How to be a Budget-Minded Superpower

It’s not easy being a nuclear superpower at a time of tight budgets. The simple truth is that the United States cannot afford to spend over $400 billion on new strategic weapons over the next few decades. The Nation needs a new plan, and ACA has one. Read on for how the Pentagon can save billions on submarines and bombers while still fielding as many nuclear warheads as planned under New START.

The following was originally posted on Defense News on October 24, 2011.

U.S. Must Rethink New Subs, Bombers


Twenty years after the break-up of the Soviet Union, the U.S. Navy plans to build 12 submarines to carry more than 1,000 nuclear warheads into the 2070s, at a total cost of almost $350 billion. The Air Force wants a strategic bomber that will cost at least $50 billion, as well as a new ground-based ballistic missile.

As the Pentagon searches for hundreds of billions in budget reductions, can the United States afford to spend in excess of $400 billion on new nuclear weapons over the next decades? No, it can’t. As Gen. James Cartwright, outgoing vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in July, “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.”

The deficit debate provides an important opportunity to increase U.S. national security by forcing greater budget discipline. The United States can maintain a robust nuclear force that is more than sufficient to deter other nuclear-armed adversaries, but in a more efficient, cost-effective way. By trimming back plans for new nuclear-armed strategic subs and bombers, the Pentagon can save billions of dollars while still fielding as many nuclear warheads as planned.

Under the U.S.-Russian New START treaty, both sides are limited to 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads. Outgoing Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn said Oct. 5 that defense planners are looking to stay at New START limits, “but to do it in a more fiscally responsible fashion.”

The poster child for this effort should be the Navy’s planned fleet of 12 new submarines. At $29 billion per boat, this is the most expensive nuclear weapons program by far, with the potential for huge budget savings. For example, if the Navy were to build eight subs instead of 12, it could save $27 billion over 10 years and $120 billion over the life of the program.

Eight operational boats would still allow the Pentagon to deploy the same number of sea-based warheads (about 1,000) as planned under New START.

Key to this plan is the fact that the Navy has extra space on its missiles. Each Trident missile deployed on subs can carry up to eight nuclear warheads, but the Navy currently loads each with four or five. With more efficient use of the space on each missile, the Navy could buy fewer missiles and subs.

And this extra space costs big money. Is it worth $120 billion to buy four subs and 64 missiles just to have warhead slots that are unlikely to ever be used? Those billions could buy a lot of body armor for troops in the field and other, higher-priority programs that address more urgent 21st century security challenges.

Maintaining an expensive “upload potential” may have made sense during the Cold War, when the Pentagon wanted the ability to expand its nuclear force quickly in case of unforeseen threats. But today, there’s no threat to justify expanding the deployed U.S. arsenal.

Moreover, upload capacity would still exist on strategic missiles and bombers. Some may say it is more stable to have fewer warheads on more subs, but this argument is less relevant to submarines, which are invulnerable when deployed at sea.

As for the Air Force’s strategic bombers, the current fleet of B-2s and B-52s is being modernized to last until 2040. There is no rush to field a new bomber, and the Pentagon’s plan to deploy 60 bombers under New START can be achieved with existing aircraft. Delaying this program would save almost $4 billion more over the next decade.

The Strategic Command chief. Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, who manages U.S. nuclear forces, said in July that “we’re not going to be able to go forward with weapon systems that cost what weapon systems cost today,” referring specifically to the new strategic bombers and submarines. Kehler said that “everything is on the table.”

To reduce the deficit, the White House and Congress will have to make tough choices. This one, however, is just common sense. By being more efficient in how it fields warheads, the Pentagon can sustain a New START force and save more than $30 billion over 10 years and $120 billion beyond that.

If policymakers are serious about reducing defense budgets, this is one example of fiscal responsibility that we cannot afford to ignore.

Tom Collina is research director of the Arms Control Association, Washington, where Kelsey Davenport is a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow.

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