Military Leaders Question the Affordability of Pentagon’s Plan to Modernize All Three Legs of the Nuclear Weapons Triad
The United States nuclear force is composed of three components that are described as synergistic:
–>On land, with intercontinental ballistic missiles
–>At sea, with nuclear-powered submarines
–>In the air, with long-range nuclear bombers
Each of the three legs has its advantages and disadvantages in terms of speed, cost, vulnerability to attack, whether the system can be recalled once launched and more.
All three legs of the triad are edging toward the end of their useful lives and at some point in the near-future, all three legs will need to be replaced – or eliminated.
It is estimated that the United States will spend $700 billion on nuclear weapons and related programs over the next decade, including spending on new nuclear submarines, bombers and land-based missiles as well as on new facilities to build new explosive cores for nuclear warheads.
The Navy plans to spend around $110 billion to build a new fleet of nuclear-armed submarines. The Pentagon estimates the total cost of building and operating the new submarine at nearly $350 billion over its 50 year lifespan. The Air Force also intends to spend $55 billion on procurement of 100 new bombers and an unknown sum on new land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles.
High level Pentagon officials are beginning to raise questions about the feasibility of the plans to build and maintain all three delivery systems for nuclear weapons.
Mike Mullen, recently retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in September uttered words that ought to throw terror into the hearts of the nuclear establishment:
“At some point in time, that triad becomes very, very expensive, you know, obviously, the smaller your nuclear arsenal is. And it’s — so at some point in time, in the future, certainly I think a decision will have to be made in terms of whether we keep the triad or drop it down to a dyad. I didn’t see us near that in this recent — over the last couple of years, with respect to the New START. But I spent enough time to know, at some point, that is going to be the case.”
He is not alone in expressing such sentiments. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who supports maintaining the nuclear triad, refused to rule out eliminating one leg in a May 2011 press conference, saying that nothing can be “off the table” as the Pentagon makes difficult budget choices in the future.
Strategic Command chief Gen. Robert Kehler, the man who commands U.S. strategic nuclear forces and would prefer to retain the nuclear triad, added in July:
“We’re not going to be able to go forward with weapon systems that cost what weapon systems cost today. Case in point is [the] Long-Range Strike [bomber]. Case in point is the Trident [submarine] replacement…. The list goes on.”
In his farewell address delivered to the Center for American Progress on October 5, Deputy Secretary of Defense William J. Lynn, III, in response to a question about whether the nation could continue to afford a nuclear triad, said:
“Well, I mean I think nuclear forces are going to have to be part of the discussion here, I don’t think any mission area is going to be exempt from looking. Whether you go, I think you need to look at can we, we have signed an agreement on New START with the Russians that set some limits. I think what we’re looking at now is what is the most efficient and effective way to stay within those limits but to do it in a more fiscally responsible fashion. I’m not sure that takes you to a dyad but I think there is a lot of different proposals that may get you down that path of staying within the START limits but doing it with, with somewhat less cost.“
Other military leaders have expressed doubts about whether the Pentagon plans for new nuclear launchers is affordable. Former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright noted at the Global Zero Summit on October 11, 2011:
“If we recapitalize the strategic forces in the venue that they are, into the Triad, there is insufficient money to do that, and that leaves no money for the other two pillars [pillar 1: relationship between intelligence community and special operations forces, pillar 2: services]. It’s not affordable the way we’re moving right now. Just to recapitalize the bomber is not affordable. We’re on a path in this country where we had hundreds of B52s. We had 100 B1s. We’ve got 20 B2s. Is it one more airplane, the next bomber is one per coast? If we continue on that path, we’ve got a real problem. And the same is true for submarines, the same is true for ships. It is a real problem for us. Or, it is an opportunity to decide what we want to be and how we want to do it, and to prioritize, and we have not taken that on.”