gravity bombs. A new, long-range, precision conventional cruise missile is now being introduced for delivery by existing and new bombers and fighter jets.

Without the LSRO, we would still have a formidable air-leg of the nuclear triad.

Halting the new cruise missile program would also open the way for a U.S.-led effort on a global ban on all nuclear-armed cruise missiles within a specified time frame, thus reducing current and future threats to the United States. This will not be easy but it is worth pursuing.

Before plunging forward with the LRSO, Secretary Carter, or his successor, should address a number of basic questions, including (but not limited to):

  • What are the specific targets/missions for the LRSO that cannot be fulfilled by either the Long-Range Strike Bomber and the B61-12 or conventional munitions, conventional cruise missiles from other platforms, or ICBMs or SLBMs?
  • If the current AGM-86B missile only serves a very limited role at best in the current war plan, why invest $20-30 billion in a completely new system?
  • Will the W80-4 warhead have more flexible selectable yield options?
  • What are the implications for strategic stability of a nuclear ALCM that is stealthier, faster, longer-range, more accurate, deployed on a larger number of more advanced bombers, and more flexible in terms of nuclear yield options?
  • How would other countries respond to a more capable U.S. LSRO?

Strategic Context

For now, efforts to negotiate further U.S. and Russian nuclear reductions are on hold – at least until New START expires in 2021.

Russia has rebuffed President Obama’s 2013 proposals for further nuclear cuts and violated the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The danger of close encounters between NATO and Russian aircraft has increased tensions.

Russian Prime Minister Dimtry Medvedev suggested over the weekend in Munich that we are in a “new Cold War.”

Perhaps we are. 

But the proposals for a more affordable strategic nuclear force that I just outlined still would allow for a New START force for a decade beyond its expiration.

And today, U.S. and Russian forces still far exceed deterrence requirements.

A 2013 Pentagon follow-on study determined that deterrence requirements can be met with one-third fewer deployed strategic nuclear forces.

Today, Russia possesses some 1,780 nuclear warheads and the United States some 1,900 that can be delivered on several hundred strategic bombers and missiles. If used even in a “limited” way, the result would be a humanitarian catastrophe.              

It makes little sense for either side to pursue a multi-decade nuclear weapons spending binge that promises to perpetuate excessive force levels and Cold War-era war-fighting capabilities for generations to come.

That does not deter Russia’s meddling in Ukraine or protect nervous NATO allies in the Baltics.

President Obama and Secretary Carter can still use the time they have left in office to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons by trimming back and in some cases forgoing redundant and costly nuclear weapons systems.

By doing so, he would open the way to further reducing the role and size of U.S. and Russian nuclear forces and to a safer and more secure future. 

Posted: February 18, 2016

Last Obama Budget Goes for Broke on Nuclear Weapons

Consider the following facts. The United States is planning to rebuild all three legs of the nuclear triad and their associated warheads at a cost and on a schedule that many military leaders say is unsustainable. In addition, these plans would leave the United States with a larger deployed strategic nuclear arsenal than President Barack Obama has said is needed for U.S. security. Unfortunately, the president’s final budget request released today is divorced from reality. The Fiscal Year 2017 proposal contains significant increases for several Defense and Energy department nuclear weapons...

New Cruise Missile Capability Debated

The United States is planning to purchase a new fleet of nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missiles that will be far more advanced than the missiles they are slated to replace.

January/February 2016

By Kingston Reif

A B-52H bomber releases an unarmed AGM-86B air-launched cruise missile during a test run at the Utah Test and Training Range on September 22, 2014. (Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Roidan Carlson/U.S. Air Force)The United States is planning to purchase a new fleet of nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) that will be far more advanced than the ones they are slated to replace, according to members of Congress and other sources, raising questions about the plan’s consistency with a pledge made by the Obama administration not to provide nuclear weapons with new capabilities.

The development of the new missile also has sparked a debate about whether it could be more “usable” than the existing ALCM, thereby lowering the threshold for when the United States might consider using nuclear weapons.

