Questions about Nuclear Weapons

December 2, 2011 Topic: PoliticsSecurity Blog Brand: The Skeptics

Questions about Nuclear Weapons

How inertia and a slavish devotion to the status quo dictate America's nuclear-weapons policy.

Nuclear weapons have played a major role in U.S. force planning for many decades. But we have never had a thorough accounting of the total cost of these weapons, and we still don't. (The best to date is probably this study by Stephen I. Schwartz and Deepti Choubey, but they don’t claim to capture every nickel spent on nuclear weapons.)

The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler published a fact-checker article earlier this week that challenged the claim that we would spend $700 billion on nuclear weapons over the next decade. Since then, other organizations have come forth to decry the lack of transparency within the nuclear-weapons budget and call for the government to do a much better job of documenting all of the costs associated with our many nuclear-weapons programs. This would include an understanding of the full life-cycle costs for fissile material, warheads and delivery vehicles, from design and development, to production, to retirement, waste removal and abatement. As with the rest of the Pentagon’s budget, which has never been subject to a complete audit of its assets and liabilities, the nuclear-weapons portion (much of which resides in the Department of Energy) remains shrouded in secrecy.

The size of the arsenal, in terms of numbers of warheads and their destructive power, as well as the delivery systems, is also the subject of debate and has been for many years. Although Dwight David Eisenhower often obsessed over the horrific nature of nuclear weapons, he shifted the nation's deterrent away from the threat to use conventional ground forces in response to an attack to one of massive retaliation, a threat to respond to even a conventional attack with the full force of the nation's nuclear arsenal. During his eight years in office, the size of the nuclear-weapons arsenal exploded (no pun intended), a process meticulously researched and documented by historian David Alan Rosenberg.

There were some clear bureaucratic winners and losers as a result of this strategic shift. The army and Marine Corps shrunk after the drawdown in Korea, but the air force grew dramatically. It always had primary responsibility for nuclear deterrence. It possessed bombers, then later missiles and eventually intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that could hit the entire Soviet Union, even when launched from the United States. Late in the 1950s, the navy got in on the action, deploying the Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile and ensconcing itself as the third leg in what has forever since been known as the nuclear triad.

Long after the Cold War and the Soviet Union have become, for most Americans, a distant, fading memory, the triad lives on. Earlier this week, a group of senators led by North Dakota’s John Hoeven offered an amendment to the defense-authorization bill expressing a sense of the Senate that “the United States should maintain a triad.” Senators Jon Kyl and Richard Lugar proposed only slightly more ambiguous language, stating that the U.S. deterrent “is assured by a robust triad.” They don’t spell it out, but the implication of such language is that anything less than a three-legged stool would render us vulnerable to attack.

One wonders how much further the arsenal would have to shrink before such sentiments would strike even the casual observer as absurd. I think that we’re approaching that point already. The triad was perfected during the 1960s, and the size of the arsenal peaked in 1967 at 31,255 warheads. Since that time, the numbers of warheads and total delivery vehicles have steadily fallen—the Obama administration last year reported the U.S. arsenal totaled just over five thousand warheads, and that number is expected to decline further to 1,550 operationally deployed strategic warheads under the New START agreement. Even some nuclear-weapons advocates believe that the number could drop below one thousand with no appreciable diminution of the effectiveness of the U.S. deterrent. That begs the question: Would we then develop and deploy three different delivery systems, each responsible for carrying approximately three to four hundred warheads? The costs of such redundancy would hardly seem to be offset by the benefits. The Pentagon’s first official estimate of the life-cycle costs for the Navy’s next SLBM platform, SSBN(X), came in at a whopping $347 billion.

But considerations of costs and benefits are often overlooked when we allow inertia and a slavish devotion to the status quo to dictate policy. I hope that the latest dust-up over what we are actually spending creates additional pressure on the bureaucracy to open up its books.