Nuclear weapons: The ‘all of the above’ strategy

This week, the Senate is scheduled to begin consideration of the annual defense authorization bill. In a move detached from budgetary reality, the bill backs an unaffordable plan to modernize or replace nearly every aspect of the United States’ oversized nuclear arsenal. It is an “all of the above” strategy that avoids any of the hard, but necessary, strategic choices. This is the budgetary equivalent of trying to drive 50 miles with 25 miles worth of gas and the Pentagon will not be happy with the results. 

The National Defense Authorization Act for FY2016 (NDAA) passed by the Senate Armed Services Committee includes a long wish list of nuclear weapons and delivery systems. The current plan is to design and build 12 new nuclear missile submarines, as many as 100 new nuclear-capable bombers, as many as 1,100 new nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, and to modernize around 400 intercontinental ballistic missiles and the various nuclear warheads in the U.S. arsenal. In addition, the Committee requires the modernization and replacement of forward-deployed nuclear weapons, dual capable fighter-bomber aircraft and perhaps the development of intermediate range nuclear weapons.

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The Pentagon itself is concerned about the affordability of this plan. Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s Undersecretary of Acquisitions, characterized the nuclear modernization plans as “unaffordable.” He went on to say that updating all three legs of the U.S. nuclear force—delivery systems by land, air, and sea—concurrently will fail unless the Department of Defense can secure an additional $10 to $12 billion annually by 2021 – an extremely unlikely scenario.

Kendall is not alone. “The challenge here is that we have to recapitalize all three legs [of the nuclear triad] and we don’t have the money to do it,” explained General James Cartwright, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Over the next decade, the United States plans to spend $348 billion on its nuclear forces, or about $35 billion a year, according to a 2015 Congressional Budget Office report. Reports conducted by the congressionally-appointed National Defense Panel and Center for Nonproliferation Studies indicate the nuclear arsenal could cost as much as $1 trillion to modernize. The official cost of this “all of the above” nuclear force modernization is a classified secret.

These exorbitant plans are likely to lead to defense budget tradeoffs, as neither the Air Force nor Navy can afford to fully fund both their nuclear and conventional forces. The National Defense Panel, which included former Secretary of Defense William Perry, retired four star General John Abizaid and former Senator and distinguished Heritage Foundation fellow Jim Talent, predicted this: “recapitalization of the triad . . . under current budget constraints is unaffordable” and the $600 billion – $1 trillion cost “would likely come at the expense of needed improvements in conventional forces.”

But Congress refuses to make the tough choices now about what capabilities are ‘essential’ and which are ‘nice to have.’

Instead, Congress has authorized yet another budget gimmick called the “National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund,” which moves the nuclear submarine program from the Navy’s account to the defense-wide budget. This changes the accounting, but as Undersecretary Kendall acknowledged, it fails to fix the actual affordability problem.

A potential consequence of the “all the above” strategy: build a smaller number of each weapon at a substantially higher unit cost. There is ample precedent for this option; the Air Force planned to build 132 B-2 nuclear bombers and ended up with only 21 and the MX Peacekeeper missile was whittled down from 200 to 50. Similarly, the Navy wanted 24 Ohio-class Submarines and 32 Zumwalt-class Destroyers, but received only 18 and 3 respectively.

But this bill is not yet law. Perhaps when the full Senate takes up the NDAA, some sensible senators will propose some alternatives to the unaffordable “all the above” strategy. The Senate can and should work to improve national security and better allocate defense resources, starting with a realistic plan for modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Isaacs is a senior fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Terryn is a Scoville fellow at the Center.

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