WASHINGTON — Since the 1950s, the United States has built its existential security framework around a simple idea: Nuclear superiority ensures the nation’s safety.
It’s a strategy that represents the pinnacle of the proverbial “peace through strength,” but that began to change as the Soviet Union fell. The US delayed major modernization of the naval, air and Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) components that make up the “nuclear triad” at the core of the US global strategy. And as the US emerged as the sole super power in the world, calls began to emerge to eliminate one or more of the triad’s legs.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – and the rise of special forces-dominated counterinsurgency operations as the norm – only added to the feeling that the nuclear arsenal was a Cold War relic.
As time passed, the technologies that comprised the US nuclear enterprise began to near their expiration dates. Now, with a rising China and a resurgent Russia, as well as six other nations armed with nuclear weapons, the Pentagon is sounding an alarm that the tab for nuclear recapitalization is due.
And what a tab it is.
In January 2015, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the nuclear arsenal will cost $348 billion to upgrade and maintain over the next decade.
Meanwhile, an August 2015 study by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments found that upgrading and maintaining the US nuclear force posture will cost more than $700 billion over the next 25 years.
That includes annual maintenance and upgrade costs that exceed $34 billion in the 2020s and 2030s – major funding that makes it easy to see why those looking for extra dollars would take aim at the strategic enterprise.
In the defense budgets of the 2000s, the total costs would be a shock to the Pentagon’s pocketbook, but not catastrophic. But the fiscal atmosphere has changed, with budget caps imposed by Congress and rising health care costs all hitting at a time when the Defense Department has a number of major non-nuclear programs that all need to be modernized, to the tune of almost $90 billion projected for fiscal year 2022.
Brian McKeon, principal deputy under secretary of defense for policy, bluntly outlined the issue at an October nuclear security event, noting the major bill coming will require serious debate for the next president.
“We’re looking at that big bow wave and wondering how the heck we’re going to pay for it, and probably thanking our stars we won’t be here to have to answer the question,” he added with a chuckle.
With the release of President Obama’s budget request on Feb. 9, the Pentagon is preparing itself to have to make hard choices – ones that could irrevocably change the fundamental strategic picture for the United States.
The nuclear deterrent’s need for an expensive recapitalization has been brewing for years. But in recent months, the official line from top Pentagon officials has changed from confidence that needs will be met to one of more urgency.
In a Nov. 13 roundtable with reporters, Pentagon comptroller Mike McCord began ringing the alarm, saying “I don't know of a good way for us to solve this issue," while noting that it will be a major challenge for the next administration.
Then on Dec. 3, Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s top acquisitions official, warned that “We do have a problem in the budget, and that problem is called the recapitalization of the triad … There is no way I can see that we can sustain the force structure and have a reasonable modernization program unless we get more money in the defense budget.”
Both Kendall and McCord highlighted sequestration as a driving issue for the nuclear crunch.
“We need budget relief to afford the triad recapitalization,” Kendall told reporters after his December speech. “I don’t know if the Hill will get engaged ... but the next administration is definitely going to have to confront this as it marches its way in over the next few years.”
But it is not a budget crunch in a vacuum. The DoD is coming to an inflection point when a significant number of major programs are coming due at the same time, including the four major nuclear recapitalization programs facing the Pentagon – forming the dreaded “bow wave” of programs hitting the Pentagon all at once.
According to Todd Harrison, a budgetary expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, overall modernization funding for both nuclear and conventional weapons programs is projected to increase by 23 percent from FY 2015 to the peak in FY 2022 – a $90 billion investment in FY16 dollars, based on his calculations, a huge bill at a time when the Pentagon also has to adjust for personnel costs.
The likelihood of the Pentagon being able to fund that entire modernization bill is low, which means people are starting to look for tradeoffs, Harrison noted.
“I think that’s why they are sounding the alarm,” he said. “They are getting more serious about it and your hearing more people talking about it, is because it’s actually getting more real. We’re getting closer to when you have to make some serious decisions.”
The question, then, is whether the nuclear modernization plan should be on the table or not.
Those critical of the Pentagon’s plans have seized on the dollar figure argument as an opportunity to make the case on why it should scale back its nuclear arms strategy.