In a Dec. 15 letter to President Barack Obama urging him to cancel the new cruise missile, also known as the long-range standoff weapon, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and seven other senators wrote that the “proposed…missile is a significantly altered version” of the existing ALCM.

The letter did not say what specific capabilities the new missile would provide, but claimed the proposal contradicts the policy statement from the 2010 “Nuclear Posture Review [NPR] Report” that efforts to sustain U.S. nuclear weapons “will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities.”

“Indeed,” the senators added, “this new cruise missile appears to be designed specifically for improved nuclear war-fighting capabilities.”

The White House disputed the contention that the new ALCM contradicts administration policy. In a Dec. 23 email to Arms Control Today, National Security Council spokesman Ned Price said that U.S. nuclear modernization efforts are “consistent with the President’s strategy laid out in Prague [in a 2009 speech] and in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review.”

The Defense Department elaborated in a Jan. 5 email. The new missile “will use a refurbished version of the current ALCM warhead” that “will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities,” said Army Lt. Col. Joe Sowers. Rather, by developing the new weapons system, the United States “will preserve existing military capability in the face of evolving threats,” Sowers said.

The NPR Report’s prohibition on the development of new military missions and capabilities specifically refers to improvements to nuclear warheads, not their delivery systems.

Nuclear-armed ALCMs are part of the U.S. nuclear triad of strategic delivery systems consisting of land-based missiles, submarine-launched missiles, and long-range bombers, which can carry ALCMs and gravity bombs. ALCMs, which are currently carried by the B-52H long-range bomber, are standoff weapons that can attack targets at distances beyond the range of air defense systems.

The Air Force’s lone remaining ALCM variant is the AGM-86B, up to 20 of which can be carried by a B-52H bomber. Multiple life-extension programs have kept the missile, which was first fielded in 1982 with a planned service life of 10 years, in service for more than 30 years. The Air Force is planning to retain the missile until 2030.

Current Air Force plans call for the procurement of about 1,000 new nuclear-capable missiles, roughly double the size of the existing fleet of ALCMs. (See ACT, June 2015.) Government and think tank estimates suggest that the total cost of building the new missile and refurbishing the associated warhead would be about $25 billion over 20 years. 

New Capabilities Sought

Although the Defense Department has declined to comment publicly on the capabilities of the new ALCM, the limited information the department has released, as well as information from several other sources, points to a missile that will have new capabilities.

In a Feb. 25, 2015, request for information to contractors on the desired performance of the new missile’s engine, the Air Force said it was seeking potential improvements in the performance of the current engine technology, including a possible supersonic option, which would allow the missile to fly at a velocity of at least 768 miles per hour. The current ALCM can travel at a speed of approximately 550 miles per hour.

Pentagon officials also have said that the new fleet of cruise missiles will be compatible with not only the B-52H, but also the B-2 and planned long-range strike bombers. It is not clear if deploying the missile on the more advanced B-2 and long-range strike aircraft would allow those planes to hit targets that the B-52H could not reliably reach.

Advocates of the new missile argue that it provides a continuing ability to quickly add missiles to bombers. They note that the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty does not cap the number of weapons that can be carried on each bomber.

The Air Force told Arms Control Today last May that, despite the current plan to roughly double the size of the ALCM fleet, the requirements for nuclear-armed cruise missiles “have not increased.”

A source who has been briefed on the new ALCM program disputed the need for such a large missile procurement, saying in an interview that, “in exchange for” a more reliable and capable missile, the department “should maintain a smaller hedge.”

The source said the technical characteristics of the new missile are still being defined because the program is still in the early development stage but that the goal is to increase the range and accuracy of the missile. The source said another goal is to incorporate the latest stealth features, making the missile much more difficult for adversary air defense systems to detect.

Such features would comport with the Defense Department’s primary rationale for the new missile, namely to ensure that the bomber leg of the triad can strike targets in the face of increasingly sophisticated adversary air defenses. The department has expressed concern that the current ALCM is losing its ability to continue to penetrate these defenses in addition to becoming increasingly unreliable.

Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.), shown above in a March 2015 photo, organized a letter to President Barack Obama opposing a new cruise missile. (Photo credit: Paul Marotta/Getty Images)In response to questions submitted by lawmakers after a Feb. 26, 2015, hearing of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, Brian McKeon, deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, said maintenance of the existing ALCM “is becoming increasingly difficult, and its reliability in the next decade is not assured even with substantial investment.”

The source who had been briefed on the program said that, due to the reliability concerns, the ALCM is currently “not part of the planning scenarios for nuclear use.” He added that the missile could be maintained for the next five years but, “after that, it’s almost a dud.”

Some former officials and experts say it should not be surprising that the new cruise missile will be more advanced than the existing ALCM.

In a December email exchange with Arms Control Today, Al Mauroni and Mel Deaile of the Air Force Center for Unconventional Weapons Studies said they would expect the Defense Department “to improve military capabilities over past, aging weapon systems that continue to be fielded well beyond their originally-designed service life.” Mauroni and Deaile added that their comments did not necessarily reflect official U.S. positions.

Regarding the proposed life extension program for the ALCM warhead, known as the W80-4, the source who has been briefed said a goal of that program is to permit “greater flexibility in actually picking” the desired yield. The ALCM warhead is believed have a built-in option to allow detonation at lower or higher yields.

According to the source, increasing the accuracy of the missile allows for more flexibility in the warhead yield, thus enhancing the overall capability of the weapons system.

The source criticized the Obama administration for claiming the new missile program is consistent with the NPR Report. Focusing narrowly on whether the warhead’s nuclear explosive package is a new design, the source said, “allows the military to increase or change capabilities” in other areas of the weapons system “while shielding [itself] behind the narrow letter” of the report “and avoiding public debate.”

Lowering the Threshold

The source said the briefings made it clear that the Pentagon is envisioning potential uses for the new cruise missile that go beyond “the original mission space” of the ALCM.

For example, the source said that, in the event of a major conflict with China, the Pentagon has talked about using the new missile to destroy Chinese air defenses as a warning to Beijing against escalating the conflict further.

In testimony to the strategic forces subcommittee on April 15, 2015, Robert Scher, assistant secretary of defense for strategy, plans, and capabilities, said an additional rationale for the new ALCM is to preserve the president’s ability to respond “to a limited or large-scale failure of deterrence,” but did not provide details.

In a Dec. 14 statement to Arms Control Today, Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.), a member of the strategic forces panel, said claims that the new cruise missile will provide the president with more flexible response options “accept that a nuclear conflict could be controlled through the deliberate use of nuclear force.”

He said he disagreed with that approach because “[t]here is no such thing as a limited nuclear war.”

A Senate Republican staffer offered a different view in a Dec. 15 email. In developing the new missile, the United States should be prepared to match “Russia’s new emphasis” on the use of tactical nuclear weapons “to de-escalate a potential conflict” and “force developments by other nuclear powers,” the staffer said.

In a Dec. 17 interview, a different congressional staffer said it is not yet clear what features the new cruise missile and associated warhead will have, but expressed concern that the Defense and Energy departments will choose features that make the weapons system “more usable,” thus blurring the line between nuclear and conventional weapons.

Others dispute the notion that a more capable nuclear weapon increases the likelihood of its use. Retired Gen. C. Robert Kehler, former commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said in a Dec. 15 email that the new cruise missile will not lower the nuclear threshold because “the height of the nuclear threshold isn’t directly related to the so-called ‘usability’ of the weapons.”

Kehler, who is an affiliate of Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, said U.S. “planners have to balance US policy regarding ‘new’ nuclear capabilities against the realities of weapon design and the evolution of technology and the threat.”

He added, “I believe we can strike the right balance while still meeting the intent of the [president’s] policy.”


Correction: The original version of this article mischaracterized the party affiliation of one the signers of the letter organized by Sen. Ed Markey. The signers were Markey, six other Democratic senators, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who caucuses with the Democrats.

