The New U.S. Defense Strategy: Toward A Smaller, Less Costly Nuclear Force

By Daryl G. Kimball and Tom Z. Collina

This morning, President Obama and Defense Secretary Panetta unveiled their new defense strategy that is designed to yield some $450 billion plus in budget savings that must be achieved over the next decade.

Their presentations did not detail specific programs that will be cut or trimmed, but instead they outlined a general vision that will guide the administration’s defense budget decisions.

Panetta said that the plan will maintain a “safe and effective nuclear deterrent,” but did not explain how many nuclear weapons will be required for deterrence or how much we can afford to keep spending to maintain and modernize that force.

However, the strategy document “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense” clearly says that “It is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force, which would reduce the number of nuclear weapons in our inventory as well as their role in U.S. national security strategy.”


As we have been arguing for some time, we can and should trim, delay, and eliminate expensive programs for a new generation of strategic nuclear weapons delivery systems.

To date, those plans call for building 12 new nuclear-armed submarines to carry more than 1,000 nuclear warheads into the 2070s, at a total cost of almost $350 billion; a new strategic bomber that will cost at least $68 billion, as well as a new ground-based ballistic missile, and more.

That’s more than the United States can afford or needs in the 21st century.

In July, Gen. James Cartwright, then-vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said: “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 new strategy outlined today says nothing about the role of U.S. nuclear weapons in defense policy, but the Obama administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) did, however, assert that “The massive nuclear arsenal we inherited from the Cold War era of bipolar military confrontation is poorly suited to address the challenges posed by suicidal terrorists and unfriendly regimes seeking nuclear weapons.”

Maintaining excessive nuclear force does nothing to help convince nations, such as Iran or North Korea, or terrorist actors to abandon their pursuit of dangerous weapons. It does nothing to encourage nuclear restraint by China and Russia.

U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals still exceed what is necessary to deter nuclear attack. Today, the United States deploys 1,800 strategic warheads, while Russia deploys 1,550 strategic warheads. Each side possesses thousands more warheads in storage.

No other nuclear-armed country deploys more than 300 strategic warheads; China has no more than 40 to 50 warheads on intercontinental-range missiles.

In fact, by maintaining a larger nuclear force than we need, we are more likely to induce Russia to build up its own arsenal. It is in the security and financial interests of both countries to pursue further, parallel reductions in nuclear forces.

Washington and Moscow can and should pursue further, reciprocal reductions in their overall strategic nuclear forces—to 1,000 warheads or fewer each—and still retain more than enough megatonnage to deter nuclear attack by any current or future adversary.

We need to make smart decisions that avoid wasting scarce resources to modernize and deploy excessive numbers of nuclear weapons for decades to come.

There are a number of ways in which the United States can trim nuclear weapons excess, save at least $45 billion over the next decade, and still maintain a formidable nuclear force.

  • By downsizing the nuclear-armed submarine force from 12 to 8 boats, we could save $27 billion over the next 10 years (and $120 billion over the life of the program). Eight operational boats would allow the Pentagon to deploy the same number of sea-based warheads (about 1,000) as planned under New START.
  • By delaying work on a new strategic bomber, we would save $18 billion over the next decade, according to the Pentagon. There is no rush to field a new bomber given that the Pentagon’s plan to deploy 60 heavy bombers under New START. Further budget savings could be achieved by phasing out long-range bombers from the nuclear mission.
  • Additional savings could be achieved by reducing the land-based strategic missile force. According to the Pentagon, $8 billion could be saved by “eliminating” the land-based missile leg of the nuclear triad. Short of elimination, the missile force could be reduced to 300 by cutting one squadron at each of the three bases.

A smart defense strategy requires reducing obsolete nuclear weapons systems to help make room for the capabilities that address the real security threat of the 21st century.

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