Looking for defense cuts? Go nuclear

By Tom Z. Collina

The following entry was originally posted on The Hill’s Congress Blog on August 2, 2011.

As the dust settles on the just-passed budget deal, one thing is becoming clear: there is now high-level bipartisan agreement that the U.S. defense budget will be reduced in a major way, anywhere from $350 to $850 billion over the next decade, according to the White House. And despite defense hawk grumblings, reductions of this magnitude can actually make America safer by forcing leaders to cancel low-priority programs and focus on the ones that really matter. It’s time to get serious about our top security priorities and cut the dead wood.

For example, can the Nation really afford to spend more than $200 billion over the next ten years to rebuild the U.S. nuclear arsenal? Republican senators demanded, and won, a promise from the Obama administration to do just that when the New START treaty was approved last year. But that was then. Can all of this funding be justified in the post-budget-deal era? No, it can’t.

The Department of Defense and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) plan to use this $200 billion to build a new generation of submarines, bombers and missiles for the nuclear “triad,” upgrade the nuclear warheads they carry, and rebuild the warhead factories. But we will be better off—from a fiscal as well as a security perspective–if a large fraction of this money is invested elsewhere.

Sen. Tom Coburn R- Okla. (Image Source: ABC News)

One of the Senate’s most conservative Republicans, Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), recently called for cutting $79 billion from the U.S. nuclear weapons budget over the next decade. Coburn’s plan calls for reducing the U.S. nuclear stockpile below New START limits of no more than 1,550 warheads on 700 deployed long-range delivery systems by 2018.

Russia, however, has already dropped its forces below these limits, so now the United States deploys hundreds of weapons more than Moscow. Does this make us safer? No, since maintaining a larger arsenal than Russia will likely prompt its leaders to build back up to New START levels, to the detriment of U.S. security. Meanwhile China, often cast as the next U.S. competitor, has just a few hundred nuclear weapons, and only about 50 that could reach the United States. Washington can safely reduce its arsenal to match Russia’s, and negotiate a follow-on treaty to get to lower numbers.

The main way that nuclear reductions save money is by reducing the need to buy new, expensive delivery systems. The new submarine, called the SSBN(X), with 12 boats at $7 billion each, is projected to cost around $100 billion including development. The new bombers are projected to cost at least $50 billion over their lifetime. These cost estimates are likely to go up. Similarly, the NNSA is planning to spend billions rebuilding the factories that make key nuclear warhead parts. But if the nuclear arsenal is reduced, we will need fewer submarines, bombers and warheads. By delaying procurement decisions until future needs are clearer, we can save billions.

Case in point: the Pentagon is in the midst of reviewing the roles and missions of U.S. nuclear weapons, which will ultimately determine how many weapons we need. This review is an important opportunity to revisit the central assumptions of U.S. nuclear weapons policy, many of which have not changed since the Soviet Union ceased to exist. For example, do we still need a nuclear triad, or will a “dyad” do? Looking to the future, if all 12 submarines are built, they would likely carry over 700 nuclear warheads when completed in the 2030s. What are they for?

Early in his first term, President George W. Bush declared that “Russia is no longer our enemy.” The Cold War has been over for 20 years, and today’s top threats—terrorism, proliferation, dictators—do not lend themselves to a nuclear response. By carefully reducing our nuclear forces and scaling back new weapon systems, the United States can save billions. Moreover, by reducing the incentive for Russia to rebuild its arsenal, these budget savings can make America safer. Saving money has never made so much sense.

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3 Responses to Looking for defense cuts? Go nuclear

  1. Stephen Minkin says:

    For the past year or so I have been working with other Vermonters to get Senator Bernie Sanders to speak out about the cost of nuclear weapons modernization and the buildup of bombers, missiles and submarines. So far we have had little success in raising the public profile of this issue.
    How can we move the issue forward as a central feature of the budget debate? The choice is stark: Social Security, Medicare, Medicare and Education versus strategically outmoded investments born of the Cold War.

    • Nuclear Weapons provide the most ‘bang for the buck’ of any weapon system. Plus, their usefulness extends beyond tactical military employment: they provide diplomatic might, global reach, and ‘force enablement’.

      As the US reduces its military, and withdraws its forces from around the world, nuclear weapons will continue to exert global influence at a fraction of the cost of deployed conventional forces.

  2. Jon says:

    We can still have a robust, advanced, safe, effective nuclear arsenal while also cutting the number of delivery vehicles. Retiring one icbm base still leaves us with 300 missiles. Converting 4 Ohio subs to tactical Trident SSGNs still leaves us with 8 deployed subs, with 1,200 warheads on 192 slbms (150 warheads per sub). Retiring the B-52H from the nuclear role and making it conventional only, along with the alcms, still leaves us with the B-2 and B83s. And we still have B61s for tactical fighters. This would still give us a triad, 1,516 deployed strategic warheads, while saving money by not having to maintain more delivery vehicles. More importantly, it helps us build up our conventional forces with delivery vehicles that help us with the Global Strike mission.

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