Posted: January 14, 2016

Hill Denies Money for Submarine Fund

Congress in December declined to fund a special account to pay for a dozen new nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines amid ongoing concerns about the high cost of the boats...

January/February 2016

By Kingston Reif

An Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine returns to Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia on February 6, 2013. (Photo credit: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James Kimber/U.S. Navy)Congress in December declined to provide funding for a special budget account it created in 2014 to pay for a dozen new nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines amid ongoing concerns about the high cost of the boats and a debate about whether the fund would save money.

Lawmakers also voted to withhold 75 percent of the Army’s budget request for the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System (JLENS) after part of the blimp-borne radar system crashed in northeastern Pennsylvania on Oct. 28.

Those provisions were part of the fiscal year 2016 omnibus appropriations bill, which passed the House and the Senate on Dec. 18. Fiscal year 2016 started on Oct. 1, 2015, and runs until Sept. 30.

Navy officials have repeatedly warned that the service’s projected long-term budget is not large enough to accommodate the program to build the new submarines, known as the Ohio-class replacement program, and meet its needs for conventional ships. (See ACT, October 2013.) The Navy estimates that the 12 planned boats, which are slated to be purchased between 2021 and 2035 and replace the existing fleet of 14 Ohio-class subs, will cost $139 billion to develop and build.

In an attempt to address the Navy’s concerns, the fiscal year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act created the National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund, a separate budget account outside the Navy’s regular shipbuilding account that would provide a mechanism for the Navy to buy the new boats without reducing funding for its other shipbuilding programs. The authorization bill for the current fiscal year, which President Barack Obama signed on Nov. 25, expands the purview of the fund and provides the Navy with special acquisition authorities, such as the ability to buy components for multiple boats in a single bulk purchase, which supporters say could reduce the cost of the new submarines.

But critics, including Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s top acquisition official, maintain that the fund is a gimmick because extra monies will have to be found somewhere in the Pentagon’s budget with or without the fund. The critics also argue that Congress can authorize more-efficient acquisition practices in the absence of a separate account.

The actual transfer of money to the fund has to be approved by lawmakers through the appropriations process. The House defense appropriations subcommittee, which has been critical of the fund, attempted to prohibit the transfer of fiscal year 2016 monies to the account. But the full House overruled the subcommittee ban, which the full Appropriations Committee had accepted, in approving two amendments to the defense appropriations bill that removed the prohibition and made $3.5 billion available for transfer. The Senate Appropriations Committee version of the bill did not authorize the transfer of money to the fund.

The final omnibus bill reflects the Senate position and does not approve money for the fund.

The omnibus bill also takes a hard line on the JLENS program, slashing $30 million from the budget request of $40.6 million due to “test schedule delays.” In the Oct. 28 incident, one of the two tethered blimps that make up the current test deployment of the system detached from its mooring station near Baltimore, dragging 6,700 feet of cable for three hours before finally coming to rest. (See ACT, December 2015.) The system is designed to detect and track objects such as cruise missiles and other airborne threats.

In a December email exchange with Arms Control Today, Maj. Beth Smith, a spokeswoman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command, said an Army investigation to determine the cause of the incident is “still ongoing” and could take 90 days to complete. A decision about whether to continue the planned three-year test of the system’s capability to contribute to cruise missile defense “will be made following the investigation’s conclusion,” she added.

In a Jan. 5 email to Arms Control Today, an aide to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), vice chairman of the Senate defense appropriations subcommittee, said that “after more than $2.7 billion invested in the program, continuing criticism of its reliability, and the near-tragedy in October when the aerostat broke free from its tether,” the omnibus bill “does not support continuation” of the test of the system in fiscal year 2016.

Signed by Obama on Dec. 18, the omnibus appropriations bill is a $1.1 trillion conglomeration of 12 appropriations bills that had to be passed to keep the government operating. The bill was made possible by an Oct. 26 agreement between the White House and key congressional leaders on new spending levels for fiscal years 2016 and 2017.

Nuclear Modernization

The omnibus bill largely supported the Obama administration’s proposed funding hike for programs to sustain and to rebuild nuclear-armed missiles, submarines, and bombers and their associated nuclear warheads and supporting infrastructure. (See ACT, March 2015.)