“When you marry that with everything the Pentagon wants to do on the conventional side – F-35, KC-46 tanker, ballistic missile defense, all the shipbuilding priorities – you’re talking about a significant amount of money, and there is unlikely to be enough money to fund all that,” said Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat-reduction policy at the Arms Control Association.
“In our view it makes sense to look at the nuclear mission for budget savings,” he added. “In our view, the bloated arsenal of some 4,700 US nuclear warheads is not useful or helpful in addressing the most urgent and highest priority national security threats and challenges the US is likely to face moving forward. And it’s a significant drain on resources that would be better spent on other national security programs and priorities.”
But the CSBA study also pointed out that even at the peak years of the nuclear modernization bill, the nuclear tally will account for 5 percent or less of overall defense spending.
That argument is seized on by Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, who from October 2013 through his retirement in September was deputy commander of US Strategic Command. Taking the argument even further, he points out that represents less than 0.3 percent of the United States GDP at a time when the Pentagon has asked European nations to meet their NATO goal of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense.
“At the end of the day we’re talking about something that is foundational to the national security of our country,” he said. “We’re deterring nations that have the capability to be existential threats to the US.”
That last point is shared by those who believe that the strategic deterrent is necessary in all its forms. Adm. Cecil Haney, who has headed STRATCOM since 2013, told a Jan. 22 audience at CSIS that the US needs to modernize all three legs of the nuclear triad in order to keep near-peer nations such as Russia and China from feeling they can gain a qualitative edge over America’s military.
“This is critical in the global security environment. It is clear that, for the foreseeable future, other nations are placing high priority" on developing their own nuclear-deterrence capabilities, he said.
At a Jan. 20 Brookings Institute event , Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said “I don’t think you can exaggerate the importance of the nuclear enterprise in any measure.”
“In an atmosphere where the credibility of the deterrent actually lives within the domain through which you execute the deterrent, you have to keep the delivery platform up to the potential threats,” he said. “So I think for the Navy, or in the case of the Air Force with the bomber and missile leg, to say that those are their top priorities puts them in exactly the right place, because there is not only a nuclear-deterrent capacity that comes with our nuclear enterprise, but it also underpins some of our conventional-deterrent capabilities, so I think they have it at about the right place.”
Broadly speaking, the recapitalization effort can be broken down into two categories: those managed by the DoD and those managed by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semi-autonomous agency under the Department of Energy.
In essence, the Defense Department manages the delivery systems of the nuclear force –ships, planes and missiles – while NNSA handles the development and modernization of the nuclear warheads. For the Pentagon, the three primary programs that need to be replaced are the submarine, bomber and Intercontinental Ballistic Missile legs that make up the nuclear triad.
Through fiscal year 2039, CSBA estimates that the total breaks down to about $278.8 billion for warhead development, $227.8 on sea-based delivery systems, $95.3 billion on land-based delivery systems, $73.5 billion on air-based delivery systems and $30.2 billion – a relative bargain – on command and control.
Here’s the state of the primary programs that make up the US nuclear triad:
The replacement for the 14-ship Ohio-class nuclear submarine fleet, the SSBN(X) program is scheduled to begin advanced procurement in 2017, making it the nearest-term modernization program of the triad.
The Navy expects the lead ballistic missile submarine will cost about $7.6 billion to build plus $4.8 billion for detail design and nonrecurring engineering costs, dropping to around $5 billion each for later subs. The plan is to procure 12 of the new vessels, two fewer than are currently operated by the Navy. The GAO expects the program’s lifetime cost to be around $95.8 billion. Harrison’s numbers peg a five-year delay of the Ohio replacement as saving between $2 billion and $4.5 billion annually during the bow wave peak.
“If the maritime domain is becoming less opaque and more transparent, we have to address the things like the stealthiness of the submarine, the quietness of the submarine, the reliability of its nuclear power plant, and its ability to actually operate in the underwater domain that allows us to assert the reliability and credibility of that leg of the triad,” Selva said, making the case for the Ohio replacement.
The required funding for the Ohio-replacement program has resulted in a push by some on the Hill to create a National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund, a set-aside account that would accrue funds for the program. The idea would be to take the program — a single-use platform that does not fulfill any other Navy mission — out of the service's shipbuilding accounts, where it could find itself fighting other needed programs for funding.
