If Ashton Carter is confirmed next month as defense secretary, as appears likely, he will face a dilemma: the Pentagon’s trillion-dollar plans to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal are excessive and unaffordable. As the Air Force and Navy admit, their nuclear shopping lists outstrip their budgets. This gives Carter an historic opportunity to bring the nuclear weapons budget in line with U.S. security needs.
There are real advantages to scaling back the nuclear enterprise. Carter will presumably want to start new projects and expand others, such as cybersecurity (think Sony hack and North Korea) and anti-terrorism (Paris terror attacks), and he will have to find the money from within his own budget.
The good news is that the nuclear piggy bank is over-stuffed and ripe for a withdrawal.
At first look, Carter may seem an unlikely candidate to tackle this challenge. He served as the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer and second-in-command from 2009 to 2013, meaning he had a hand in this drama. And, in 2013, Carter said nuclear weapons “don’t actually cost that much.”
But Carter was talking mainly about the cost of the current arsenal, not the looming modernization. More recently, senior Pentagon officials have begun to appreciate how expensive this will be. As Undersecretary of Defense Frank Kendall said, “We’ve got a big affordability problem out there with those programs.”
Others are more blunt. A recent commission co-chaired by former Defense Secretary William Perry, Carter’s former boss, and retired Gen. John Abizaid called current plans for the arsenal “unaffordable” and a threat to “needed improvements in conventional forces.” They estimated that the nuclear arsenal could cost up to $1 trillion over 30 years.
How did the nuclear budget get so plump? Primarily through neglect. Instead of leading a thoughtful review to determine how much of the aging U.S. nuclear arsenal needs to be rebuilt for the post-post-Cold War era (some but not all), the Obama administration let the military services decide what they would like (everything).
So we now have an out-of-control nuclear shopping list that includes a dozen nuclear-armed submarines, up to 100 long-range bombers, hundreds of land-based ballistic missiles, air-launched cruise missiles and rebuilt nuclear warheads to go with them.
This is excessive—and dangerous. The Cold War ended 25 years ago. Russia may be rattling its sabre in neighboring Ukraine, but this does not call for a nuclear buildup. Instead, the United States needs to support its NATO allies with conventional forces, such as fighter jets and surface ships, which are also competing for scarce defense dollars. Overinvesting in nuclear weapons just starves the programs we really need.
Next month, the Pentagon is expected to request about $534 billion for fiscal year 2016, roughly $34 billion more than Congress can provide under spending caps. Outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had been hoping that the budget caps would be overturned, but, as he acknowledged, “hope is not a strategy.”
The next defense secretary can turn the budget crisis to his advantage by shifting funds from nuclear programs to higher priority defense needs. Carter has a well-deserved reputation for his smarts and knows that there is fat to cut out of current modernization plans. The United States can save tens of billions, even if it stays at currently planned New START warhead levels, by taking these simple steps:
1. Keep nuclear submarines closer to U.S. shores. The Navy is proposing to pay for its $100 billion submarine program by taking funds from other military programs, rather than making trade-offs within its own budget. Here is a better plan. The Navy wants 12 new subs so at any given time it can “forward deploy” about five of them close to targets in Russia and China for “prompt launch.” But the Navy no longer needs to deploy subs in launch position. The subs are invulnerable, deep beneath the sea, and thus even after an unthinkable nuclear attack they could move into launch position over a few days. Under this scenario, the Navy would only need eight subs to carry 1,000 warheads, as planned. This would save $21 billion over ten years, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO).
2. Buy new systems only when you need them. The Air Force plans to begin developing its new long-range bomber in 2016 for production around 2025. But the Air Force also plans to modernize and operate its current fleet of 159 bombers, including B-2s and B-52s, into the 2050s. Thus the military can defer this program until 2025 at the earliest, saving $34 billion over ten years, according to CBO.
3. Don’t replace things just because we had them before. Before replacing an old system, we must ask, do we still need it? The Air Force wants a new nuclear-armed cruise missile even though it no longer makes sense. The first air-launched cruise missile was motivated by the fact that the Air Force at that time did not have a bomber that could penetrate enemy air defenses. Now it does (the B-2), and the new bomber would be a “penetrator” as well. It is redundant and wasteful to build a penetrating missile for a penetrating bomber, and the new cruise missile should be cancelled, saving $3 billion. The Air Force is already overhauling its gravity bombs for $10 billion, and that is enough.
In addition, the Air Force wants a new generation of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), possibly on mobile launchers, even though the life of the current fleet can be extended indefinitely, and even though an Air Force-sponsored RAND study found that a new missile was unnecessary and could cost up to $200 billion. The new ICBM should be cancelled, saving $16 billion.
These common sense steps would save up to roughly $75 billion over 10 years. That money could buy a lot of troops and conventional weapons, all much more central to addressing high priority threats to the United States.
If President Barack Obama is feeling bold, he could reduce the overall number of nuclear weapons below New START and save billions more. In 2013, U.S. military leaders said the United States could reduce its nuclear forces by one-third while maintaining its security.
Carter, if confirmed, and Obama have a choice to make. Do they want to leave office with a shiny trillion-dollar nuclear arsenal named after them? Or do they want to use the time left to bring the United States closer to the president’s vision of “a world without nuclear weapons”?
They can’t do both.