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Press Backgrounder, for immediate release 2/12/13

White House, Military Reportedly Seek Nuclear Arms Reductions

Budget Realities Compel Review of Nuclear Costs

Deep Cuts Inevitable; What, and When Uncertain

Contact: Greg Mello, 505-577-8563 (cell); 505-265-1200 (office) (normally best, less preferred tonight)

Albuquerque – Yesterday the New York Times reported that tonight’s State of the Union address will (rhetorically) “reinvigorate” President Obama’s objective of “drastically reducing nuclear arsenals around the world.”[1] 

Obviously the only country’s arsenal over which the President has any direct control is that of the United States.[2] 

If concrete proposals and actions to realize this objective are indeed forthcoming (which if actually pursued would be better characterized as “new” rather than “reinvigorated”) President Obama will be responding to a consensus – a unanimous view – established many months ago among his senior national security advisers and the military. 

That consensus, as it has been described in the recent press (most significantly, in a report by R. Jeffrey Smith at the Center for Public Integrity and in subsequent news articles such as this one by Mr. Smith for McClatchy) is less a new policy than a consensus realization that existing nuclear deterrence policies can be accomplished with about one-third fewer nuclear forces, with some targeting changes that purportedly engage “fewer, but more important, military or political” targets (Smith).[3]

The proposed policy, as reported, would decrease deployments and arsenal size but would not significantly change deterrent policy or posture.

According to Smith, the President has not yet made specific choices within the range of options provided to him by his advisers.

Although the document offers various options for Obama, his top advisers reached their consensus position last year, after a review that included the State Department, the Defense Department, the National Security Council, the intelligence community, the U.S. Strategic Command, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the office of Vice President Joseph Biden, according to the sources.

Not all warheads and bombs have assigned targets in U.S. war plans.  The B61 tactical bombs (mods 3, 4, and 10) have no assigned targets.  It is assumed that if hostilities were to develop with Russia that such a political development would take long enough for targets to be found for these bombs.  Upgrading these bombs for European deployment (and the related B61-7 and B61-11 bombs) is currently expected to cost on the order of $10 billion.[4] 

Under New START, the U.S. and Russia are limited to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads by 2018, but that treaty counts each deployed bomber as “one warhead,” meaning that the actual number of warheads which could be deployed in 2018 is much greater – roughly 1,900.  As of last May, the U.S. deployed about 1,950 strategic warheads and bombs, of which 1,722 were being counted under New START by November.  The U.S. deploys roughly 400 tactical warheads and bombs, for a total of about 2,150 deployed warheads and bombs.  In addition, the U.S. has roughly 2,800 warheads and bombs being maintained in reserve (the “hedge” arsenal), giving a total maintained arsenal (as of last May) of roughly 4,950 warheads and bombs.  In addition, some 3,000 intact but unmaintained warheads and bombs await dismantlement.[5]  Several thousand key nuclear components (e.g. pits) are being stored for possible reuse. 

The new consensus, according to Smith, is that only 1,000 to 1,100 deployed warheads and bombs, in a total arsenal of 2,500 to 3,500 warheads and bombs, are needed – i.e. about one-third less than at present. 

Polls have consistently shown that mutual nuclear disarmament is very popular with Americans.  A large 2004 poll discovered that respondents, on average, thought the U.S. had just 200 nuclear warheads, total – and that was too many.  That is about 50 times less than was the case in 2004 and 25 times less than today’s arsenal.[6]

The Smith and Sanger articles provide at least passing mention of some of the many background issues involved, more than can be discussed here. 

With no change in deterrence policies contemplated in these proposals, there is also (by definition) evidently no change in the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. security posture being contemplated. 

How might these reductions occur?  The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) outlined four possible reduction scenarios yesterday, drawing upon a longer report published in December.[7]  The Arms Control Association has also offered proposed reductions on the same scale as those proposed, with representative cost savings.[8] 

Beyond the status quo

In our opinion the most authoritative, thoughtful, and detailed proposal for modernizing nuclear arms policy in recent years was tabled last year by the Global Zero organization, authored by Gen. (ret.) James Cartwright, a recent former STRATCOM commander and former Vice-Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff along with four co-authors including Sen. Chuck Hagel, the current nominee for Secretary of Defense, under the overall guidance of Bruce Blair.

The Cartwright/Hagel proposal would, in concert with parallel and equal Russian disarmament and without multilateral negotiations, eliminate all U.S. tactical nuclear weapons and ICBMs, de-alert nuclear forces, and deploy a total of 450 warheads and bombs in a total force of 500-900 nuclear explosives.

