Even Nuclear Planners Can't Have It All | Commentary

Congress is conducting its annual debate over the defense budget and programs in the National Defense Authorization Act. Sadly missing is a debate over the nuclear weapons budget. The United States plans to spend more than $1 trillion over the next thirty years to maintain and modernize its nuclear arsenal. Some of this spending is truly needed and can help ensure that Washington maintains a safe, secure, and effective arsenal to defend itself and its allies. But many of the projects are too expensive or redundant, and out of step with today’s strategic and budgetary environment. Put simply, the United States does not need a penetrating stealth bomber, a new air dropped bomb AND a long-range standoff cruise missile armed with nuclear weapons on top of a new submarine and new ICBM. Priorities have to be set and choice have to be made.

The rationale behind each of these systems by themselves may make sense, but taken together are redundant and will require the Pentagon to spend money better spent on programs that actually contribute to national security.

Some of programs included in the $1 trillion price tag will be worth the investment. The United States nuclear triad of missiles, submarines and bombers — is rapidly aging. The nuclear bomber leg of the nuclear triad consists of 76 B-52 bombers and 18 B-2 aircraft. The B-2 first started flying in 1997 and the B-52 back in 1961. The United States clearly has a need for a new long-range conventionally-armed bomber. The cost of making such an aircraft capable of delivering nuclear weapons is relatively small, less than 3 percent of the total cost of the project now slated to cost approximately $100 billion for 100 aircraft.

The nuclear mission for this aircraft can be directly met by pairing it with the B-61 air dropped nuclear bomb. The B-61 is in the middle of a nearly $10 billion life extension program and this bomb can be used on both short-range aircraft for alliance deterrence and for US strategic missions on board long-range bombers. To deliver this weapon and carry out its conventional mission, the new bomber being designed as a penetrating bomber, equipped with stealth technology to evade enemy radar and drop its weapons from inside enemy air space.

The problem is that the Air Force is also pushing aggressively to develop a nuclear-armed cruise missile to put on board these very same aircraft. So on top of $100 billion for the plane and $10 billion for the upgraded bomb, the Air Force is pushing for a project that will produce a new cruise missile that will likely require the development of a new nuclear weapon. This estimated price tag for the long-range standoff nuclear missiles — if history is any guide — will end up being well above the initial price estimate of $20-30 billion.

This costly, unnecessary redundancy continues when you look at the other legs of the nuclear triad. In addition to the new nuclear-capable bombers, the US is planning to buy 12 new ballistic missile submarines and a new generation of Intercontinental-Range Ballistic Missiles — costing hundreds of billions of dollars. With so many options for nuclear delivery systems, it remains unclear what unfilled mission the long-range standoff missile intends to satisfy.

During the cold war when we planned for and equipped ourselves for all and any contingencies, such a duplication of effort and expense might have made sense. But such extravagance and redundancy today does not, especially in the face of severe budget constraints that are preventing the Government from pursuing critical programs in many other areas even inside the Pentagon.

The Congress appears unable to rationalize these choices so far in its annual budget process, and the White House has yet to try to knit these long-range programs together in a way that is sustainable after the end of the five-year pentagon planning process. Finally, however, it appears that planners inside the military itself are starting to realize that the pie will not be large enough to feed every nuclear project and that some tradeoffs will have to be made. Eliminating — not just delaying — the plan for long-range standoff missiles is a small but important step toward freeing up resources for so many other more supportable, logical priorities.

Jon Wolfsthal is Deputy Director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies and a former nuclear security Advisor to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.