It's not clear how much support there is for the fund inside the Pentagon. Kowalski indicated ambivalence about the special fund, while McCord leaned against it during the November roundtable.
“I know that some people think [a] fund is the answer,” McCord said then. “I'm a little bit of a skeptic, personally, that a fund, per se, is the answer … What are you going to cut to put money in that fund? Or are you going to get more money overall?”
“The fund doesn't really answer that question of ‘Are you just going to get a bigger top line or not?’ I understand why people like the idea of a fund, but … all by itself, it's not the answer,” he added.
Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B)
The Air Force intends to procure 80-100 of these bombers over the next few decades to replace its aging B-52 and B-1 fleets. Much of the program remains shrouded in mystery, with the Pentagon keeping the majority of details about its contract award to Northrop Grumman secret, but cost estimates start at about $55 billion over the life of the program.
Should Northrop prevail over a protest from the Boeing-Lockheed Martin team it defeated, the LRS-B program will be on track for a 2025 initial operational capability (IOC) date. However, it is unknown when the bomber will become nuclear-capable, as the service plans to get conventional capabilities working first before the complicated and costly nuclear aspect is introduced.
According to Harrison’s figures, slipping the LRS-B by five years would reduce funding requirements during that early-2020s bow wave peak by between $2.3 and $3.6 billion annually.
The fact the bomber has conventional capabilities, and the dangerous age of the B-52 fleet, now in its 60th year of service, means the program has largely avoided being targeted by those looking to cut the nuclear enterprise.
Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, believes the service may continue to push the introduction of nuclear capabilities back.
“My strong suspicion is if the Air Force has its way, they will never certify it for nuclear missions,” Lewis said. “The cost associated with that, if they can turn that dollar figure into more bombers, I think they would rather do that.”
The Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) is the planned replacement program for the Minuteman III Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) weapon. The plan is for the Air Force to design the weapons to fit into existing silos, a move which should save some funding on military construction, but the weapon will still essentially be brand new.
“They want to build a completely new replacement missile, so basally they want to redo the boosters, redo the guidance, refurbish the launch-control facilities and launch facilities,” Reif said. “It’s a big program.”
The ICBM enterprise is also under intense scrutiny, following a two-year period where the Air Force was rocked by scandals amongst the airmen in charge of the missiles. That includes the discovery of widespread cheating on required tests among three ICBM bases, which led to nine officers being fired and a pledge from top service officials to reform the training system.
Over the past few months, former Defense Secretary William Perry has publicly called for the elimination of the ICBM arm of the triad, calling it a “destabilizing” weapon that encourages an arms race with Russia.
ICBMs “aren’t necessary … They’re not needed. Any reasonable definition of deterrence will not require that third leg,” Perry said Dec. 3.
Supporters of the ICBM, such as Peter Huessy of the Air Force Association, counter that removing the ICBMs would open the US up to a first-strike attack from another nation.
“The United States, without a Minuteman force, would make it easy – in fact, tempting – for an adversary such as Russia to take out the entire US strategic nuclear force in one or a series of very limited, even surreptitious, first strikes,” Huessy argues.
Harrison believes delaying the GBSD by five years would save an average of $2 billion annually during the peak of the bow wave – and of the three major programs, he believes a slip on GBSD would be the most likely to occur.
“It hasn’t started yet, they haven’t awarded a contract, and there is not as much of an urgent need for it as you have with Ohio replacement because we have existing subs that are going to reach the end of their life. And the bomber is primarily for conventional missions,” he noted. “GBSD is still so early that you could slip it more easily.”
Kowalski, however, disagrees, noting that the Air Force intends to retire the Minuteman III by 2030, and that “if we don’t move out now, you can’t make that timeline.”
Although under the Department of Energy, the National Nuclear Security Administration has a major role to play in modernizing the nuclear enterprise, as it is in charge of handling the development and production of warheads.
