There are huge decisions that must be made soon on U.S. national defense. Most Americans have no idea what is at stake.
Like other military hardware designed in the Cold War, all three legs of the U.S. strategic nuclear deterrent are rapidly reaching retirement age. Traditional thinking suggests replacing all three legs. The cost to do that is more than $200 billion. A more prudent choice is to reduce strategic nuclear forces now by eliminating ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and accelerating reductions in submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) to levels that the Pentagon has already recommended for the future.
Making these choices now would save hundreds of millions per year in operating costs and avoid at least $50 billion in costs to develop a new ICBM.
U.S. defense budgets have experienced three periods of growth and two periods of decline over the past 50 years. We are now entering a period of shrinking defense budgets. How much and how fast the defense budget will decline will be determined by elections, sequestration, deficit reduction decisions and other economic priorities. But barring another national security crisis such as 9/11, defense budget toplines will head south for the foreseeable future. Reducing nuclear weapon forces now would allow spending on scarce defense budget resources in higher priority areas.
The U.S. strategic nuclear force structure consists of 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), each with 24 launch tubes; 20 B-2 and 93 B-52H bombers; and 450 Minuteman III ICBMs. All Ohio-class SSBNs will be retired between 2027 and 2040. The Government Accountability Office estimates the cost to replace these SSBNs at $90.4 billion.
The Air Force is studying long-range strike options to replace its manned bombers. These options include buying 80 to 100 stealthy, nuclear-capable subsonic bombers with a target price cap of $550 million per aircraft. Large cost overruns in the B-2, F-22 and F-35 combat aircraft programs, however, cause many to question if the $550 million unit cost cap is realistic.
Solid-fuel motors on the Minuteman III ICBMs will reach the end of their service lives around 2030. The Air Force decision to terminate ICBM production many years ago, coupled with NASA’s recent decision to end the space shuttle program, damaged the U.S. heavy-lift rocket motor industry and will make the cost of a new ICBM program prohibitive.
There has been a steady decline in the number of nuclear weapons deployed by the U.S. and Russia, from a peak of more than 32,000 U.S. nuclear weapons in 1966 to a New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty limit of 1,550 warheads deployed on 700 missiles and bombers by 2018. Air Force studies in 2010 and 2011 indicated that as few as 311 deployed warheads would meet U.S. defense requirements.
In August, the State Department was reported to be studying a recommendation for U.S. and Russia each to reduce nuclear weapons to 1,000 warheads on 500 delivery systems. This trend argues strongly for the elimination of one leg of the triad and only operating what we need in the other two legs.
Historically, the U.S. maintained three legs of the triad to ensure at least one would survive any attack and thereby deter any attack. Although the number of nuclear weapon states has grown since the Cold War, the threat of a massive nuclear strike that could destroy all of our military forces has greatly diminished.
Russia can hold our land-based forces at risk, but it can’t threaten our SSBNs at sea. China is investing heavily in missile and space programs, but it is only a regional military power. The possibility that rogue states and terrorist groups could attack using nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction has increased, but if those elements are deterred by U.S. nuclear-weapon capability, the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is not a significant factor in that deterrence.
Given the reduced threat from a large-scale nuclear attack, the increased threat of a small-scale weapon of mass destruction attack, the greatly improved ability of U.S. military forces to deliver precision conventional strikes and sharp cuts in defense budgets, now is the time to replace our Cold War nuclear strategy with flexible response options, including conventional strike, cyberwarfare and coordinated global actions using the full range of international government powers to deter our adversaries.
The first steps should be to immediately reduce the size of the SSBN force to the levels already recommended by the Pentagon for the period 2029 to 2040 — 11 to 10 SSBNs with 16 launch tubes — and to eliminate all 550 of the Minuteman III ICBMs. Starting a new ICBM program would be too costly, and while Russia is the only nation that can threaten the U.S. land-based forces, several other countries are investing in long-range missile delivery systems.
U.S. defense spending likely will face sustained pressure in the future, so taxpayers’ dollars must be invested in those technologies that offer the best defense against current and future threats, including conventional strike, cyberwarfare and coordinated international actions.
Replacing all three legs of the triad with more weapons than we need will take money away from more important defense programs and add to our crushing debt. Buying more strategic weapons than we need will make us less safe due to wasting money on a Maginot Line defense.
Ajay Patel is president of Monitor National Security, a Newport Beach, Calif.-based strategy practice of the Monitor Group; and Ben Wachendorf is a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral and senior adviser at Monitor National Security.