U.S. Nuclear-Weapons Plan Is So Expensive, It Can’t Be Implemented

A new study says the strategy to update the U.S. triad of nuclear-armed aircraft, submarines and missiles would cost $1 trillion over the next 30 years, even under conservative assumptions.

A nuclear-capable B-2 aircraft drops 500-pound bombs during a U.S. Air Force exercise at a Nevada test range in 2007. Two nuclear-weapon analysts assert that today's $1 trillion plans to modernize U.S. bombers, missiles and submarines are unaffordable.
National Journal
Douglas P. Guarino
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Douglas P. Guarino
Jan. 8, 2014, 11:15 a.m.

The U.S. plan for mod­ern­iz­ing the na­tion’s nuc­le­ar ar­sen­al is so ex­pens­ive that it can­not be im­ple­men­ted, the au­thors of a new study con­tend.

“It’s just not real,” Jef­frey Lewis, one of the re­port’s co-au­thors, said in ref­er­ence to the cur­rent U.S. mod­ern­iz­a­tion blue­print. “It’s in­con­ceiv­able to me that we will ex­ecute any­thing like the plan that they say they’re go­ing to do.”

The ana­lys­is, re­leased on Tues­day by the James Mar­tin Cen­ter for Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Stud­ies, says the strategy to up­date the U.S. tri­ad of nuc­le­ar-armed bomber air­craft, sub­mar­ines and ground-based mis­siles would cost $1 tril­lion over the next 30 years, even un­der con­ser­vat­ive as­sump­tions.

The es­tim­ate re­lies largely on of­fi­cial gov­ern­ment fig­ures, the au­thors say, and does not in­clude costs as­so­ci­ated mis­sile de­fense, non­pro­lif­er­a­tion ef­forts and re­lated in­tel­li­gence pro­grams.

In­stead, it in­cludes only the cost of main­tain­ing the cur­rent U.S. nuc­le­ar ar­sen­al, buy­ing re­place­ment sys­tems and up­grad­ing bombs and war­heads, as called for by the cur­rent plan. Ma­jor cost drivers of the $1 tril­lion plan in­clude a new Long-Range Strike bomber, which the re­port pro­jects will cost $55-100 bil­lion, and Ohio-class re­place­ment sub­mar­ines, which the study says could cost $77-102 bil­lion.

Among the more con­tro­ver­sial items on the mod­ern­iz­a­tion agenda are plans to up­grade B-61 grav­ity bombs sta­tioned in Europe, cre­ate a new Long-Range Stan­doff Cruise mis­sile, and de­vel­op a series of new, in­ter­op­er­able war­heads cap­able of re­pla­cing mul­tiple weapons now in the U.S. nuc­le­ar ar­sen­al.

Giv­en cur­rent budget con­straints, im­ple­ment­ing all of these plans sim­ul­tan­eously is so un­real­ist­ic that at­tempt­ing it would likely back­fire and cause ma­jor pro­jects to be can­celed mid­stream, said Lewis, speak­ing dur­ing the study’s Tues­day pub­lic roll-out. Do­ing noth­ing to in­ject real­ism in­to the plans in the near term could ul­ti­mately leave aging weapons without re­place­ments, Lewis fore­cas­ted.

“I do not sup­port uni­lat­er­al nuc­le­ar dis­arm­a­ment, but if I did, [I’d re­com­mend that we] just keep do­ing ex­actly what we’re do­ing,” Lewis said. “We might really end up with this tiny little de­nuded force that was de­veloped with no par­tic­u­lar stra­tegic thought in mind.

“The ex­ample I think of is — we’re talk­ing about spend­ing $10-12 bil­lion on the B-61 [bomb] at this mo­ment, at the very time the Air Force is mak­ing all kinds of sig­nals that it will not make nuc­le­ar-cap­able the F-35” Joint Strike Fight­er or nuc­le­ar-cer­ti­fy from the out­set the planned new Long-Range Strike bomber, Lewis ad­ded. “So, we’ll spend $12 bil­lion on a bomb that won’t have an air­plane to drop it.”

Lewis and co-au­thor Jon Wolf­sth­al, both CNS is­sue ex­perts, said the pur­pose of the study was to en­cour­age poli­cy­makers to con­sider the full cost of the cur­rent plan, so that it can be ul­ti­mately amended based on stra­tegic goals that fit with­in real­ist­ic fin­an­cial con­straints.

The re­port’s sole re­com­mend­a­tion is that Con­gress re­quire the White House Of­fice of Man­age­ment and Budget — along with the En­ergy and De­fense de­part­ments — “to an­nu­ally pro­duce an in­teg­rated nuc­le­ar de­terrence budget” that pro­jects the full cost of each sys­tem in the U.S. nuc­le­ar ar­sen­al over its op­er­a­tion­al life­time.

The non­par­tis­an Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­ab­il­ity Of­fice has is­sued find­ings that sup­port the idea that Con­gress and the ex­ec­ut­ive branch do not fully un­der­stand the life­time costs of the cur­rent mod­ern­iz­a­tion plan, ac­cord­ing to the CNS re­port.

A 2005 GAO as­sess­ment demon­strated that “the United States does not know with any ac­cur­acy how much it spends an­nu­ally on its nuc­le­ar de­terrent, or how much it will cost to re­place the cur­rent tri­ad,” the CNS re­port notes.

“The longest-range es­tim­ates for the nuc­le­ar mis­sion pro­duced by the ad­min­is­tra­tion were in 2010 and con­tained about $214 bil­lion in spend­ing over the fisc­al 2011-20 peri­od, but the re­port omit­ted sig­ni­fic­ant costs, and the es­tim­ate peri­od ends just be­fore the sub­stan­tial pro­cure­ment bills come due,” the new study con­tends.

Con­gres­sion­al sources have sug­ges­ted that budget real­it­ies might be caus­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion to back away from cer­tain as­pects of the mod­ern­iz­a­tion plan, po­ten­tially to in­clude con­cepts for de­vel­op­ing in­ter­op­er­able war­heads.

Of­fi­cially, however, the White House has stood by the plan, ob­ject­ing to a pro­vi­sion in the fisc­al 2014 de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion law that re­quires a study on wheth­er it would be cheap­er to simply re­fur­bish ex­ist­ing war­heads.

Oth­er is­sues — such as wheth­er ground-based bal­list­ic mis­siles are as im­port­ant in the post-Cold War era as harder-to-de­tect mis­sile-car­ry­ing sub­mar­ines — should also be dis­cussed, Lewis and Wolf­sth­al sug­ges­ted.

They ac­know­ledged, however, that elim­in­at­ing ICBMs en­tirely would be polit­ic­ally dif­fi­cult, giv­en the staunch sup­port they re­ceive from law­makers rep­res­ent­ing the West­ern states where they are based.

“The prob­lem,” ac­cord­ing to Lewis, “is that at this par­tic­u­lar mo­ment there is a lack of cour­age on the part of the White House and ex­cess­ive par­tis­an­ship in Con­gress. The pres­id­ent stands up in Ber­lin and talks about ne­go­ti­at­ing an ad­di­tion­al re­duc­tion with the Rus­si­ans to go down to 1,000 de­ployed war­heads and he’s im­me­di­ately con­demned for sup­port­ing what amounts to uni­lat­er­al dis­arm­a­ment.

“What strikes me as one of the cent­ral find­ings of this re­port is we will be lucky to be at 1,000 war­heads by 2030,” Lewis con­ten­ded. “What we’re try­ing to do is to get people to look real­ist­ic­ally at what the levels of budget­ary au­thor­ity are go­ing to be and then have this con­ver­sa­tion.”

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