The Pentagon is considering a radical change to the way funds its nuclear forces by shifting money for ICBMs, nuclear bombers and nuclear submarines outside of the Defense Department’s budget and into a new account.
This type of change would elevate the status of the American military’s nuclear mission among senior leadership and could possibly free up tens of billions of dollars inside the Pentagon budget for other conventional priorities.
“This is something we’ve talked about within the department,” Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work said Friday. “And we think this is going to be a … [2017 budget] discussion.”
DOD’s nuclear programs compete with conventional projects within both the Air Force and Navy budgets. Oftentimes, the non-nuclear projects, such as new aircraft and ships, have been made a higher priority among military leadership.
For example, Air Force leaders have been using 1970-vintage Bell Huey helicopters to fly security mission over ICBM fields in the northern United States. The aircraft are so old, they cannot fly from one end of a missile field to another without having to make a refueling stop. Still, Air Force leaders have not funded a project to replace those helicopter, instead opting to fund other aircraft programs.
Money for the Pentagon’s nuclear programs is split between the Defense and Energy departments’ budgets. Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration oversees nuclear weapons and the reactors that power Navy submarines and aircraft carriers. The Pentagon budget pays for the ships themselves. Energy has requested $18 billion for nuclear projects in 2015.
DOD has several options if it took funding for nuclear-related projects out of its base budget, according to Todd Harrison, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
It could move funding for bomber aircraft, ICBMs and submarines out the military service budgets and into Office of the Secretary of Defense coffers, Harrison said. But that funding would be subject to federal budget caps, know as sequestration.
A more extreme measure would be putting nuclear money into a supplemental account, which is not capped, Harrison said. But that method would prevent long-term planning.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Friday that DOD would boost its funding for its nuclear projects 10 percent each year over the next five years. The Pentagon currently spends between $15 billion and $16 billion per year on nuclear projects, meaning at least a $7.5 billion increase between 2016 and 2020.
In addition to the money, Hagel pledged more troops, more trainers, more equipment and more leadership to the Pentagon’s nuclear forces, which have experienced decades of neglect and deterioration.
The Pentagon plans to make changes to its forces following a series of embarrassing scandals over the past year where Air Force officers and Navy enlisted sailors cheated on proficiency and certification tests.
As a sign of how badly this arm of DOD has atrophied, the Air Force had only one wrench tool kit used to attach a nuclear warhead to an ICBM, Hagel acknowledged. That one wrench had to be shipped between the Air Force’s three ICBM bases for maintenance work.
“I think it’s indicative … of the depth and width of what has happened over the last few years,” Hagel said.
Bases now have more wrenches, defense officials said.
Hagel called the nuclear deterrent “DOD’s highest priority mission. No other capability that we have is more important.”
These changes come at a time when the U.S. and Russia, the world’s two largest nuclear powers are reducing their nuclear stockpiles.
Last decade, an Air Force B-52 bomber mistakenly flew with live nuclear weapons across the United States. The Air Force also mistakenly shipped Taiwan ICBM fuses instead of helicopter batteries. Those incidents prompted then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates to order a soup-to-nuts review of the Pentagon’s nuclear forces and contributed to his reasons for firing the Air Force’s secretary and chief of staff. The recommendations from that 2008 review – which was led by former James Schlesinger, a former defense and energy secretary – included making the Air Force’s nuclear mission a higher priority by spending more money and elevating the rank of the officers overseeing those forces. After that, the Air Force stood up Global Strike Command, run by a three-star general. It also put a two-star general at the Pentagon who oversaw these issues and reported directly to the Air Force’s chief of staff.
Hagel took that a step further on Friday, ordering the Global Strike Command boss be a four-star general and elevating the general at the Pentagon to three-star status. This would put these generals at the equivalent rank of their counterparts in the non-nuclear forces.
The Pentagon is facing a hundreds of billions of dollars in nuclear-related bills over the next two decades to buy new bombers, submarines, and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Those three missions are called the “nuclear triad.” On top of that, much of the infrastructure at the bases that house these weapons have been deteriorating since the end of the Cold War in the 1990s.
“There is much more we need to do leading up to our nuclear modernization program in the next decade,” Hagel said.
Over the past decade of two massive counterinsurgency-focused wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Pentagon leadership has placed a higher priority on funding ground troops over the nuclear mission, Work said.
“Now we’ve said we can’t do that,” he said. “It’s gone on too long. This [the nuclear mission] has to be one of our primary things.”
Still, Work said looming budget caps, set to begin in 2016, could pose a problem to funding these new nuclear initiatives.
“If you go to sequestration-level cuts, you will not be able to make what we believe are the prudent investments that you would have to do to make sure that we have a safe, secure and effective deterrent,” he said.
Some are skeptical that more money is the right way to address the issue.
“It’s unlikely that these problems can be solved by more money, more stars, more organizational changes, reducing burdens on airmen, or recommitting to the importance of nuclear deterrence without addressing the underlying problem,” said Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association.
Reif noted that many similar recommendations were made following the Air Force’s nuclear incidents last decade.
“The reality is that nuclear weapons play an increasingly limited role in U.S. national security policy, but our arsenal is still configured and sized for a Cold War world that no longer exists,” Reif said. “There are simply no plausible military missions for these weapons given their destructive power, the current security environment, the prowess of US conventional forces, and more.”