The NNSA is operating a modernization plan known as the “3+2 Strategy,” under which the agency is consolidating warheads into five variants. Five bomb and cruise missile warhead types are being consolidated into two replacement warhead designs, the W80-4 and the B61-12. Meanwhile, the five ballistic missile warheads now in service are being consolidated into three new interoperable warheads known as the IW-1, IW-2, and IW-3.
The good news, Harrison said, is that the NNSA is set up so that programs are ending as another begins.
“That’s deliberate,” he said. “They have deconflicted those programs and phased in the different warhead-modernization programs over time so that they don’t have a big funding spike.”
However, Congress appears to have doubts. In the fiscal year 2016 omnibus Energy and Water report, members directed NNSA to conduct an “assessment of the feasibility and costs of work leveling strategies that would reduce the impact of performing simultaneous major refurbishments in the 2020 to 2025 time frame.” Meanwhile, a Feb. 4 report by the GAO found that the B61-12 program "faces ongoing management challenges in some areas, including staff shortfalls and an earned value management system that has yet to be tested."
Reif and Lewis also have concerns about 3+2 plan. Instead, Reif suggests continuing the B61 life extension program but only going down to one warhead on the ICBM side, which would save money not just from the warhead development itself, but from avoiding major infrastructure improvements needed to make the warhead work in the existing silos.
There is also a need to modernize the laboratory system under NNSA, which could add expensive construction and technology costs. And, Kowalski notes, the workforce needs to be recapitalized as well.
“They have an aging work force and they have been aggressively trying to bring in younger engineers and scientists to their laboratories,” Kowalski said. “But they are hurt a little bit by inconsistency in the facilities and the kind of program changes they have had to endure.”
While the big systems get all the attention, the Pentagon is also looking to replace the infrastructure that supports the strategic enterprise.
That includes the command and control structure, the early warning systems, updated radars and improvements to the national nuclear laboratories.
From FY17 through FY30, the Pentagon will spent $16.3 billion on command and control infrastructure for the nuclear enterprise, CSBA numbers estimate. $6.7 billion of that would be due from FY22 through FY26, when the worst of the procurement bow wave would be hitting the Pentagon.
“We’re seeing other countries make significant investments in their command and control, and we have neglected ours for a while,” Kowalski said. “So those kinds of investments are going to have to continue to underpin those forces and ensure the forces are effective.”
In the larger fight over the nuclear arsenal’s future, the first skirmish appears to be over the fate of the Long Range Stand-Off (LRSO) cruise missile, which is fired off a plane and can travel long distances to its target.
The LRSO will replace the Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) program with 1,000 to 1,100 cruise missiles that represent the Air Force’s stand-off nuclear delivery capability. The ALCM is set to expire around 2030.
The weapon emerged as an issue following an October editorial in The Washington Post by former Secretary Perry and Andy Weber, assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs from 2009 to 2014, who argued that the new cruise missile should be killed off, in part because the aging B-52 is the only current platform capable of delivering it.
“With the updated B-2 and B61 expected to remain in service for many decades, and the planned deployment of new [LRS-B] penetrating bombers with B61 bombs starting in 2025, there is scant justification for spending tens of billions of dollars on a new nuclear air-launched cruise missile and related warhead life-extension program,” they wrote.
Perry’s letter apparently picked up steam on the Hill, causing the Air Force Association to send a note to Congress in December arguing that LRSO “is particularly important given the advanced air defenses of our adversaries.”
Reif calls the debate over the LRSO “vigorous,” while noting his team recommends cancelling the program as being “excessively redundant” between the other legs of the triad and the non-nuclear options available to the service.
“The non-nuclear Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range, or JASSM-ER, “can basically do everything that the Air Force wants LRSO to do, so we think there is excessive redundancy with the LRSO and it’s not something we need to pursue,” Reif said. “Given the cost, $20 billion to $30 billion, that’s money that can be spent to address other challenges that are posed by both nuclear and conventional bow wave.”
Lewis concurs the JASSM-ER has much of the same capability the LRSO will, which to him renders the Pentagon’s push for LRSO “beyond bizarre.”
However, Lewis takes issue with another argument put forth from Perry and Weber, which is the idea that ending the LRSO development will be a first step toward a global ban on cruise missiles.
“We’re not getting a cruise missile ban and I don’t think cancelling LRSO will establish the leadership on that issue,” Lewis said, in part because “the Russians have invested so much in cruise missiles” in recent years.
