Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter speaking at the Aspen Security Forum

Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter speaking at the Aspen Security Forum Department of Defense

Ash Carter Got it Right in Aspen, Top DOD Nuclear Weapons Official Responds

Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter was accurate about nuclear weapons costs, but arguing misses the point. The U.S. needs them and can afford them. By Madelyn Creedon

On July 24th, Defense One ran an article that portrayed a statement Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter made at the Aspen Security Forum as inaccurate and trivializing. Carter’s statement is not only accurate, but the article missed the real point that he was making about the budget cuts that the Defense Department is absorbing and the nuclear deterrence mission within the context of these reductions.

Carter commented that United States nuclear forces annually cost around $12 billion, plus about $4 billion for associated nuclear command, control and communications. This precisely reflects the president’s fiscal 2014 budget request, which the administration submitted to Congress in April. His statement was meant to capture the operational costs of nuclear deterrence, and this amount does not include the portion of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s budget for maintaining our nation’s nuclear weapons stockpile. It is uncommon for a senior official from one department to comment on the budget of another department or agency, and it was evident from the context of Carter’s remarks that he was speaking about Defense Department funding levels specifically.

The article’s author, Kingston Reif, expressed disbelief that Carter described this amount as not “that much.” But $16 billion is just 3 percent of the overall DOD budget. Given that Carter oversees the $526.6 billion that the department requested for 2014, perceiving 3 percent to be relatively affordable seems quite fair.  

But arguing about what DOD, the Stimson Center, the Arms Control Association and others include in the number that each assigns to the “cost” of nuclear weapons misses the point. Different independent organizations estimate costs in variable ways, and include a wide variety of activities that are not necessarily included in DOD’s methodology.

Where there is widespread agreement is on the importance of the nuclear deterrence mission, and this is exactly what Carter was expressing in Aspen. For about the cost of an aircraft carrier, DOD carries out a mission that protects the U.S. from nuclear attack, aggression, and coercion from our adversaries; contributes to strategic stability with Russia and China; and assures allies in Europe and Asia that might otherwise be vulnerable to nuclear threats or enticed to develop their own nuclear capabilities.

Put another way, the value of the U.S. nuclear deterrent warrants its cost. This is why DOD leadership directed that nuclear forces be protected from sequestration. The recent Strategic Choices and Management Review enforced this guidance. Indeed, the effects of sequestration have already been damaging and far-reaching. That is why DOD remains fully committed to the president’s fiscal 2014 budget proposal, which supports the goal of deficit reduction while providing the adequate level of resources to maintain a strong national defense in a rapidly shifting and highly complex global security environment. A theme of Carter’s remarks in Aspen was that, in addition to draconian cuts in dollar terms, the way sequester is structured limits the Defense Department’s ability to apply the budget reductions in a smart, strategic way. Without the luxury of time to analyze and apply strategic choices, Carter is leading the department’s effort to protect the highest priority missions. Along with cyber, warfighters in Afghanistan, counterterrorism and a few others, the capabilities that underpin nuclear deterrence fall in this protected category.

These capabilities, however, are undeniably aging. Ensuring credible nuclear deterrence requires investments to modernize our nuclear systems and associated infrastructure. It is an added challenge that these requirements come at a time of significant budget reductions. DOD and NNSA are therefore working together to spend money more wisely and prioritize programs that need urgent action, while accepting risk through program delays where possible.

Reif’s bottom line is that the administration should pursue deliberate cuts to the size of the nuclear arsenal. Here, too, the administration agrees, although the driving force must be the security environment, not cost-savings. Indeed, just last month, President Obama announced that DOD conducted an analysis of its deterrence requirements and the U.S. has aligned its nuclear policies in accordance with today’s security environment.

It may be true that nuclear weapons can no longer escape the budget scrutiny they once did, but that’s okay. DOD’s proposed funding to ensure a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent is appropriately suited to the value the capability provides the nation and our allies. We must not forget that the U.S. has a special responsibility to take care of and safeguard the most awesome and terrible inventions of humankind. This includes an obligation to pay for the safety and security of these weapons. In turn, these investments facilitate our continued efforts to decrease the number of nuclear weapons in our stockpile and reduce their role in U.S. national security strategy.

Madelyn Creedon is assistant secretary of defense for global strategic affairs in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.