Time to rethink nuclear weapons spending

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As the Obama administration noted in its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, “The massive nuclear arsenal we inherited from the Cold War era of bipolar military confrontation is poorly suited to address the challenges posed by suicidal terrorists and unfriendly regimes seeking nuclear weapons.”

The most pressing security threats we face today, such as terrorism and cyber attack, simply cannot be addressed with nuclear weapons. The United States does not need to continue to deploy as many as 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads as allowed under the New START treaty to deter nuclear attack from Russia or any other nuclear-armed state, nor does it need to spend hundreds of billions over the next decade to rebuild the nuclear “triad.”

Fortunately, the Obama administration is currently re-examining the fundamental purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons and how many the country really needs. This review, called the NPR Implementation Study, will likely alter obsolete nuclear deterrence requirements and clear the way for further reciprocal nuclear reductions with Russia.

If that happens, the United States would not need to buy as many new missiles, bombers and submarines as it now plans. Even though current nuclear delivery systems will remain operational for another 20-30 years, key decisions on their replacements are being made right now.

Major procurement decisions should wait to be informed by the results of the administration’s review of nuclear forces. To its credit, Pentagon officials told Congress last month that “no decisions have been made with respect to future force sizing or the modernization plans for nuclear delivery systems; such decisions will be informed by the Administration’s ongoing review of deterrence requirements."

Rather than build a new, more expensive version of the nuclear triad from the 1960s, we must recognize that the world has changed. The United States can save at least $45 billion over the next 10 years and still maintain a formidable and survivable nuclear force.  Here’s how:

Rightsize the submarine force: Current Navy plans call for 12 new ballistic missile submarines—each with 16 nuclear-armed missiles—to replace the existing fleet of Trident subs. Each new sub would cost an average of $7 billion; the entire fleet would cost $350 billion to build and operate over 50 years. The United States can rightsize the current and future ballistic missile submarine fleet from 12 to 8 and save $27 billion over 10 years (and $120 billion over the life of the program). Eight operational boats would allow the Pentagon to deploy the same number of sea-based warheads (about 1,000) as planned under New START.

Delay the new strategic bomber: The Air Force plans to retain 60 nuclear-capable, long-range B-2 and B-52 bombers into the 2040s, but has begun research on a new nuclear-capable heavy bomber, which would cost roughly $68 billion to develop and build. It would carry a new air-launched, nuclear-capable cruise missile. There is no rush to field a new bomber given that the Pentagon’s existing fleet will serve for another 30 years. Delaying this program would save $18 billion over the next decade, according to the Pentagon.

For additional savings, the Pentagon could consider reductions to its land-based strategic missile force. The Air Force plans to maintain a force of up to 420 land-based missiles through 2030, and wants to buy a follow-on missile in the future. An additional $8 billion could be saved by “eliminating” the land-based missile leg of the nuclear triad, according to the Pentagon. Short of elimination, these missiles could be reduced and the follow-on missile program cancelled.

Fresh thinking is in order. The automatic reductions, although large, are achievable, if done smartly. National security can actually be enhanced through greater budget discipline. Nuclear weapons programs that address low priority threats must be scaled back to protect more pressing national security needs.

Collina is Research Director and Kimball is Executive Director at the Arms Control Association.