Time to Cut America's Nuclear Triad

Time to Cut America's Nuclear Triad

The United States no longer needs such an expensive insurance policy.


A potential adversary would have no way of targeting America’s deployed submarines in a first strike scenario. Even if Moscow were to wipe out all U.S. ICBMs and bombers (an impossible scenario), it would know full well that the entire U.S. arsenal of submarine-launched ballistic missiles could be knocking at its door in a matter of hours or days. The Navy admits that it cannot afford to sustain a three-hundred-ship fleet while also building twelve new subs. But instead of scaling back its plans, the service is seeking to fund the replacement for the Ohio-class subs from outside its budget. This is no way to run a military branch. Congress needs to enforce budget discipline and encourage the Navy to live within its means. Unfortunately, some on Capitol Hill are heading in the opposite direction by creating a special bank account for extra Navy money, the National Sea-Based Deterrence Fund. As the undersecretary of defense Frank Kendall said in 2014, budget gimmicks, like the sub fund, don’t actually solve anything. He explained,

At the end of the day we have to find money to pay for these things one way or another, right? So changing the accounting system doesn’t really change that fundamental requirement. We still need the money and it has to come from somewhere.


Other branches of the armed forces also have plans that outpace needs. The Air Force awarded a contract to Northrop Grumman in October to design and build a replacement for its long-range strategic-bomber fleet, which currently includes the B-52 and B-1, expected to continue flying until at least 2040, and the stealthy B-2, expected to remain on active duty until 2058, if not longer. But why now? Given the decades of service left in the current bomber fleet, the new bomber program can safely be delayed until 2025, according to CBO. Doing so would generate $34 billion of savings over the next ten years. That estimate is based on the Air Force’s plans to build one hundred planes at a cost of $550 million each, not including $21 billion for research and development. With these numbers taken into account the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment estimates that the fleet will cost approximately $111 billion to procure through 2039.

The Air Force has a dismal record of delivering on its cost promises. When developing the B-2 bomber, also built by Northrop, the Air Force heralded it as the future of aviation technology and planned to build a fleet of 132 planes for $571 million per unit in 1991 dollars. That didn’t happen. The cost of the program ballooned to $2.2 billion per plane, forcing the first Bush administration to stop production after only twenty-one planes were built. In addition to the B-2 fiasco, the Air Force has experienced a series of delays and massive cost overruns in the F-35 program. According to an April 2015 report from the Government Accountability Office, the program’s initial cost estimate of $233 billion has increased by 68 percent to $391.1 billion. While the cost has skyrocketed, the amount of planes to be purchased has dropped by more than 16 percent.

Delaying the new bomber would give the Air Force more time to accurately evaluate the costs of the program. The CBO predicts that even with a ten-year delay, the new bomber would still be completed in time to replace the current fleet when it reaches the end of its service life. Moreover, the delay would allow the new bomber to incorporate technological advances made during that time. According to the CBO, “Taking advantage of future technological developments can be particularly valuable for weapon systems that are expected to be in use for several decades.

The new bomber would carry two types of nuclear weapons: a rebuilt gravity bomb (the B61-12) and an Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM). The current ALCM, carried by B-52 bombers, is scheduled for retirement in 2030, and plans to replace it are underway. Although there is no official price tag on the project, experts estimate that research, development and procurement will cost approximately $15 billion over the program’s lifespan. Updating the warhead to fit the next generation cruise missile, known as the Long-Range Stand-Off (LRSO) weapon, will bring the total closer to $25 billion. Cutting the LRSO now will save approximately $5 billion of this figure over the next ten years.

The new bomber is being designed to penetrate enemy air defenses, so it needs gravity bombs that can be dropped from above, like the B61. It does not need a nuclear standoff missile like the LRSO, which would be shot from outside enemy airspace. Bill Perry, who oversaw Pentagon development of the nuclear cruise missile 35 years ago, is now calling for its replacement to be cancelled. Perry and his Pentagon colleague Andy Weber urged President Obama in October to “cancel the current plan to develop and buy 1,000 to 1,100 new nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missiles.” Standoff nuclear attacks, if we ever need them, can be conducted just as effectively by submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Having cruise missiles on the new bomber would be a “hedge” in case the bombs could not be used, just as the bombers themselves are a “hedge” in case the other legs of the triad are unavailable. We do not need a hedge on a hedge.

Washington should rein in plans for the U.S. ICBM program as well. The Arms Control Association recently reported that the Air Force is developing a replacement for the current Minuteman III ICBM force. Dubbed the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, the Air Force projects the new missile to cost $62.3 billion over twenty-nine years (about $2.1 billion per year). This estimate differs substantially from a detailed 2014 RAND study that favors extending the life of the current Minuteman III, which RAND analysts found to be “a relatively inexpensive way to retain current ICBM capabilities.”

The RAND report found that keeping the Minuteman IIIs in current silos is the cheapest option, a program that would still cost up to $90 billion over thirty-nine years (about $2.3 billion per year). In comparison, RAND estimated that building a new silo-based ICBM would cost up to $125 billion ($3.2 billion per year) and a mobile version (rail or road) would cost up to $219 billion ($5.6 billion per year).

Forgoing a new missile would thus save the Pentagon roughly $15 billion over the next ten years, using the RAND numbers and assuming the program would have started in 2020. After 2025, extending the lifespan of the Minuteman III would save billions more. It is hard to imagine what would justify a military requirement for a new ICBM capability beyond that offered by a life-extended Minuteman III. As the RAND report points out, only Russia is capable of attacking all U.S. ICBMs. Such an attack is highly unlikely, as Moscow could not expect to escape a nuclear response, either from ICBMs or other U.S. nuclear forces in the strategic triad. Silo-based Minuteman IIIs are survivable against all other potential nuclear adversaries, including China, and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. The Minuteman III is armed with either a W78 or W87 nuclear warhead, which both have yields of three hundred kilotons or more. The National Nuclear Security Administration is planning to develop an interoperable warhead to replace the W78, which is older, at a cost of $10-15 billion. But as Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris note in their report for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “simpler life-extension of existing designs could provide reliable warheads at a fraction of the cost.” The W78 can be retired and replaced by the W87, saving about $1 billion over the next decade. Enough W87 warheads have already been produced (more than five hundred) to arm the entire ICBM fleet.

A complete rebuild of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is neither justified by the external threat nor supported by the federal budget. Many of these systems would go into production in the mid-2020s, creating a budget bottleneck. Some of these programs will have to be delayed or cancelled. Waiting ten years to face this inevitable result will waste billions of dollars. A 2012 report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) found that since 2001, the Pentagon has spent close to $50 billion on programs that were started but never finished. CSBA found that, “while the cancellation of individual programs may have been justified due to significant cost overruns or technical challenges, the aggregate effect is that a significant portion of DOD’s investment in modernization over the past decade did not result in force modernization.”

Let’s not do this again. The Cold War is over and the size of nuclear arsenals has been trending downwards. If the United States can wait to buy new systems, it will likely need fewer of them. As just one example, the Navy built eighteen Ohio-class submarines from 1981 to 1997 only to decide later that it needed just fourteen. Why? The Cold War ended, and U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals declined under the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. These four extra subs and their subsequent conversion to nonnuclear missions cost about $16 billion.