The bill includes the requested amount of $1.4 billion for the Navy’s Ohio-class replacement program, an increase of $100 million above the fiscal year 2015 appropriation, and $75.2 million for the Air Force’s effort to develop a replacement for Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), an increase of $68.3 million over last year’s appropriation.

The Pentagon’s Frank Kendall speaks at the Farnborough air show in the United Kingdom on July 14, 2014. (Photo credit: Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images)The bill also provides the requested amount of $8.9 billion for nuclear weapons activities conducted by the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), an increase of $667 million, or 8 percent, above the fiscal year 2015 appropriation. The appropriation for weapons activities includes $195 million to begin refurbishing the existing nuclear air-launched cruise missile (ALCM) warhead, an increase of $186 million above last year’s appropriation of $9.4 million.

The omnibus bill provides $16.1 million for the Air Force’s program to develop a new nuclear ALCM to deliver the refurbished warhead, a 56 percent reduction below the request of $36.6 million, and $736 million for the program to build up to 100 new long-range strategic bombers, a 41 percent reduction below the request of $1.3 billion. These reductions reflect schedule delays that decreased the budget requirements for both programs in fiscal year 2016 below the levels that were originally anticipated.

In addition, the bill includes a policy provision prohibiting the use of fiscal year 2016 funds “to reduce or to prepare to reduce” the number of deployed and nondeployed U.S. strategic nuclear delivery systems below the levels the Pentagon has said it will retain as it adjusts its forces to meet the requirements of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty by the treaty’s implementation deadline of 2018. (See ACT, May 2014.)

Missile Defense Gets Increase

The omnibus bill provides $15 million in unrequested funding “to expedite the construction and deployment of urgently needed missile defense assets in various locations within the Continental United States, including Alaska and Hawaii.”

The bill does not specify whether this money can be used to begin building a third missile defense interceptor site on the U.S. East Coast to augment existing defenses in Alaska and California against a limited ICBM attack.

The House version of the fiscal year 2016 military construction appropriations bill included $30 million to begin early planning and design activities for a third site. The Senate version of the bill did not include this funding.

In a Dec. 23 email, Missile Defense Agency (MDA) spokesman Richard Lehner said the agency is currently “assessing” its options for spending the additional $15 million. He added that “no construction [is] planned for an East Coast site” as there has been “no decision to construct a site.”

The Defense Department announced in January 2014 that it would conduct environmental impact studies for four possible missile defense sites in the eastern United States, as directed by Congress. (See ACT, March 2014.) Lehner said these studies are scheduled to be completed by the end of fiscal year 2016.

Overall, the omnibus bill provides approximately $8.1 billion for the MDA, an increase of $175 million above the administration request.

MOX and the Alternative

Lawmakers provided the NNSA with a small amount of money to begin work on an alternative to the mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication plant at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The MOX fuel program is designed to turn surplus plutonium from the U.S. nuclear weapons program into fuel for power reactors.

Of the $345 million the administration requested for construction of the MOX fuel plant, the omnibus bill provides $340 million for construction and $5 million to begin early planning and design activities for the “dilute and dispose” approach, which would down-blend the plutonium with an inert material for direct disposal in a repository. The bill prohibits the NNSA from actually diluting plutonium.

The language on the MOX fuel plant represents the latest round of a long-running battle over the best way to handle the surplus weapons plutonium.

The omnibus bill includes $1.7 billion for the NNSA’s fissile material security and nonproliferation efforts, the same as the budget request and an increase of $90.7 million, or 5.6 percent, above the fiscal year 2015 appropriation

Posted: January 14, 2016

The U.S. Nuclear Weapons Spending Binge

President Barack Obama promised in the 2010 “[NPR] Report that his administration would reduce the number, role, and salience of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense strategy.

