An Update: The Nuclear Posture Review got it right, the CBO got it wrong. Here's Why.

by PETER HUESSY March 16, 2018


The Congressional Budget Office estimates that over the next 30 years it will cost $1.2 trillion to maintain and modernize our nuclear deterrent forces, a twenty percent increase over their previous estimate made just two years ago.

Considering the estimated increase, writes CBO, tight defense budgets require that alternatives to the full modernization of our nuclear deterrent be seriously examined, including eliminating or significantly curtailing entire legs of the nuclear deterrent.

What is the reason for the cost increases CBO reveals and do we really have to look at alternative nuclear deterrent postures?

CBO admits it played a little sleight of hand. Instead of counting 25% of the costs of the bomber fleet as nuclear related as they did in 2015, they arbitrarily included 100% of the nuclear capable bombers. This magically "increased" bomber nuclear costs by over $200 billion. In addition, CBO then adopted inflated costs for the ICBM modernization program, resulting together in roughly $250 billion in "new" nuclear costs.

A more realistic assessment of nuclear costs was done by the CSBA in 2015. In that study, nuclear modernization and sustainment costs together from 2015-2040-when nuclear modernization would primarily take place-- were $750 billion.

If the United States did no modernization at all, CBO acknowledges, we would spend $776 billion over 30 years just sustaining the force. Modernization says CBO is roughly half the cost of sustainment, and thus it is much cheaper to maintain a modern nuclear deterrent than one approaching 50 years old.

Nonetheless, CBO proposes that the United States curtail its modernization plans and eliminate or reduce each leg of our nuclear Triad and sustain the old force longer than now planned.

But what the CBO fails to understand is that doing so will accelerate the costs of ongoing sustainment because as weapons systems age they become more and more expensive to maintain. These sustainment costs can only be avoided if the United States simply, unilaterally disarms by taking down whole sections of its deterrent.   

In short, without modernization, some of our nuclear Triad would quickly go out of service. For example, our submarine hulls cannot withstand more than 42 years in service, which they all are reaching. Delaying production, which CBO proposes, severely curtails our sea-based deterrent to as few as eight submarines, nearly half the required number.

Eliminating Minuteman's replacement also is nonsensical. Without our ICBMs, the number of US nuclear assets an enemy would have to target would drop from over 500 to 10-12. Why would we make it significantly easier for an adversary of the United States to successfully attack our nuclear assets and disarm us?

For example, the three bomber and two submarine bases remaining after eliminating our ICBMs are all soft targets, and thus relatively easy to destroy. To fully disarm the United States, an enemy would have to also find our 5-7 submarines at sea, but if they became vulnerable at some time in the future, they could be attrited over time without necessarily revealing the source of the attacker. In combination then, these ten targets, if eliminated, would effectively disarm the United States. Why would this country take such a risk?

CBO says we might look at dropping Minuteman or GBSD to 300 missiles rather than the planned 400, but the savings from such an option would come only at the end of the acquisition process, sometime around 2040, hardly any help to budget problems today.

Another suggested CBO option would be to eliminate the cruise missile for our bombers as well as 20 nuclear capable aircraft. Here again, most of the savings would be in the future at the end of the acquisition cycle. But the costs would include being unable to effectively hold at risk key adversary military targets, especially relocatable or mobile targets. To say nothing about losing the range and benefit of being able to hold at risk multiple targets from a single aircraft platform which cruise missiles allow you to do.

Realistic cost estimates for our nuclear enterprise, such as those done by CSBA, show that at the height of modernization, the United States would be spending $17 billion a year for our nuclear submarines, nuclear portion of our bombers, the GBSD/ICBMs, as well as warheads and related facilities, out of a notional defense budget of $700 billion or 2.4%.

Adding in sustainment and operational costs, and the nuclear portion of the defense budget rises to $37-8 billion a year or 5.3%, hardly the problem that explains the shortfalls in the other 95% of the defense budget that the Secretary of Defense has identified.

When examined in light of overall Federal spending, the nuclear deterrent requirements look even more of a bargain. In the middle of the next decade, the United States government is projected to spend for the entire Federal government some $5.6 trillion of which $36 billion would be nuclear related defense spending. That comes to .7 of 1%, hardly a budget buster.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis has correctly explained that the nuclear deterrent of the United States is our bedrock security that not only protects the United States but places a nuclear umbrella over our NATO and Pacific allies, reducing the chances of aggression, despite growing threats from Russia and China. And the resultant peace and stability allows for growing and prosperous economies.

But isn't the United States leading an arms race with its nuclear modernization plans? No, not at all. In fact, Russia will complete its strategic nuclear modernization by 2021 while the first new American missile, submarine or bomber does not get into the field until at best around the middle of next decade if current nuclear plans are maintained.

Unilaterally cutting our nuclear deterrent, as CBO proposes we do, would simply encourage more Russian aggression, undermine deterrence, and potentially precipitate the outbreak of armed conflict, the costs of which could dwarf the relatively minor savings projected by CBO in its risky nuclear excursions. On the other hand, the path laid down by the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, is the way to go forward. 

Peter R. Huessy is Director for Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies as well as President of Geostrategic Analysis, a defense consulting firm he founded in 1981. He is also a guest lecturer on nuclear deterrent policy at the U.S. Naval Academy and formerly Senior Fellow in National Security at the American Foreign Policy Council and JINSA.


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