Friday, January 23, 2015
Defense Secretary nominee aiming to pare down U.S. nuclear arsenal
Tom Z. Collina, Defense One, Jan 22
If Ashton Carter is confirmed next month as defense secretary, as appears likely, he will face a dilemma: the Pentagon’s trillion-dollar plans to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal are excessive and unaffordable. As the Air Force and Navy admit, their nuclear shopping lists outstrip their budgets. This gives Carter an historic opportunity to bring the nuclear weapons budget in line with U.S. security needs.
There are real advantages to scaling back the nuclear enterprise. Carter will presumably want to start new projects and expand others, such as cybersecurity (think Sony hack and North Korea) and anti-terrorism (Paris terror attacks), and he will have to find the money from within his own budget.
The good news is that the nuclear piggy bank is over-stuffed and ripe for a withdrawal.
At first look, Carter may seem an unlikely candidate to tackle this challenge. He served as the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer and second-in-command from 2009 to 2013, meaning he had a hand in this drama. And, in 2013, Carter said nuclear weapons “don’t actually cost that much.”
But Carter was talking mainly about the cost of the current arsenal, not the looming modernization. More recently, senior Pentagon officials have begun to appreciate how expensive this will be. As Undersecretary of Defense Frank Kendall said, “We’ve got a big affordability problem out there with those programs.”
Others are more blunt. A recent commission co-chaired by former Defense Secretary William Perry, Carter’s former boss, and retired Gen. John Abizaid called current plans for the arsenal “unaffordable” and a threat to “needed improvements in conventional forces.” They estimated that the nuclear arsenal could cost up to $1 trillion over 30 years.
How did the nuclear budget get so plump? Primarily through neglect. Instead of leading a thoughtful review to determine how much of the aging U.S. nuclear arsenal needs to be rebuilt for the post-post-Cold War era (some but not all), the Obama administration let the military services decide what they would like (everything).
So we now have an out-of-control nuclear shopping list that includes a dozen nuclear-armed submarines, up to 100 long-range bombers, hundreds of land-based ballistic missiles, air-launched cruise missiles and rebuilt nuclear warheads to go with them.
This is excessive—and dangerous. The Cold War ended 25 years ago. Russia may be rattling its sabre in neighboring Ukraine, but this does not call for a nuclear buildup. Instead, the United States needs to support its NATO allies with conventional forces, such as fighter jets and surface ships, which are also competing for scarce defense dollars. Overinvesting in nuclear weapons just starves the programs we really need.