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Panetta: Budget Sequester Could Force Elimination of ICBMs

(Nov. 15) -A U.S. Minuteman 3 ICBM engine is loaded into a truck in 2000 as part of a maintenance operation. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Monday said the United States might be forced to eliminate its entire ICBM fleet if automatic defense spending cuts included in an August law are allowed to take effect (AP Photo/Douglas Pizac). (Nov. 15) -A U.S. Minuteman 3 ICBM engine is loaded into a truck in 2000 as part of a maintenance operation. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Monday said the United States might be forced to eliminate its entire ICBM fleet if automatic defense spending cuts included in an August law are allowed to take effect (AP Photo/Douglas Pizac).

A looming automatic reduction in Defense Department spending could require the United States to eliminate its entire fleet of 450 ICBMs, prompting an unprecedented overhaul of the nation's nuclear strategy, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told lawmakers in a letter on Monday (see GSN, Nov. 8).

The department is already planning to cut $450 billion in spending projected over the next decade (see GSN, Nov. 7). Under a law enacted in August, that amount might be more than doubled if a special congressional panel does not negotiate $1.2 trillion in additional government-wide cuts by Nov. 23, the Associated Press reported.

If triggered, the automatic sequestration would lower U.S. defense spending by 23 percent in 2013 and could result in the country's Minuteman 3 ICBMs being phased out, leaving aircraft and submarine-launched ballistic missiles as the country's only available means of carrying out a nuclear strike, Panetta warned. The Pentagon chief outlined the anticipated impact of the potential cuts in response to a request earlier in November by two Republican members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"We would have to formulate a new security strategy that accepted substantial risk of not meeting our defense needs. A sequestration budget is not one that I could recommend," Panetta stated in his reply to Senator John McCain (Ariz.), the committee's ranking member, and Senator Lindsey Graham (S.C.).

Any move to terminate the ICBM leg of the triad could be expected to face resistance from Congress, particularly among lawmakers who represent the Western states where ICBMs are fielded: Montana, North Dakota and Wyoming. Eight U.S. senators last month wrote to Panetta to implore him to retain no fewer than 420 Minuteman 3 ICBMs as reductions are made under the U.S.-Russian New START agreement, which went into effect earlier this year (see GSN, Oct. 14).

To achieve a new reductions mandate, most of the savings would come from what Panetta called "devastating" conventional weapons acquisition program terminations, personnel furloughs and cutbacks in military operations. However, each of the three legs of the nuclear triad would also be affected.

A 20 percent automatic reduction in the Pentagon's budget, which would total $390 billion over 10 years, would "delay [the] next generation ballistic missile submarine" and "cut [the] force to 10 subs," actions that could result in a $7 billion savings, the defense secretary said.

The development of a next-generation bomber -- currently planned for carrying both nuclear and conventional weapons -- would be terminated for now and restarted in the mid-2020s, offering an $18 billion savings (Elaine M. Grossman, Global Security Newswire).

The potential reduction would also put an end to the planned fielding of missile interceptors and detection systems around Europe as a hedge against a potential missile strike from Iran, Panetta said (see GSN, Nov. 14).

The Pentagon chief's warning heightens pressure on the special congressional panel, which must reach agreement on any budget reduction package by next week, according to AP. President Obama has ruled out endorsing a potential bill to cancel the funding reductions made possible under the August law, though McCain and Graham have floated such a measure.

The potential spending reduction "would set off a swift decline of the United States as the world's leading military power," the two lawmakers said in released remarks. "This is not an outcome that we can live with, and it is certainly not one that we should impose on ourselves. The sequester is a threat to the national security interests of the United States, and it should not be allowed to occur" (Donna Cassata, Associated Press/Google News, Nov. 14).

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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