December 2015

By Daryl G. Kimball

President Barack Obama promised in the 2010 “Nuclear Posture Review [NPR] Report” that his administration would reduce the number, role, and salience of nuclear weapons in U.S. defense strategy. The “fundamental purpose” of the weapons, the review stated, is to deter nuclear attack, not wage a nuclear war. At the same time, the strategy called for maintaining and modernizing the remaining U.S. nuclear forces on a smaller triad of delivery systems.

The 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) established modestly lower limits for U.S. and Russian deployed strategic arsenals and a far-reaching verification regime. A 2013 Pentagon follow-on study determined that deterrence requirements can be met with one-third fewer deployed strategic nuclear forces.

But today, U.S. and Russian forces still far exceed deterrence requirements. Russia possesses some 1,780 nuclear warheads and the United States some 1,900 that can be delivered on several hundred strategic bombers and missiles. If used even in a “limited” way, the result would be a humanitarian catastrophe.              

The quest for further nuclear reductions has stalled and may be in reverse. Russia has rebuffed U.S. proposals for further nuclear cuts and violated the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The danger of close encounters between NATO and Russian aircraft has increased tensions.

Worse yet, both countries are pursuing a multidecade nuclear weapons spending binge that promises to perpetuate excessive force levels and Cold War-era war-fighting capabilities for generations to come.

Current Pentagon plans call for 12 new nuclear-armed strategic submarines, 80 to 100 new penetrating strategic bombers, a fleet of new and stealthier nuclear-capable cruise missiles, and new land-based, intercontinental ballistic missiles that could reportedly be deployed on mobile launchers in the future, all at spending levels that exceed what was originally advertised.

In 2011 the Pentagon claimed that the cost for sustaining and modernizing nuclear delivery systems would be $126 billion and up to another $88 billion for warhead refurbishment and infrastructure modernization, for a total of about $214 billion. In 2015 the Congressional Budget Office estimated the cost from fiscal years 2015 to 2024 would be about $355 billion, including upgrades to nuclear command and control.

By the mid-2020s, the cost of nuclear weapons will consume 7 percent of the entire defense budget, according to Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work. Senior Pentagon leaders warn that there will not be enough money to fund all of the items on the military’s wish list. With one year left in his term, it is past time for Obama to chart a more realistic, affordable, and sustainable course.

For example, the president could announce that U.S. deterrence requirements do not require spending at least $62 billion on 642 new land-based missiles to support a deployed force of 400 missiles with a mobile option. Instead, he could direct the Pentagon to pursue the deployment of a smaller fleet of 300 new or refurbished fixed-silo ICBMs.  

The 2010 NPR Report stated that a decision would be made on “whether and (if so) how to replace the current air-launched cruise missile,” which is due to be retired in 2030. The Air Force wants 1,000 to 1,100 new air-launched, nuclear-capable cruise missiles at a cost of some $20 billion to $30 billion. Obama should order a second look and, as former Secretary of Defense William Perry recommended in a Washington Post op-ed last month, halt the program.  

As Perry says, “The old Cold War requirement for such a capability no longer exists.” The new system is for nuclear war-fighting, not deterrence, and other capabilities make the weapon redundant.

The Air Force is poised to spend $100 billion on its stealthy new strategic bombers to penetrate enemy air defenses with newly refurbished B61 nuclear gravity bombs. A new, long-range, precision conventional cruise missile is now being introduced for delivery by existing and new bombers and fighter jets.

Halting the new cruise missile program would open the way for a U.S.-led effort on a global ban on all nuclear-armed cruise missiles within a specified time frame, thus reducing current and future threats to the United States.

Obama also could announce that requirements for the sea-based leg of the triad can be met with a smaller fleet of strategic subs. Under the current plans, the 12 new boats would carry 192 missiles with up to eight warheads each, at a cost of $140 billion to develop. But with adjustments to the current launch-under-attack posture, that number of boats could be reduced to 8 to 10 and still meet current plans for 1,000 sea-based warheads.

Obama can still use the time he has left in office to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons by trimming back and in some cases forgoing redundant and costly nuclear weapons systems. By doing so, he would open the way to further reducing the role and size of U.S. and Russian nuclear forces and to a safer and more secure future. 

