Washington DC â€“Leaders and experts from seven national nongovernmental organizations are charging that current plans for maintaining and upgrading the U.S. nuclear arsenal over the next decade and beyond exceed reasonable deterrence requirements as set out by the President in June 2013, are unaffordable, and unless they are significantly adjusted, the nuclear force modernization plan will also deplete resources from higher priority budget needs.
In a letter to the White House earlier this year, the groups write: "[w]e believe there are more realistic ways to maintain U.S. nuclear forces to meet tomorrow's national security requirements. The President's 2013 guidance allows for a one-third reduction below New START levels, but even if the United States maintains New START warhead levels, it can do so at significantly lower cost."
"Perpetual nuclear modernization is inconsistent with the pledge made 45 years ago by the the United States and the other NPT nuclear-weapons states to pursue nuclear disarmament, and is inconsistent with President Obama's call for the pursuit of a world without nuclear weapons," says Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists.
"Despite the financial constraints, the United States (and other nuclear-armed states) appear committed to spending hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade on modernizing their nuclear forces," he notes.
In December 2013, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that the United States plans to spend at least $355 billion to maintain and rebuild the nuclear arsenal and refurbish the nuclear weapons complex over the next decade, and that costs will continue to climb thereafter. A major part of this cost growth is the plan to rebuild all three legs of the existing nuclear "triad" and their associated warheads, including 12 new ballistic missile submarines, up to 100 new long-range bombers, and possibly new land-based ballistic missiles and a new long-range standoff cruise missile.
The nuclear weapons plans, the costs, and the politics behind them, are described in a front page story in today's edition of The New York Times.
The nuclear weapons experts say that this U.S. spending plan is excessive, and that the United States can save tens of billions of dollars by reducing the number of new missiles and bombers it plans to buy and still maintain nuclear warhead levels established by the 2010 New START treaty with Russia.
Budget limits on future defense spending will force budget trade-offs among various Pentagon programs, the letter notes. The defense budget still needs to be cut by $115 billion from 2016-2019 to meet sequester targets, or about $29 billion per year on average.
These realities have led the White House to launch a National Security Council-led, interagency review of the multibillion-dollar plans to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal. This review will inform the administration's fiscal year 2016 budget request to Congress, Ned Price of the National Security Council said in an Aug. 22 e-mail to Arms Control Today.
"We believe the current nuclear spending plan is unsustainable and will deplete resources from higher priorities," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. "In its review, the Obama administration needs to make significant changes to existing nuclear force modernization plans that trim back, and in some cases, forgo unnecessary programs, such as a new nuclear-armed cruise missile, and save taxpayer dollars," he said.
The nongovernmental leaders say the United States can maintain planned warhead levels with fewer delivery vehicles. New START allows both sides to field up to 1,550 warheads on 700 long-range delivery vehicles. But the United States could also meet the warhead limit by fielding only about 600 delivery vehicles, saving tens of billions of dollars.
For example, the Navy plans to deploy about 1,000 warheads at sea under New START. But the United States does not need 12 new submarines to field 1,000 warheads; eight submarines would be enough the groups note in their letter. By reducing the fleet of submarines to eight, the United States would save $16 billion over the next decade, according to the CBO.
The Air Force wants to develop a new nuclear-armed cruise missile, "but it is not clear why it needs both a penetrating bomber and a standoff missile to meet the deterrence requirements of the United States and our allies," said Kimball of the Arms Control Association.
Earlier this year, Senate Appropriations energy and water subcommittee and the House and Senate Appropriations defense subcommittees cut the administration's request for the new cruise missile.
In its June 17 report accompanying the bill, the Senate Appropriations energy and water subcommittee said it is "reluctant to provide funding for a new cruise missile warhead when the Air Force cannot identify sufficient funding in its budget planning documents to design and procure a cruise missile to deliver a refurbished warhead."
The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is also pursuing an overly ambitious and costly strategy for warhead refurbishment argue the organizations. The current plan, dubbed "3+2", envisions spending $60 billion to refurbish the arsenal and to use nuclear components that have not previously been tested together, raising reliability concerns.
"The NNSA should instead pursue a simpler refurbishment strategy, avoid risky schemes, and retire warhead types where possible," said Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Cuts in the size and not just the cost of U.S. and Russian stockpiles are also in order, the organizations argue. Last year, President Obama and the Pentagon announced that the U.S. could cut the size of the deployed strategic stockpile by up to one-third. Both sides should work in parallel to reduce force levels below the New START limits.
"Such an initiative would also allow both sides to reduce the extraordinary costs of force maintenance and modernization and could help induce other nuclear-armed states to exercise greater restraint," said Erica Fein, nuclear weapons policy director for Women's Action for New Directions.
"The New York Times did an excellent job of covering our nation's unsustainable, nonsensical nuclear weapons policy. However, there is more to the story," said Angela Canterbury, executive director for Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. "The current plan is geared towards building more nuclear weapons that we don't need and can't afford. We need to scrap it and the nuclear weapons we don't need. We need to put into place a far more affordable plan to meet the President's goals to make us safer."
The organizations' letter to the White House is available online.
Council for a Livable World is a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit, non-partisan advocacy organization dedicated to reducing the danger of nuclear weapons and increasing national security. Our mission is to advocate for sensible national security policies and to help elect congressional candidates who support them.