Why America Doesn't Need All Its Nukes
Earlier this week in RealClearDefense, the Foreign Policy Initiative’s Evan Moore made his case for “why America still needs nukes.” Moore points to the conclusions of the recently released National Defense Panel (NDP) report on defense policy as evidence of the importance of nuclear weapons to U.S. security and the need to rebuild America’s aging nuclear delivery systems and their associated warheads.
However, the panel is more nuanced and circumspect in its prescriptions for nuclear weapons than Moore would have us believe. In fact, the report reinforces the argument that the cost to rebuild the U.S. nuclear arsenal of approximately 4,800 warheads is unaffordable and that attempting to fund a replacement for every element of the triad may not be a wise investment.
Consisting of a who’s who of former civilian defense officials and military leaders from both political parties, the NDP was mandated by Congress to review the Pentagon’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). Moore is right that the panel emphasizes the role played by nuclear weapons in deterring potential adversaries and reassuring U.S. allies and partners. He is also right that the panel calls for modernizing U.S. nuclear forces.
But Moore ignores key statements in the panel’s report that contradict his apparent conclusion that maintaining our current archaic nuclear posture in perpetuity is the only sensible path forward.
For example, the report notes that “The U.S. nuclear arsenal could be reduced in support of the country’s arms control and nonproliferation objectives.”
In addition, the report states that current plans to rebuild all three legs of the nuclear triad and associated warheads “could cost between $600 billion and $1 trillion over a thirty year period, the costs of which would likely come at the expense of needed improvements in conventional forces.” According to the panel, this price tag is “under current budget constraints…unaffordable.”
Consequently, the NDP sensibly points out that “the merits of some aspects of this expensive recapitalization can be debated.” Indeed, save for recommending the continuation of ongoing programs to develop a new Long-Range Strike Bomber and a new fleet of ballistic missile submarines, the panel does not make any specific recommendations about preferred delivery system or warhead modernization approaches.
The report’s main recommendation is “that the impending nuclear force modernization program be subjected to a thorough review, including the assumptions and requirements of strategic nuclear deterrence in the present era.” It also calls for Congress to form a commission “to study the recapitalization of America’s nuclear arsenal.” The clear implication is that the current “all of the above” modernization path being pursued by the administration is not only fiscally unsustainable, but politically unsustainable as well. Indeed, Congress has already begun to reject elements of the modernization program.
The need for a core U.S. nuclear deterrent will remain as long as other states possess nuclear weapons. But these weapons are increasingly irrelevant to the security threats the United States and its allies face in the 21st century. These include cyber threats, weak and failing states, climate change, terrorism, energy blackmail, and smaller-scale Russian and Chinese land- and island-grabbing. Today, U.S. conventional and economic power plays a much larger role in the deterrence equation. It is impossible to conjure a believable scenario in which the United States would use 50 nuclear weapons, let alone nearly 5,000.
The only rationale for such a large force is to address Russia’s similarly sized arsenal, since no other nuclear-armed state is believed to possess more than 300 weapons. Yet despite their current tensions over Ukraine, the United States and Russia aren’t global ideological rivals like they were during the Cold War. U.S. nuclear forces are largely irrelevant to the current Ukraine crisis.
Given that Washington can meet its security needs with fewer nuclear weapons, last year U.S. military leaders concluded that it is possible to reduce the size of the U.S. deployed arsenal by up to one-third below the New START level of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads. While the Obama administration would prefer to pursue further reductions with Russia, an admittedly unlikely prospect in the near-term, the current budget environment could require further reductions with or without Russian reciprocity. The choice, then, is whether to wait for disarmament by financial default, or to begin molding a future arsenal that is more in keeping with the fiscal and strategic environment.
Like the NDP report, an increasing number of current government and military officials have been warning that existing nuclear modernization plans are unrealistic and unexecutable. Of particular concern is that an enormous chunk of the cost to recapitalize the triad is set to be absorbed over a short period during the early- to mid-2020s, a problem described by one former Pentagon official as “a modernization mountain in the budget.” If the Air Force acquires a new ICBM, procurement would likely begin in the mid-2020s and overlap, according to current plans, with the Navy's ballistic missile submarine replacement program, and also the Air Force's new nuclear-capable Long-Range Strike bomber and cruise missile programs. The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is also slated to embark on an unprecedentedly large scope of work in the 2020s.
To make matters worse, the U.S. government’s estimates of the costs of current nuclear weapons spending plans consistently underestimate and leave Congress in the dark about the actual costs of these plans. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office stated that the Pentagon and NNSA may be significantly underreporting their annual 10-year estimate of nuclear weapons costs.
As part of the nuclear force modernization review suggested by the NDP, the Pentagon and NNSA should provide Congress with a full cost estimate of the remaining life-cycle-costs of the existing triad and full life cycle costs for newly planned systems. Ten-year estimates are valuable, but they only capture part of the costs. It goes without saying that Congress can’t make fully informed judgments about the affordability and merits of the current modernization plan when it doesn’t have a clear picture of how much these plans will cost.
While the military’s current budget problems cannot be solved by reducing nuclear weapons spending, there are significant savings to be found by trimming the arsenal and scaling back planned modernization programs. A December 2013 report by the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the government’s current nuclear weapons spending plans will cost $355 billion over the next decade. Of that amount, tens of billions could be saved over the next decade (and additional tens of billions over ensuing decades) by scaling back current plans, even, if necessary, without significantly reducing U.S. warhead levels below the New START limits.
The NDP recognizes that current resources don’t match requirements. The longer current nuclear spending plans remain on autopilot, the more likely it will be that the budget will force suboptimal tradeoffs between nuclear and other national security programs, as well as possible reductions in nuclear forces by financial default. Fortunately, the United States can guarantee its security and that of its allies in a more fiscally sustainable manner by continuing to pursue further reductions in U.S. nuclear forces and scaling back current modernization plans.