WASHINGTON — The government is preparing to spend upwards of $350 billion over the next ten years to modernize and maintain America’s nuclear arsenal, at a time when the Pentagon is openly stating a need to save money.
But while partisan divides run deep in 2016, Republicans and Democrats on the Hill, as well as the administration and Pentagon leadership, seem able to find common ground in support for a strong nuclear deterrent, regardless of the price tag that accompanies it.
That was apparent in a pair of recent budget hearings, when the members of Congress were downright friendly with the witnesses before them – a strong cry from the type of reception Secretary of Defense Ash Carter or the Joint Chiefs tend to receive when discussing their budget requests.
On Feb. 23, top National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) officials appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Strategic Forces for a neighborly discussion about the agency’s $12.9 billion fiscal year 2017 request. Indications are the subcommittee will recommend a similar dollar value, or perhaps even go further, in its budget suggestion.
The tone was even warmer a day later at a House Armed Services Committee Strategic Forces Subcommittee hearing, featuring Adm. Cecil Haney, US Strategic Command (STRATCOM) head, and Brian McKeon, principal deputy under secretary of defense for policy.
The hearing opened with chairman Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., praising Haney for his advocacy on behalf of the need to modernize the nuclear arsenal.
“Too many in the public policy and advocacy machine in this city either aren’t aware of this fact or willfully choose to ignore it,” Rogers said. “We can’t help those who willingly choose ignorance, but we shouldn’t give up on those who aren’t aware of the basic facts.”
Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee, the ranking Democrat on the panel, said he was “just thankful there is such a bipartisan consensus on these issues” and, like Rogers, pushed back at those who are critical of the need to keep the naval, air and Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) components that make up the “nuclear triad” intact.
“We almost should be thankful we face a few rivals, and would be rivals in the area because think of how difficult it would be to fund all this if there were none,” Cooper said. “So now we have something to complain about and also build support behind.”
Both men indicated strong support for the triad, regardless of the cost. That’s a far cry from several years ago, said Tom Karako, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, when there were “unpleasant and needlessly polarized” fights on the Hill over nuclear modernization.
While there are certainly members of Congress who are against the nuclear modernization, on the whole, those in the most relevant committees seem committed to moving forward, he noted.
“It should not be underappreciated, the degree to which this kind of relative consensus has come about. This is hard wrought,” Karako said. “I think the relative consensus, and the tone of consensus [shows] we’ve come around to a common view of what is going to be required for the near term, by which I mean the next decade or more, to sustain the posture we have.”
While there may be consensus among lawmakers, those critical of the nuclear mission continue to point to costs as a reason for modernization to be slowed, or to have programs cut entirely. Kingston Reif of the Arms Control Association believes that as cost becomes more of a factor, more members of Congress will pick up on the issue and start to pay attention.
He also points out that while there is general consensus about the need to modernize weapons, there are some questions among democrats about how to go about it, in particular with the NNSA side of things.
“Perhaps the biggest reason why Democrats have not been as vocal as one might expect is these are President Obama's plans. Were President Obama to suggest changes to the current trajectory, I think you would be seeing a different reaction from Democrats,” he said.
And cost will remain an issue going forward. McKeon told the committee he expects the next ten years of nuclear weapon spending to come to $350-$450 billion, which is less optimistic than the Congressional Budget Office’s figure of $350 billion.
Pinning down the cost of the whole nuclear enterprise remains difficult, however, given how much of it crosses over with conventional capabilities.
VisualDoD, a budget analysis firm, looked at the overall nuclear spending picture, not just modernization, and concluded the department will spend nearly $8 billion in its fiscal 2017 request for the nuclear arsenal. That includes missiles, procurement of launch platforms, updates to old platforms such as the B-52, security requirements and some operations and maintenance funding, but not personnel.
Using that same methodology, VisualDoD projects a cost of $54 billion over the future years defense plan — a timeframe that stops just before the largest part of the nuclear modernization bill starts to come due.