BRUSSELS — The Pentagon's fiscal 2017 budget keeps all its nuclear modernization programs on track, keeping alive concerns from both inside and outside the department about a coming "bow wave" of modernization expenses.
The building will spend roughly $3.2 billion on programs to modernize and recapitalize the service's nuclear submarines, bombers, Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) and nuclear equipped cruise missiles in 2017, a total that will increase throughout the Future Years Defense Program (FYDP). That also includes a small amount of funding to continue development on the F-35 joint strike fighter to enable it to carry nuclear weapons.
In addition, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a Department of Energy organization that handles development of nuclear warheads, requested $12.9 billion in funding.
Estimates for upgrading and maintaining the US nuclear force show a likely cost of more than $700 billion over the next 25 years, costs that come simultaneously with a major modernization "bow wave" of conventional weapons.
At a Feb. 9 event rolling out the budget, Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work acknowledged concerns over nuclear modernization funding.
"Starting in 2021, between 2021 and 2035, it's about $18 billion a year to reconstitute and recapitalize our strategic nuclear deterrent," Work said. "If that comes out of our conventional forces that will be very, very, very problematic for us.
"So, rather than talk about the bow wave, there is future fiscal risk that the country, Congress and future administrations and this administration must come to grips with," Work continued. "Because as soon as we have a better understanding of that, we'll know for sure that our defense strategy is on the right track."
The largest drivers of cost are the SSBN(X) replacement for the Ohio-class submarine, with roughly $1.86 billion in funds, as well as the Air Force's Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B) program at $1.4 billion. The LRS-B also requests $12.2 billion over the FYDP.
In addition, the Air Force requested $113.9 million in '17 for the Ground Based Strategic Deterrence program, which will replace the service's Minuteman III ICBM program ($3.3 billion over the FYDP) and $95.6 million for the Long Range Stand-Off (LRSO) cruise missile ($2.2 billion over the FYDP.)
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. Critics of the US nuclear modernization strategy have zeroed in on the LRSO as a potential cut, citing its similarity to existing US weapons.
The $12.9 billion request for NNSA is an increase of $357 million above the FY 2016 appropriation. Of that funding, $9.2 billion is slated for upgrade and maintenance of the weapons themselves.
Retired Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz, Administrator of NNSA and Under Secretary for Nuclear Security, said in a statement that the request is a "strong endorsement of NNSA's vital and enduring missions, and is indicative of the Administration's unwavering commitment to a strong national defense."
While those who feel the current nuclear strategy is required in the face of threats from Russia and China, the stay-the-course policy is welcome news. But those who wish to see a change in the nuclear policy were likely unhappy with the decision to maintain the modernization of all four delivery systems, as well as the "2+3" weapon development plan being pursued by NNSA.
"Unfortunately, the president's final budget request released today is divorced from reality," wrote Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat-reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, in an analysis on his organization's website.
"The request does not make significant changes to the planned development timelines for these programs. The president missed one of his last opportunities to make common sense adjustments to the current nuclear weapons spending trajectory."
Editor's note: The original headline for this story featured the wrong budget figure. That number has been corrected.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.