WASHINGTON — For the first time, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter has shown public support for the idea of a national nuclear modernization fund, one which would cover all three legs of the nuclear triad.
Appearing Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carter said that a nuclear deterrent fund "may make sense."
"I am agreeing with you that I think that a broader nuclear deterrent fund may be appropriate," Carter added to a question from Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., when pressed on whether a Navy-only fund to support the Ohio class submarine replacement makes sense.
The Pentagon faces a major nuclear modernization bill in the mid-2020s, with the core of the nuclear deterrent — the SSBN(X) program to replace the Ohio-class nuclear submarines, the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) replacement for the aging Minuteman III ICBMs, the B-21 bomber and the Long Range Stand-Off (LRSO) cruise missile — all needing to be funded during that time period.
Brian McKeon, principal deputy under secretary of defense for policy, said in February testimony that he expects the next ten years of nuclear weapon spending to come to $350-$450 billion. A think tank estimate from 2015 has put that total at over $700 billion for the next 25 years.
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.
Earlier in the week, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James made a push for the Air Force to have a piece of any such fund.
"If [there] is a strategic deterrence fund that would help or benefit one leg of the triad, I would ask for consideration that all legs of the triad be included in such an approach," James told the House Armed Services Committee."
Carter did point out that unlike the nuclear sub fleet, the B-21, B-2 and other Air Force nuclear capabilities have non-strategic roles to play.
But Cotton indicated that if the Navy gets a special fund, it would only be fair to make sure the Air Force does as well.
"I'm not sure we should have any of these deterrent funds, but if we do decide that we want to treat our nuclear triad in a special kind of way, I think we should probably do all three legs of the triad," Cotton said.
Pentagon leadership had largely stayed away from weighing in on whether a deterrence fund should include non-Ohio replacement programs or not. And there has been skepticism inside the building that any such fund would really help the Pentagon pay for the coming bill.
Mike McCord, Pentagon comptroller, leaned against it during the November roundtable, in part because it does not really solve any of the cost issues.
"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.
In an exclusive March 18 interview with Defense News, Jamie Morin, head of the Pentagon's office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE), indicated similar doubts that the fund would be a game-changer for the department's budget.
"The strategic deterrent fund could be moderately useful to the department, but our real issue is not the fund but funding," Morin said. "The fund may have some authorities or acquisition tools that could come with it that could provide some modest savings, and that would be fine.
"But the real question is do we have the resources to do that modernization additive to the rest of the requirements of the department, or will we have to squeeze out other high priorities, and those will be the national decisions that have to be made in coming years."
Morin added that leadership "hopes" that the administration's decision to add topline funding for the Ohio-class replacement program in fiscal 2021 will set "a precedent for how the next administration approaches the issue."
As part of his testimony, Carter estimated that the Pentagon's annual bill for nuclear costs is around $20 billion a year — "not an enormous part of our budget, but it is a critical part of our budget" — a figure that does not take into account the costs of modernization programs.
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.