Decisions on Upgrading Nuclear Arsenals Will Wait for Next Defense Secretary's Attention

Chuck Hagel’s successor as Defense secretary will be confronted with a range of immediate security challenges — including the fight against the Islamic State terror group, also known as ISIS, in Iraq and Syria; a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan and Russian intervention in Ukraine. No less serious are longer-term problems with the U.S. nuclear arsenal stemming from years of declining relevance and lack of high-level attention.

In November, Hagel announced plans to revamp management of the nuclear stockpile, which includes nuclear-armed submarines, strategic bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles. The announced improvements were the result of an internal and external review of the strategic deterrence missions of the Navy and Air Force. The studies concluded that recently uncovered problems with test-cheating and low morale among the nuclear corps were the products of micro-management, too many inspections, insufficient attention from the highest levels of the Pentagon and the perception that an ICBM-related assignment was bad for an officer’s military career.

“The issue of what to do with the nuclear arsenal will be inherited by whoever takes over the Pentagon,” said Tom Collina, director of policy at the Ploughshares Fund, an organization that supports global nuclear disarmament. “The main context of that is the budget challenge. I think what the next secretary of Defense has to come to terms with is that we have to prioritize and make choices carefully.”

Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work has blamed those problems on a Pentagon bureaucracy distracted by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and then confronted with congressionally imposed spending reductions that led the Defense Department to favor conventional military needs over nuclear ones. Hagel promised that nuclear arsenal requirements going forward would get a higher priority.

“It will take years of committed action to fix problems that have accumulated over many, many years,” the secretary said.

It will be up to Hagel’s successor, though, to oversee implementation of the roughly 100 official recommendations and to secure extra money from Congress to pay for the improvements. What is not yet clear is how high the nuclear enterprise will rank on a new secretary’s to-do list.

High-Profile Slip-Ups

Less than a decade ago, Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered an overhaul of the Air Force’s nuclear mission after a series of high-profile weapon slip-ups, but Pentagon brass did not stay focused on the problem.

To correct the identified infrastructure and morale problems, the military wants Congress to increase the nuclear arms budget by 10 percent annually over the next five years. That money would be on top of the tens of billions of dollars the Pentagon will have to ask lawmakers to provide in the coming years to begin the work of modernizing each leg of the country’s nuclear triad — intercontinental missiles, strategic bombers and missiles launched from submarines.

In the near future, money is needed to pay for things aimed at improving morale, such as incentive pay, new billets, and the industrial deep cleaning of each of the country’s 45 underground Minuteman 3 launch centers — none of which have been thoroughly vacuumed in more than 50 years.

Over the next decade, though, the government is projected to spend a minimum of $355 billion on the upkeep and modernization of its nuclear weapon production facilities, warheads and delivery vehicles, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Spending on the nuclear stockpile in the next 30 years could total as much as $1 trillion, according to independent arms-control advocates.

“Someone needs to step in and set the priorities,” Collina said of the next defense secretary. “Right now, no one is doing that. There is no correlation between the wish list as it currently exists and the amount of money that is going to be available.”

The Navy’s plan to build a new 12-vessel fleet of “boomers” — submarines outfitted with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles — is expected to cost roughly $100 billion, making it the most expensive component of the nuclear modernization program. The Navy acknowledged earlier this year in a report to Congress that it cannot afford to simultaneously acquire a replacement for the expiring Ohio-class submarine and modernize its existing conventional fleet under current budget caps.

A CBO report issued last month on options for reducing the federal deficit found that if the Navy were to buy only eight strategic submarines, it would save nearly $21 billion. Under current plans, the first replacement sub would be procured in fiscal 2021.

Meanwhile, the Air Force plans to enlarge and eventually replace its present fleet of 159 long-range bombers by acquiring up to 100 strategic bombers beginning in the mid-2020s. Though the Air Force says it will work to limit the cost of each plane to $550 million, outside analysts have calculated that if research and development costs are factored in, the price could climb to $810 million.

Were development of the new bomber postponed until at least fiscal 2025, the Pentagon could save itself more than $34 billion, according to the CBO report.

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