The United States is set to spend over $1 trillion on its nuclear weapons over the next thirty years. That is no trivial sum. To place it in context, that amounts to 77 percent of the national student debt , which hovers around $1.3 trillion.
Part of the reason for this massive spending spree stems from necessity. Our current nuclear weapons systems are ageing and becoming obsolete. But rather than tailoring the next generation of nuclear deterrence to geopolitical realities, the United States is replacing its massive nuclear arsenal on a one-for-one basis as if the Cold War never ended.
These plans are excessive, destabilizing and threaten the national security of the United States. And all of them will be locked in and set in motion before the next president has been elected or has had any time to consider what the best strategy is under a new administration. Any economist will tell you that this in no way to plan ahead.
Luckily the nuclear piggy bank is overstuffed and ripe for a withdrawal.
Before he leaves office, President Obama should place an immediate spending freeze on the most redundant and excessive nuclear modernization programs already underway. These include the new Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), the Long-Range Standoff weapon (LRSO) and the B61-12 gravity bomb. Doing so would give the next president the flexibility to make common-sense reductions that would save billions of dollars while presenting a leaner and more efficient fighting force.
The Bomb That Costs More Than Its Weight in Gold
The B61-12 gravity bomb is a prime example of a zombie program that has taken on a life of its own. Of the 480 gravity bombs the United States is planning on fielding, 180 will be deployed in Europe as part of a tactical-nuclear sharing agreement with NATO. The problem is that these weapons are practically useless.
A recent RAND report found the deterrent value of European tactical nuclear weapons to be close to zero as it would seem “highly unlikely to Moscow that the United States would be willing to exchange New York for Riga.” Coupled with the unwillingness of European member states to see their countries turned into a nuclear battlefield, “this lack of believability makes this alternative both unlikely and unpalatable.”
The seven-hundred-pound B61-12 bombs will end up costing approximately $28 million a piece. That is more than 1.5 times what they would cost if the bombs were made of solid gold. In total the programmatic costs will total about $10 billion. A lot of that money can be saved by making sensible cuts. Recent analysis from the Stimson Center found that withdrawing the B61-12 from Europe entirely and retaining the U.S.-based bombs would result in $3.7 billion in savings between 2017 and 2021. Over the lifetime of the program, that figure would rise to more than $6.2 billion.
The Destabilizing and Redundant Cruise Missile
The Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) is another weapons system that has outlived its relevance; its next generation, the LRSO, should be suspended immediately. The current version of the ALCM, the AGM-86, was built in the 1980s when the United States thought it needed overwhelming numbers of nuclear cruise missiles to overcome Soviet air defenses and compensate for its conventional inferiority in Europe.
That is no longer the case. The United States now has total military dominance on the global stage and outspends Russia on defense by ten to one. We also field sophisticated stealth bombers and have just spent billions purchasing conventional cruise missiles that can take on the same missions envisioned for the LRSO. In the extreme circumstance where nuclear weapons must be used, there are plenty of other weapons in America’s nuclear arsenal.
Even former secretary of defense William J. Perry, who earned the nickname “ALCM Bill” for his role in creating the weapon system, thinks that replacing it is a terrible idea. He and his colleague, former assistant secretary of defense Andy Weber, argue that nuclear cruise missiles are dangerous and “uniquely destabilizing” weapons. Because they come in conventional and nuclear variants, an enemy would have no way of knowing if they were under conventional or nuclear attack. This could easily lead to a miscalculation that could trigger a nuclear war.
This dangerous and redundant weapon comes at a steep price. The LRSO will end up costing taxpayers an estimated $30 billion to research, develop and to enter into service. Only a fraction of those funds has been spent to date and by freezing the program in its tracks tens of billions of dollars can be saved for the next administration's initiatives.
The Thermonuclear Sucker Punch
Perhaps the greatest excess in the nuclear arsenal is in the land-based leg of the triad. The Air Force spends billions of dollars maintaining four hundred Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles that have little to no strategic value. Because they are highly vulnerable to enemy attack, ICBMs can realistically only be used as a first-strike weapon in a surprise attack on an unsuspecting adversary.