Pentagon Can Slash $58B From Nuke Spending Over Decade: Analysis

The Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Tennessee returns to port in Georgia last month. A new analysis says the United States could save $50 billion or more in nuclear arms costs by measures including cutting the number of current and planned nuclear-armed submarines (U.S. Navy photo).
The Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine USS Tennessee returns to port in Georgia last month. A new analysis says the United States could save $50 billion or more in nuclear arms costs by measures including cutting the number of current and planned nuclear-armed submarines (U.S. Navy photo).

WASHINGTON – The Defense Department can save $50 billion by reducing nuclear arms spending through the coming decade even without cutting the size of the arsenal beyond levels set by a U.S.-Russian arms control treaty, according to a new expert analysis.

A smaller stockpile reportedly being considered by the Obama administration could increase savings to $58 billion, the Washington-based Arms Control Association said on Tuesday.

Turning those projections into reality would require the Pentagon to cut back plans for a new fleet of ballistic missile submarines and delay development of a new strategic bomber and ICBM, among other measures.

“We’re only looking at the next 10 years here. A lot of the significant savings from reductions would come beyond the 10-year window,” Tom Collina, ACA research director, said during a panel discussion of the organization’s analysis. “What this shows is that arms reductions are going to save us money already and can save us a lot of money if we plan it smartly and if we are efficient about it and if we don’t build things too soon before we know how much we need.”

The United States spends roughly $31 billion each year on its nuclear weapons and associated infrastructure, according to a 2012 analysis from the Henry L. Stimson Center. Close to $23 billion is spent by the Pentagon, with the rest at the Energy Department.

Both departments are faced with deep funding reductions under the federal budget sequester that took effect on March 1.

Defense alone could be forced to absorb as much as $1 trillion in budget losses over the next decade. Pentagon officials have already warned that such cuts could endanger plans for the next-generation bomber and undermine other strategic operations; recently retired Defense Secretary Leon Panetta even suggested in late 2011 the sequester could force elimination of all ICBMs.

The Pentagon had by press time not offered comments about its nuclear development and spending plans.

Collina said there were two guiding principles for his analysis – the United States should be more efficient in deploying its nuclear assets and should avoid buying new weapons before they are needed

Today, the United States has about 1,700 deployed long-range nuclear warheads; the New START treaty with Moscow requires that number to be reduced to 1,550 on no more than 700 fielded delivery systems by 2018.

The Arms Control Association’s “Cost-Effective New START” proposal aims for savings from 2013 to 2022 without changing the warhead count allowed by the accord.

Cutting the existing fleet of 12 Ohio-class submarines to eight would save an estimated $3 billion. Building no more than eight planned replacement vessels, and delaying initial acquisition by two years to 2023, would take out $15 billion from the projected $350 billion price tag for building and operating the next-generation fleet, the analysis states.

There is room for loading more warheads onto fewer boats to avoid shrinking the arsenal, Collina noted.

Another $18 billion in savings could be derived from postponing development of new strategic bombers from this decade to the mid-2020s, given that existing B-2 and B-52 aircraft will remain operational for decades to come.

A “more modest” version of the $10.4 billion life-extension program for 400 B-61 gravity bombs could produce $5 billion in further savings, the Arms Control Association said. Such a move would entail a “minimal upgrade” to the B-61 Mod 7 strategic bomb and holding off on any decision on updating the tactical systems deployed in Europe, Collina said.

The final identified spending reduction of $9 billion comes from action the Pentagon has taken as of last week – canceling plans for a next-generation Standard Missile 3 interceptor that was to be deployed under the U.S.-NATO ballistic missile shield for Europe.

The group also put forward a “New START II” option which supposes the administration achieves its reported aspiration to reduce the strategic arsenal to roughly 1,000 warheads alongside Russia. The Pentagon is said to have backed a stockpile count of 1,000 to 1,100 weapons in an implementation study for the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review; the document has not been made public.

The extra $8 billion in savings come from deferring $5 billion in spending by delaying the reduced B-61 life-extension into the mid-2020s and dropping deployment of ICBMs from about 400 to 300 for another $3 billion in cut costs.

Given Washington’s need to reduce expenses, there is a good chance that some or all of these measures will be taken up, Collina said. Delaying work on parts of the nuclear triad could allow for reduced production and future savings, “but at some point we will need new subs and bombers, so you can only delay so long,” he acknowledged by e-mail after Tuesday’s meeting.

Further reductions in the size of the nation’s nuclear arsenal remain a subject of intense debate in Washington.

“If President Obama is right, and there is peace and security in a world without nuclear weapons, it seems every other country with nuclear weapons or, like Iran, the aspiration to develop them has missed the memo,” House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subommittee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) said in an opening statement for a Tuesday hearing on the nuclear deterrent and sequester.

The lawmaker cautioned Obama against stepping back from his $85 billion nuclear arms complex modernization pledge, made as the president sought GOP support for New START. Nuclear powers China and Russia are developing more sophisticated weapons within their own nuclear deterrents, Rogers noted.

Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments President Andrew Krepinevich dismissed some perceived benefits of a U.S. nuclear drawdown, including that such a move would lead other nations to follow suit.

A nuclear-armed Iran might also require the United States to cover Middle Eastern allies with the so-called “nuclear umbrella” -- an increasing burden even as the size of the stockpile shrinks, Krepinevich said in his prepared statement to the panel.

“The implied assumption here is that the United States has a large surplus of nuclear weapons, and that it can readily meet its expanding nuclear commitments with a substantially smaller arsenal than called for under New START,” he said.

Global Zero co-founder Bruce Blair countered that even a 900-warhead nuclear arsenal -- as recommended in a 2012 report from the disarmament movement -- “would fulfill reasonable requirements of deterrence vis-à-vis every country considered to pose a potential WMD threat to the United States.”

March 20, 2013
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WASHINGTON – The Defense Department can save $50 billion by reducing nuclear arms spending through the coming decade even without cutting the size of the arsenal beyond levels set by a U.S.-Russian arms control treaty, according to a new expert analysis.

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