The authors note that such deep cuts would enable simplifications in National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) programs as well.  Like the Study Group, these authors propose contingency plans instead of fixed investments in certain cases, e.g. expansion of pit production.  According to its authors, this proposal would save up to $100 billion (B) over the next decade.

Testimony regarding this plan was featured in a hearing (video archived here) before the Senate Energy and Water Development Subcommittee last July 25.

The current Obama Administration proposal (as reported) can be seen as a compromise between existing deployments (which are rapidly becoming financially unsustainable, as outlays for new delivery systems and large new NNSA programs and infrastructure projects come due), and more radical policy modernizations such as those proposed by Cartwright, Hagel and their coauthors.

Also last year, Representative Ed Markey (D-MA) and 34 Democratic co-sponsors introduced the Smarter Approach to Nuclear Expenditures (SANE) Act of 2012, which also proposed $100 B in savings (pdf) by significantly revamping nuclear weapons and missile defense policy.

Although the details are murky and ever-changing, it is quite clear that planned DoD and NNSA budgets – with the former subsidizing the latter – cannot pay for all the programs, facilities, and weapons planned in the next decade, let alone after.  In addition to the planful paradigm shifts offered by senior national security figures, there is also the possibility that national security policy could be hijacked by cruder forces, such as the looming budget sequester and as-yet-unforeseen future fiscal issues, supply chain failures, contractor failures and cost overruns, and litigation and other forms of opposition.  Nuclear weapons policy faces a myriad of challenges and the present readjustment can be seen as “lightening the ship” prior to the maelstrom ahead.[9]


DoD Budgetary Implications

Should the reported stockpile reductions come to pass, the savings at the Department of Defense (DoD) are certain to be significant.  Exactly how much money would be saved (or redirected) in DoD, from where (and to where), and when, would depend on the details, such as:

  • The future force structure;
  • How quickly the newly-labeled “excess” deployments are able to stand down; with
  • The pace and content of bilateral negotiations with Russia and to a lesser extent on congressional opposition and dealmaking, which may eat into savings; and
  • Whether and how much technical innovation is pursued in remaining deployments. 

Delay, coupled with contingency planning (as opposed to contingency procurement – buying very expensive projects in case they might be needed), are very important generators of major cost savings.  Indefinite delay of the proposed Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF), a policy already chosen, is an example.

In other cases, smaller, properly-paced programs, with lower annual costs, can replace high-risk “crash” programs (such as design-build approaches to huge nuclear facilities).

Smaller future deployments allow delays in designing and producing replacement systems, assuming a system is not eliminated entirely.

Not infrequently the purported urgency of a project stands in inverse proportion to its ultimate importance.

Thus, quoting without other comment from last week’s relevant Arms Control Association’s press release, with emphasis added:

  • "Procurement of the first new SSBNX can be delayed until 2024 and its deployment postponed until the Ohio class fleet is reduced to seven in 2033."
  • "Delay Spending on New Strategic Bombers"
  • "Another option is to keep the current Minuteman III until 2075." 
  • "There is time to reevaluate the [B61-12] LEP plan and scale it back, or to delay the program into the mid 2020s." [The Obama Administration decision to rush the B61 LEP from the Bush administration’s schedule – that is, stick B61-12 production right in the middle of the W76 LEP -- has created a management and fiscal nightmare.]

In a world where future costs are discounted to the present, delay saves money, other factors being equal.

NNSA Budgetary Implications

We know from the hundreds of meetings we have had with executive branch and congressional staff in recent years that many of these parties believe too much money is being spent on the NNSA’s nuclear enterprise.

It is therefore significant that Sanger mentions that President Obama

…is already moving quietly…to explore whether he can scale back a 10-year, $80 billion program to modernize the country’s weapons laboratories. 

The White House agreed to the spending on the weapons labs as the price of winning Republican votes on the new Start three years ago, but one senior defense official said late last year that “the environment of looking for cuts in the national security budget makes this an obvious target.”

According to one knowledgeable writer, whose story we have confirmed with parties directly involved, the NNSA laboratories have anticipated these cuts since 2009 and have taken a number of steps to set up compensatory funding mechanisms outside the direct control of Congress.[10]

We share this writer’s dismay.

The budgetary future of the four NNSA production plants is fairly predictable, within a range defined by the present contracting paradigm.

The budgetary future of the three NNSA weapons laboratories and the Nevada National Nuclear Security Site (NNSS) is less clear and far more contingent.  That we must leave for another day.