The CSBA report suggests a cost-saving option that involves eliminating the stand-off nuclear aspect of the Air Force arsenal entirely.
“This would entail converting nuclear-capable B-52Hs to a conventional-only role, retiring the existing inventory of ALCMs, cancelling the LRSO program, and cancelling the W80-4 cruise missile warhead modernization,” the report states. “The net savings from these changes would total some $4 billion from FY 2015 to FY 2019, $20 billion in the 2020s, and $5 billion in the 2030s.”
Adds Harrison, “if you slip LRSO you could go into the NNSA budget and slip the [W80-4] cruise missile warhead program as well,” which would provide extra savings.
Of course, the Pentagon does not have final say in how this all goes down. Congress controls the purse strings, and has not been shy in recent years about forcing DoD to change its plans.
David Culp, a lobbyist for the Friends Committee on National Legislation, believes the issue of nuclear modernization is largely unknown on the Hill, with only the relevant defense committees having picked up on it. However, he notes, the leaders in those committees are beginning to talk openly about the issue.
“People are all over the map,” Culp said of Congress. “You have defense hawks and budget hawks, and it’s not clear which side has the most political weight.”
Asked Jan. 20 by Defense News about the aging nuclear arsenal, Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., expressed concern the nuclear recapitalization was not being adequately funded, saying "We need to have hearings on it."
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee said he was “very concerned.”
"One of the things that happens when you're starving the military is that the things they'll delay more are modernization programs, future funding, and anything that can be postponed – and this has been going on for seven years now," Inhofe said.
Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., chairman of the SASC's Strategic Forces Subcommittee, said the effort was being funded to "the bare minimum – a very small part of the federal budget."
"Even counting the cost of the triad, the submarines and the missiles and the airplanes, we're talking about $8 billion or so," Sessions said. "That's something we can't afford not to maintain. We've been slipping. We're the only country in the world that isn't advanced in maintaining its nuclear systems. They're old. We could create a safer, more-reliable system and we absolutely have to do that."
"I am hopeful we can get by with the numbers that were appropriated, but if we can't, we do have to find more," Sessions said. "We have to monitor it every year because it’s as low as it can get."
Compounding the issue is the looming November election. After all, a new president – or a Congress in which one or both chambers flips from GOP to Democratic control – will come in with different defense priorities.
American Friends Service Committee members have spent months peppering presidential candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire with questions about their plans for nuclear weapons and collecting the responses, providing a look into how the nuclear issue has played out on the campaign trail.
Asked by an AFSC member about the recapitalization plan, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said “Yeah I’ve heard about that. I’m going to look into that. That doesn’t make sense to me."
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, said he opposes the Obama administration’s modernization plans for the triad, and would rather that money go to education or affordable housing.
While noting the idea of a nuclear-free world is a “worthy aspiration,” former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said the country needs to modernize the weapons to maintain America’s edge in a world with increasing nuclear proliferation. Like Bush, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas cited Ronald Reagan’s stated goal of a nuclear-free world, but endorsed the modernization and upkeep of the triad.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio wholeheartedly endorsed the nuclear weapon stockpile, noting “We have to have them. No country in the world faces the threats America faces ... The bottom line is that deterrence is a friend of peace.”
Asked the same question, Republican candidate Donald Trump indicated support for nuclear spending, stating “We have to do something, that I can tell you. Remember this: The other side is spending plenty." Campaign spokesperson Katrina Pierson has since stated “What good does it do to have a good nuclear triad if you’re afraid to use it?”
Whomever the next president is, he or she can expect to have an ear bent by the Pentagon on the nuclear-modernization issue. The same is true for the next Congress.
Notes Kowalski, “I think that’s the role of the Department of Defense, to go back and make the requirements clear and not be afraid to make the requirement clear.”
Perhaps the best message for the Pentagon was that delivered by Haney, the head of STRATCOM, just weeks before the budget was delivered to the Hill.
“We are out of time,” Haney stated flatly. “Sustainment is a must. Recapitalization is a requirement.”
Andrew Clevenger and Joe Gould in Washington contributed to this report.