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Nukes Are Cannibalizing The U.S. Defense Budget

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The Cold War is over, but you wouldn't know it looking at the current defense budget. The U.S. is spending hundreds of billions on new weapons systems to modernize its nuclear triad—and the Defense Department won't be able to pay for it without deeper cuts in conventional forces.

"It won't happen tomorrow, but the Pentagon may have to start eating its young," reports Breaking Defense. That assessment is based on a new analysis published by the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment (CSBA).

At issue are two of the most expensive weapons in U.S. history: the Air Force's Long Range Strike bomber (LRS-B) and the Navy's replacement for its Ohio class nuclear missile submarine.


The LRS-B is the Air Force's next generation stealth bomber, which is slated to begin entering service in the mid-2020s. Right now, the estimated procurement cost is $550 million per aircraft, and the Pentagon wants 100 of them. But, the Air Force has a long track record of going way over-budget with its bomber programs—and, the LRS-B seems to be no exception. Todd Harrison, the top budget expert at the CSBA says that, looking at long-term research and development costs, the purchase of 100 new bombers won't be completed until the 2030's, at a total cost of roughly $90 billion.

A big chunk of that expense is a result of the Air Force's decision to make its new bomber nuclear-capable. The Congressional Budget Office attributes 25% of the development cost of the program to its nuclear mission. And, on top of that, the bomber will be equipped with two new nuclear weapons: nuclear-tipped cruise missiles (estimated cost $30 billion) and an upgraded B61 bomb (estimated cost: $10 billion).


Meanwhile, the Ohio-Class Replacement program seeks to design and build a new class of 12 ballistic missile submarines to replace the U.S. Navy's current force of 14 Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines (photo above). Total estimated cost, according to Harrison, $113 billion.

The High Cost of Nuking

"But wait, there's more!" as they say on TV. The Air Force is in the final phase of a multibillion-dollar, decade-long modernization program to extend the service life of the Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile to 2030. And, the Air Force has already begun discussing plans for an all-new ICBM system for beyond 2030, which could cost between $125 billion and $219 billion.


Harrison doesn't see how the Pentagon will be able to afford all of this, in addition to other programs that it has planned. The U.S. Navy, for instance, has already reported that it cannot find the funds to pay for its latest 30-year shipbuilding plans. The Air Force would have to cut other projects it deems critical for operational readiness, including a new tanker for mid-air refueling and replacing its aging fleet of cargo planes.


Which brings us to the multi-multi-billion dollar question: Are these nuclear upgrades necessary? As the New York Times reported:

Not everyone agrees that the solution is spending more money on aging bombers, or even that the bombers — originally conceived to counter the nuclear threat from the Soviet Union — are relevant today.

"Is there a justification for a strategic nuclear-capable long-range bomber? Definitely no," said Gordon Adams, a professor of foreign policy at American University who oversaw military spending in the budget office of President Bill Clinton. "We have more than enough capacity to deter and strike if needed with nuclear-missile-carrying submarines."


Even Lt. General James Kowalski, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, argued in 2012 that the Air Force's priority should be developing bombers for conventional, not nuclear missions.

Some analysts have even wondered whether we should get rid of nuclear bombers and ICBMs altogether. As Christopher Preble, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute has argued:

Bombers and ICBMs, meanwhile, have significant flaws. Bombers are vulnerable both in the air and on the ground, and no more accurate than missiles. ICBMs, should they be used against rogues states like North Korea or Iran, would need to overfly either Russia or China (or both) — forcing a choice of whether to give advance notification or risk the misperception of a hostile launch.

The reliance on three nuclear delivery systems is a relic of Cold War bureaucratic politics, not the product of strategic calculation. A submarine-based monad is more than sufficient for America's deterrence needs, and would be considerably less expensive to modernize and maintain than the current force.


And last, and certainly not least, we need to be asking ourselves whether we should asking ourselves whether our current, bloated nuclear arsenal is necessary in today's world. Even advocates of keeping the U.S. nuclear deterrent have argued that thousands of warheads are unnecessary.

Writing in the New York Times, Gary Schaub Jr. an assistant professor of strategy at the Air War College and James Forsyth Jr. a professor of strategy at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, made the case for cutting our nuclear arsenal down to around 300:

This may seem a trifling number compared with the arsenals built up in the Cold War, but 311 warheads would provide the equivalent of 1,900 megatons of explosive power, or nine-and-a-half times the amount that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara argued in 1965 could incapacitate the Soviet Union by destroying "one-quarter to one-third of its population and about two-thirds of its industrial capacity."

Considering that we face no threat today similar to that of the Soviet Union 45 years ago, this should be more than adequate firepower for any defensive measure or, if need be, an offensive strike. And this would be true even if, against all expectations, our capacity was halved by an enemy's surprise first strike. In addition, should we want to hit an enemy without destroying its society, the 311 weapons would be adequate for taking out a wide range of "hardened targets" like missile silos or command-and-control bunkers.

While 311 is a radical cut from current levels, it is not the same as zero, nor is it a steppingstone to abandoning our nuclear deterrent. The idea of a nuclear-weapon-free world is not an option for the foreseeable future....They deter adversaries from threatening with weapons of mass destruction the American homeland, United States forces abroad and our allies and friends. They also remove the incentive for our allies to acquire nuclear weapons for their own protection.

We need a nuclear arsenal. But we certainly don't need one that is as big, expensive and unnecessarily threatening to much of the world as the one we have now.