The CBO has done another less-than-useful job of scaring Congress with a ghost story about future nuclear modernization costs. Their new report includes many questionable assumptions, (often required to be adopted by those members of Congress requesting such a CBO report). As a result, it is no accident that CBO concludes the cost of modernizing the nuclear enterprise has grown significantly.
Two examples stand out. CBO includes the cost of the new strategic bomber without explaining that the nuclear related costs for that airplane are, as former OSD official James Miller noted in testimony to Congress, no more than 3 percent of the total costs. The bomber will be built under any circumstances as the United States conventional requirement for such a sensor shooter platform is beyond dispute. This change could reduce the new CBO "nuclear" estimates by well over $200 billion.
Taken overall, the CBO estimates compared for example to the similar 2015 study by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, (CSBA) are inflated by a whopping $450 billion.
CBO also cleverly adopts a 30-year marker for nuclear programs. This allows their cost estimate to reach $1 trillion. But such estimates are meaningless as the Congress is now primarily concerned with the current five-year budget plan and long-term only a 10-year window.
But even using a three-decade time frame, the CBO warning is hardly persuasive. For example, over the next 30 years, Uncle Sam is scheduled to spend nearly $200 trillion. CBO seems to think that cutting some few billions annually from the nuclear enterprise each year will solve a budget problem measured in the trillions.
But annual nuclear modernization is projected to be only an additional 2 percent of the defense budget or $14 billion by some estimates, compared to an ongoing nuclear sustainment and operational budget of $22 billion annually. Combined, the $36 billion required for full nuclear modernization is well within affordable bounds.
By the middle of the next decade, for example, total annual U.S. government spending is projected to reach $5.6 trillion, of which the $35-37 billion in annual nuclear costs amounts to roughly a little less than .7 percent of 1 percent of the annual federal government outlays. And after that peak, the costs will begin to decline.
When the CSBA study came out, the same chorus of nuclear opponents complained modernization was unaffordable and unnecessary even at that price. They lost that argument, and a solid majority of Congress continued to support going forward with the strategic deterrent modernization program, which is the very bedrock for all of U.S. and allied security.
What we have is a version of the Queen of Hearts who famously said in “Alice in Wonderland,” first the verdict (cut nukes) and then the evidence.
But nonetheless, a small minority of anti-nuclear disarmers continue to push for a markedly reduced deterrent and a brand-new deterrent strategy. Having concluded the current deterrent strategy is unaffordable, they have adopted a new strategy that magically fits within their new budget.
And what is the new brilliant strategy? Unilaterally adopt China’s (alleged) minimal deterrent strategy of deploying very low numbers of nuclear weapons, says the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.
That also would require that the United States have only one deterrent option — to burn down with nuclear weapons our adversary’s cities. This mutual assured destruction or MAD policy was understood decades ago to be an ineffective strategic deterrent posture and thus was jettisoned in the late 1960's by the U.S. government. And it is also highly unlikely China has adopted such a policy as its nuclear programs are highly secret and its deterrent policy largely hidden.
Even more worrisome is these nuclear disarmers are convinced the modernization of the nuclear arsenal of China and Russia, for example, flows from the United States starting a nuclear arms race. Thus, the theory is if we stop building, they will stop building!
The facts say otherwise. The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) explained this summer both these nuclear armed adversaries will complete their nuclear modernization effort in the next decade. In the case of Russia, modernization will be complete by 2021, before the United States has deployed a single new nuclear missile, bomber or submarine. And with China, they will be largely finished their deterrent expansion and modernization at the end of the next decade. The arms race is thus between China and Russia. The United States has not even gotten to the track, let alone put on its running shoes.
Even should the United States eliminate all its currently planned nuclear modernization, the annual bill for simply sustaining the current nuclear enterprise still comes to 4 percent of the defense budget or around $20-25 billion a year.
During the Reagan administration, we defeated similar arguments. We broke the back of the nuclear freeze, won the Cold War and set in motion an arms control process where fully 90 percent of our deployed strategic nuclear forces and those of the Soviet Union and then Russia were reduced.
However, today, especially at such markedly lower levels of nuclear forces, each deployed element becomes more critical to be fully capable to meet future threats. Unilaterally cutting wide swaths of our nuclear deterrent would be reckless, such as eliminating the cruise missile, or the land based missiles or some number of submarines. And the idea that the 2 percent of our defense budget devoted to nuclear modernization is somehow responsible for the shortfalls faced by the other 98 percent of the defense budget is preposterous.
Today, we are relying almost solely for our existing nuclear deterrent on a force built and deployed during the Reagan era. If we had listened to the siren songs of appeasement and nuclear freezes then, we would have no deterrent now.
We have largely failed to modernize since the Reagan era, having foolishly taken what USAF General Garrett Harencak correctly noted was a procurement holiday after the end of the Cold War. We cannot afford to make that mistake again. Our deterrent is aging and while extraordinarily capable now, needs to be replaced and modernized now.
Peter Huessy is the director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies of the Air Force Association. He is also the president of Geostrategic Analysis, a defense consulting firm.