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Tuesday
Mar152011

Nuclear triad requires strategic and fiscal discipline

Dr. James Miller, second in command in the Pentagon’s policy office, recently testified that the FY2012 defense budget contains $125 billion “to sustain and to modernize strategic delivery systems” in the next 10 years.  It largely will go to three programs – the SSBN(X) submarine to replace the Ohio class, the next-generation bomber announced by Secretary Gates in his 06 January press conference, and work to sustain and eventually replace today's ICBM.

At the same time, President Obama’s nuclear security policy is clear, announced first in his 2009 Prague speech and reiterated a year ago at his nuclear security summit.  The United States seeks a world free of nuclear weapons even as it recognizes that progress toward that goal will be slow and incremental.

Investing in our strategic delivery systems is compatible with this policy.  But investing in them all at once is far in excess of responsible hedging.

Admittedly, the new bomber isn’t dedicated solely to the nuclear mission, but rather will include a heavy emphasis on conventional deep strike.  That caveat, however, will give rivals as much confidence as Iran gives us by claiming that weapons-grade uranium isn’t for weapons.

Taken alongside other investments in the triad, those rivals are sure to interpret this as evidence that our national security strategy has a nuclear foundation.  They are likely to reciprocate by building up their own arsenals, creating a substantially more dangerous world for us all.

Aligning U.S. nuclear security policy and budgets will require a more disciplined procurement plan.  Strategists will focus heavily on the ICBM program, and are right to do so.  Once fired, a missile is gone and cannot be recalled – a dangerous shortcoming for circumstances as grave as nuclear exchange.  But the SSBN(X) submarine and next-generation bomber programs demand scrutiny also.  Both are at risk of fiscal hemorrhaging.

SSBN(X) will be a mammoth cost for the country - $347 billion over the life of the program, according to reporting on a memo recently signed by Ash Carter, the Pentagon’s acquisition chief.  That’s nearly $20 billion more than today’s costliest buy, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (see last page).  And the Navy is working hard to ensure that this work is treated like the F-35 program and bought in the “defense-wide” budget.  That will keep the SSBN(X) from crowding out other things the Navy wants in its shipbuilding account.

Reworded, the Navy wants a purchase made in the national interest to be funded elsewhere so that it doesn’t get in the way of buying other things that are only in its narrower bureaucratic interest.

That should not happen.  The U.S. does need a replacement for the Ohio class – submarines have limited service lives and are the sturdiest leg of the triad – but other purchases should be reduced to make room for it.  That’s what fiscal discipline means. Now more than ever, Congress and the administration need to choose priorities and spend accordingly.

Strategic discipline also is in order.  If we have to replace the Ohio class now, we ought to wait to start work on a new bomber.  That wait shouldn’t be difficult given that the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review, released not long after the final B-2 was delivered, determined that a replacement bomber wouldn’t need to be operational until 2040 (see last page).  And, by waiting, we can head off $3.7 billion in research money (see .pdf page 269) already budgeted for the next 5 years and the purchase of 80-100 jets reported to cost half a billion dollars each.  (This, of course, dramatically understates the full program cost by excluding infrastructure and longer-term research figures that will not be available for some time.)

Nearly everyone, from the President down, realizes that the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons won’t be achieved immediately and that some investment is required.  Making that investment while staying on the path toward zero means following the guideposts of strategic and fiscal discipline, though.  Nothing requires the United States to immediately up the ante on each leg of the triad.  In fact, it would directly generate unnecessary and unacceptable risk to our security internationally and to our fiscal stability domestically.  Today’s job is to focus on replacing the Ohio-class submarine responsibly, a tall order as it is.  The next generation bomber should wait for later.

Send your comments to the author directly at mleatherman@stimson.org.

Reader Comments (2)

[...] only serves to let nations question our commitment to that goal.  Worse, by neglecting to exercise fiscal discipline, the Obama Administration is giving momentum to nuclear programs that the U.S. may soon need to [...]

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often. xftgfc xftgfc - New Belstaff Jacket.

November 10, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterylayob ylayob

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