Pentagon Seeks $25 Billion for Strategic Nuclear Efforts Through 2017

The U.S. Air-Launched Cruise Missile. The Pentagon is seeking $2 million in fiscal 2013 to study a potential successor to the nuclear-capable weapon (U.S. Air Force photo).
The U.S. Air-Launched Cruise Missile. The Pentagon is seeking $2 million in fiscal 2013 to study a potential successor to the nuclear-capable weapon (U.S. Air Force photo).

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Defense Department has budgeted more than $25 billion for strategic nuclear weapon programs between fiscal 2013 and 2017, according to budget documents released on Monday (see GSN, Feb. 13).

The funds are largely to pay for maintenance and upgrades to existing nuclear-capable aircraft, ships and missiles.  It does not appear to include research and development funds for a number of major new nuclear platforms, including an additional $6.3 billion for a new bomber aircraft and $5.5 billion for a future submarine over the same five-year period.

Nor do the so-called “strategic deterrence” budget figures include the money used for operating today’s nuclear triad.  The Air Force alone, for example, will spend $5.1 billion in fiscal 2013 for operations and training on bomber aircraft and ICBMs, according to a service budget overview.

The plans are all part of a $525.4 billion budget request that the Obama administration has sent to Congress for Defense Department expenditures in 2013, excluding funds to be spent on overseas operations. 

Of the total $25.1 billion to be spent on the strategic deterrence programs over the next five years, $2.7 billion is budgeted for fiscal 2013, which begins on Oct. 1.

Nearly $3 billion spread across the total five-year plan is intended to support nuclear weapon and naval reactor efforts by the National Nuclear Security Agency, a semiautonomous arm of the Energy Department, according to a half-inch thick Pentagon budget overview document. 

Other projects to be funded during that time frame include a life-extension program for the B-61 bomb warhead, which will undergo a two-year schedule slip; an Analysis of Alternatives for the Long-Range Stand-Off missile, slated to replace today’s Air-Launched Cruise Missile; a life-extension effort for the Trident D-5 ballistic missile fielded aboard the Navy’s Ohio-class submarines; and sustainment of the Air Force Minuteman 3 ICBM.

The Pentagon said in a new “strategic guidance” issued last month that it intended to reduce the nation’s reliance on nuclear weapons relative to conventional forces, as defense officials crafted their program and budget plans for fiscal 2013 and subsequent years (see GSN, Jan. 6).

However, at a press conference on Monday, the Pentagon’s top financial official, Comptroller Robert Hale, could not point to efforts aimed at implementing this policy shift during the next fiscal year.

“We fully support all three legs of the triad in this budget, and are making investments in all of them,” Hale said. 

The comptroller mentioned a previously announced two-year schedule delay for developing the Navy’s future ballistic missile submarine, but noted that the program restructuring was based mainly on affordability concerns.

“I believe that we are continuing full support for the nuclear triad in this budget,” Hale told reporters.

To meet a congressional budget-cutting mandate enacted last year, the Defense Department has trimmed back $259 billion in its five-year plan and a total of $487 billion in reductions over the next decade. 

The Navy’s future ballistic-missile submarine, known as the SSBN(X), is one among several programs altered to meet those reduction targets.  Under the new budget plan, the Pentagon intends to delay first delivery of the Ohio-class replacement submarine to 2029, and the vessel is to become operational by 2031, service officials said this week.

The Ohio-class vessels begin reaching the end of their service lives in fiscal 2027.

The Navy in 2010 told Congress that the Ohio-class “replacements must start reaching the operational force by [fiscal] 2029. There is no leeway in this plan to allow a later start or any delay in the procurement plan,” according to a Congressional Research Service report issued last year.

“The implication from this statement is that deferring the procurement of one or more SSBN(X)s … would result in an SSBN force that drops below 12 boats for some period of time,” CRS analyst Ronald O’Rourke stated in his 2011 report.

It is unclear whether that assessment of force structure implications has changed, but Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter last month said the newly planned delay would reduce schedule risk in what had previously been an “aggressive” developmental plan.

“The department determined that it is a manageable risk to delay SSBN(X) development by two years,” the new budget overview states.  The move will allow the Pentagon to save $600 million in fiscal 2013 and a total of $4.3 billion by 2017, according to the document.

The Navy has allotted $565 million in its 2013 budget for R&D on the Ohio-class replacement submarines, the service said in an outline of its programmatic highlights.