Posted: December 2, 2015

Bomber Contract Highlights Unrealistic Nuclear Modernization Strategy, Say Experts

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Today Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced the U.S. Air Force’s decision to award the contract for the new, nuclear-armed, long-range penetrating strike bomber...

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For Immediate Release: October 27, 2015

Media Contacts: Daryl G. Kimball, executive director, 202-463-8270, ext. 107; Kingston Reif, director of disarmament and threat reduction policy, 202-463-8270, ext. 104

(Washington, D.C.)—Today Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced the U.S. Air Force’s decision to award the contract for the new, nuclear-armed, long-range penetrating strike bomber (or B3) program, which would cost in excess of $100 billion to design and build 80-100 of the planes.

The bomber buy is just one part of the Pentagon’s plan to spend at least $348 billion to maintain and rebuild the nuclear arsenal and refurbish the nuclear weapons complex over the next decade, according to a 2015 Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report.

“Given the B52H and B2A bombers are expected to remain in service through 2040 and 2060, respectively, there is no need to rush forward with the new strategic bomber, especially when it will compete with other high priority Air Force and Pentagon nuclear and conventional priorities,” said Kingston Reif, director of disarmament and threat reduction policy with the Arms Control Association.

Current plans to rebuild all three legs of the existing nuclear "triad" and their associated warheads, including 12 new ballistic missile submarines, up to 100 new long-range, nuclear-capable bombers, 642 new land-based ballistic missiles, and 1000 new, nuclear-capable long-range standoff cruise missiles.

"We believe the administration’s redundant, all-of-the-above approach to rebuilding all of the major U.S. nuclear weapons delivery systems at levels beyond realistic deterrence requirements is unsustainable and will deplete resources from higher national security priorities," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.

The Air Force wants a total 1,000 of the new nuclear-armed cruise missiles for use by all three bombers—the B52H, the B2A and the B3—at a development cost of some $20-30 billion.

"The Pentagon has failed to provide a compelling reason why it needs both a new penetrating bomber and a standoff missile to meet the nuclear deterrence requirements of the United States and our allies," said Reif of the Arms Control Association. 

“The requirement that the air-leg of the U.S. triad have two means to assure mass destruction against the most advanced air-defenses constitutes excessive redundancy. Other weapons, such as submarine-launched ballistic missiles, can penetrate air defenses with high confidence,” Reif added.

In an Oct. 15 op-ed in The Washington Post, William Perry, President Bill Clinton’s defense secretary, and Andrew Weber, President Barack Obama’s assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical, and biological defense programs, called on President Obama to cancel the nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missiles program.

Perry and Weber described nuclear-armed cruise missiles as “a uniquely destabilizing type of nuclear weapon.” Foregoing the development of a new version “would not diminish the formidable U.S. nuclear deterrent in the least" and "could lay the foundation for a global ban on these dangerous weapons” they wrote.

“Proponents of the new nuclear air-launched cruise missile say that it provides the president with flexible options in the event of a crisis and the ability to ‘control escalation’ in a conflict with another nuclear-armed state. In other words, the missiles would come in handy for nuclear war-fighting,” Reif said.

 “The thinking behind the new cruise missile is inconsistent with the stated goal of President Obama to reduce the role and number and salience of nuclear weapons in U.S. military strategy,” Kimball charged.

“Future nuclear force planning needs to take into account the fact that the President's 2013 nuclear weapons employment guidance allows for a one-third reduction below New START levels, but even if the United States maintains New START warhead levels, it can do so at significantly lower cost," Kimball said.

"Despite warnings from senior officials that the current modernization plans are unaffordable, Secretary Carter and President Barack Obama have failed to make common-sense adjustments. They can and should trim back, and in some cases, forgo redundant and costly systems, such as a new nuclear-armed cruise missile, and save taxpayer dollars," Kimball added.

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The Arms Control Association is an independent, membership-based organization dedicated to providing authoritative information and practical policy solutions to address the threats posed by the world's most dangerous weapons.

Posted: October 27, 2015

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