***ENDS***


[1] Up to now, President Obama’s occasionally soaring but contradictory rhetoric, e.g. in Prague, 4/5/13 (“a world free of nuclear weapons…[but] perhaps not in my lifetime…we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons…[but] the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies…”) has not been followed by agreements or legislative proposals that limit nuclear arms in number or novelty, reduce their role in U.S. strategy, or lessen the fiscal resources devoted to them.  The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (pdf) was a fundamentally ambiguous document.

New START addressed only deployed, strategic weapons and used a counting rule that did not mandate arms reductions within that category.  In principle, the number of warheads and bombs could actually rise under New START, as has been the case (slightly) in Russia.  New START also permits qualitative improvements.

The President’s lack of action on disarmament is widely appreciated.  Today’s Christian Science Monitor editorial board:

His campaign rhetoric in 2008 was strong in seeking “a world with no nuclear weapons.” But little was done during his first term toward that goal except the New START treaty.

Hans Kristensen, Federation of American Scientists, analysis and comment of Nov. 30, 2013:

Indeed, while there have been some reductions of non-deployed and retired weapon systems, there is no indication from the new data that the United States has yet begun to reduce its deployed strategic nuclear forces under the New START treaty.

[2] In theory, presidential control is total.  The Constitution gives the President, as Commander in Chief, the final word on U.S. armed forces, armaments, and deployments, including nuclear weapons.  In practice, Congress, for example in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), attempts to circumscribe Presidential authority in this area, raising unresolved constitutional issues, e.g. § 1034, “Prevention of Asymmetry of Nuclear Weapon Stockpile Reductions.”

[3] Targeting U.S. nuclear weapons involves targeting millions of civilians directly and indirectly, as well as threatening omnicidal nuclear winter with even a “small” nuclear exchange if that exchange involves flammable cities.  Since targeting is highly classified (in part because it is so shameful) and the resulting force structures are not known, it is not clear whether and to what degree the contemplated targeting changes are a shift from counterforce to countervalue targeting, and whether and how the myriad risks within, and of, nuclear war would be changed.  All these are very big subjects.  The long and short of it is that there is no reason to expect that a one-third diminishment of nuclear forces which does not substantially change existing deterrence policies would significantly change the risks, or effects, of nuclear war – for precisely that same reason.  And of course the same humanitarian law issues would apply, the same risk of nuclear winter maintained. 

[4] See for example Jeffrey Lewis, “A Steal at $10 Billion,” Foreign Policy, September 5, 2012.

[5] Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris, “US nuclear forces, 2012,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 1, 2012. 

[6] Los Alamos Study Group Press Advisory 3/31/05, “AP Poll Shows Americans Prefer Nuclear Disarmament to Alternatives by Large Margins; Findings Consistent with Prior Larger and More Detailed Poll; Americans Implicitly Condemn Current Nuclear Policies, Path Open to New Political Leadership on Issue.”  Estimated stockpile size in Stephen Kull, et. al., “Americans on WMD Proliferation,” April 15, 2004, Program on International Policy Attitudes, University of Maryland, at http://www.pipa.org/OnlineReports/WMD/WMDreport_04_15_04.pdf (link expired).

[7] Hans Kristensen, FAS, “Trimming Nuclear Excess: Options for Further Reductions of U.S. and Russian Nuclear Forces,” pdf, December 2012. 

[8] Arms Control Association, “Administration Poised to Trim Costly Nuclear Weapons Excess,” Feb. 8, 2013. 

[9] The nuclear weapons enterprise in NNSA has experienced, and is continuing to experience, a rate of internal inflation that is much higher than society’s inflation rate, assuming its products and projects are delivered at all. 

The causes are various but include mission inflation, the purchase of unnecessary “science,” an oligopolistic management and product delivery system in which a powerful vendor cartel – a virtual monopoly in the case of the physics labs – largely controls a weak, captive federal buyer, and the associated collapse of contractor accountability.  The very factors which led to the aggrandizement of the enterprise and which are now deeply embedded in its institutions, ideologies, and in the political consensus that maintains it, are making it difficult to deliver projects without massive cost and schedule overruns.  

It is far from clear that the NNSA nuclear weapons enterprise can continue under these conditions for another generation.  There are simply too many systems to maintain and replace, too much extravagance and too much embedded complexity.  The post-Cold-War nuclear weapons bubble is bursting.  

[10] "Broken Promises, The White House, Special Interests and New START," Anonymous ("Dienekes"), Feb 5, 2013 (pdf).


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