Under prior plans, the Navy would have begun advance procurement spending in fiscal 2015 to start building the first SSBN(X) submarine; under the schedule slip, those initial funds will be spent in 2017, Rear Adm. Joseph Mulloy, the deputy assistant Navy secretary for budget matters, told reporters at a service briefing.

Full procurement for the first ship will now be budgeted in 2021 instead of 2019, he said.

The Pentagon appears to be signaling that it intends to continue a cost-conscious approach to development and procurement of the future submarine.

“Program managers must demonstrate affordability before granting milestone authority to proceed with the program,” according to the defense budget overview publication.  “Understanding and controlling future costs from a program’s inception is critical to achieving affordability requirements.”

The Navy said in briefing slides that fiscal 2012 would be the last year in which the service is buying Trident D-5 ballistic missiles, with a total 108 missiles being procured this year.  The nuclear-armed weapons are currently deployed on Ohio-class submarines and are also intended for initial fielding aboard the future SSBN(X) vessels. 

Into the future, the service will procure only “necessary [D-5] components to support Ohio-class missions,” according to a Navy budget document.

A separate service document adds these details: “Continued investment is required to ensure that all Ohio class submarines will deploy fully loaded, while guaranteeing sufficient inventory exists for periodic required test launches into the 2040s.  The D-5 weapons system will also be the initial weapons system utilized by the Ohio class replacement.”

Navy officials would also like to eventually design a new nuclear-armed ballistic missile to replace the D-5 on the SSBN(X) submarines.

New development efforts in 2013 include a Navy bid to increase the conventional Tomahawk cruise missile capacity of its Virginia-class attack submarines at a cost of $100 million in 2013.  Two new launch tubes, each accommodating six Tomahawks, will be installed in the undersea vessels.

Mulloy, the Navy budget leader, said an additional price tag for developing a medium-range ballistic missile capability on the same attack submarines would not be known until later, when the Office of the Secretary of Defense apportions conventional “prompt global strike” funds among the three services (see GSN, Jan. 27).

The Defense Department is also moving ahead with plans to develop a new nuclear-capable strategic bomber, which it revealed Monday has an estimated average procurement cost of $550 million for each of 80 to 100 aircraft, measured in 2010 dollars.

The budget overview document appears to hint that the bomber’s unit cost -- which does not account for billions of dollars to be spent up front for research and development -- would have been even higher under previous Air Force plans.

“The new bomber will not need the same capabilities that were planned for the previous Next Generation Bomber,” states the text, adding that the aircraft “will incorporate many subsystems (engines, radars, other avionics) and technologies that are already proven.”

The Air Force 2013 budget includes $300 million for R&D on the new bomber, part of a five-year spending plan for the project totaling $6.3 billion, according to the Pentagon documents.

The service also said in its own newly released spending publications that it plans in next year’s budget to fund work on a new communications system for its B-2 bomber and increase the precision weapon capabilities for the B-52 bomber.

Additionally, the Air Force intends to launch a formal Analysis of Alternatives for its future ICBM in fiscal 2013, building on preliminary studies completed last year (see GSN, Feb. 10). 

Air Force budget deputy Marilyn Thomas said on Monday that $11.7 million would be spent on the major review of options for replacing the Minuteman 3 fleet with a next-generation system.  The U.S. arsenal of 450 Minuteman 3s -- which is to shrink to no more than 420 ICBMs under last year’s New START arms control pact -- is slated for retirement in 2030.

Fiscal year 2014 funds for continuing the Analysis of Alternatives total $9.4 million, according to new Air Force documents delivered to Capitol Hill.  Once complete, the study will allow the Pentagon to recommend to the president how today’s Minuteman 3 force should be replaced.

The service also plans to build on its existing efforts to design a new nuclear cruise missile to replace those fielded on today’s bomber aircraft.  The Defense Department has estimated the new-design weapon could cost roughly $1.3 billion (see GSN, March 9, 2010).

“A study for the future long-range standoff (LRSO) weapon, the Air Launched Cruise Missile follow-on, is also under way,” the Air Force states in its budget overview publication.  The service included $2 million for this R&D effort in its 2013 budget.

February 14, 2012

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Defense Department has budgeted more than $25 billion for strategic nuclear weapon programs between fiscal 2013 and 2017, according to budget documents released on Monday.