Unnecessary, Unsustainable, and Unsafe Excess

According to the Trump NPR, the world is a far more dangerous place than it was at the time the Obama administration conducted its NPR in 2010. “[G]lobal threat conditions have worsened markedly since the most recent 2010 NPR, including increasingly explicit nuclear threats from potential adversaries,” states the 2018 review, citing Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran. “The United States now faces a more diverse and advanced nuclear-threat environment than ever before.”

It is true that the international security environment is less favorable than it was a decade ago. Some of the other nuclear-armed states have not been responsible actors. Technology is advancing in new and unpredictable ways. And the existing U.S. nuclear arsenal— much of which was originally built during the Cold War-era and refurbished since—is aging.

But the NPR does not provide any conclusive or compelling evidence that these challenges will be addressed or overcome by the review’s strategy. The review seeks to add new capabilities and infrastructure to an arsenal that was already excessively large and redundant, and it aims to expand the circumstances under which the United States might consider the first use of nuclear weapons. In addition, the administration is undermining key arms control and nonproliferation guardrails at a time when efforts to reduce global nuclear risks are under significant stress.53

Taken together, these changes in policy are unnecessary, set the stage for an even greater and more unsustainable rate of spending on U.S. nuclear weapons, threaten to accelerate global nuclear competition, and increase the risk of nuclear conflict in the years ahead.

A Larger Arsenal Than Required for Deterrence

The U.S. military stockpile of approximately 3,800 nuclear warheads, though far smaller than during the Cold War, is larger than is necessary to deter a nuclear attack on the United States or its allies from Russia’s similarly sized nuclear arsenal, or from China, which has no more than 300 total nuclear weapons.54 This oversized arsenal is irrelevant to the most pressing security challenges the United States and its allies face in the 21st century, including cyber threats, weak and failing states, climate change, and aggressive Russian and Chinese regional behavior.

2018 Estimated Global Nuclear Warhead Inventories

The world’s nuclear-armed states possess a combined total of roughly 15,000 nuclear warheads; more than 90 percent belong to Russia and the United States. Approximately 9,600 warheads are in military service, with the rest awaiting dismantlement.

10000 9000 8000 7000 6000 5000 4000 3000 2000 1000 0 Russia Retired: warheads no longer in the stockpile but remain intact as they await dismantlement. Stockpiled: warheads assigned for potential use on military delivery vehicles; includes active and inactive warheads. Sources: Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris; U.S. Department of State; Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Updated June 20, 2018 Strategic Deployed: warheads on ballistic missles and at U.S. bomber bases. Numbers based on New START counting rule which counts operationally deployed ballistic missile warheads and heavy bombers. 1,444 4,350 2,500 6,850 USA 1,350 4,000 2,550 6,550 France 300 China 280 UK 215 Pakistan 145 India 135 Israel 80 DPRK 15

President Obama, with the support of the Pentagon, determined in 2013 that the deployed force could be reduced by up to one-third below the New START levels. Nonetheless, his administration’s nuclear recapitalization plans were based on maintaining roughly the New START levels in perpetuity. The Trump administration has yet to take a position on whether to seek an extension of New START and indicated in its NPR that it does not believe further reductions in the arsenal are prudent given the security environment.55

But the fact remains that both the United States and Russia maintain more nuclear weapons than they need for their security. Small numerical advantages by either side would not change the fundamental deterrence equation. Indeed, the United States currently possesses more strategic delivery systems and warheads than Russia while Russia possesses more non-strategic weapons than the United States.

The September 2018 New START data exchange shows that the United States has 659 deployed ICBMs, SLBMs, and heavy bombers, while Russia has 517. Such a disparity provides Russia with an incentive to put multiple warheads, or MIRVs, on deployed strategic delivery systems to keep up with the United States and to invest in heavily MIRV’ed new systems, such as the under-development Sarmat (RS-28) heavy ICBM.

President Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin listens as former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during their bilateral meeting
focused on Syria and Ukraine at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on March 24, 2016. (Photo: State Department/Public Domain)

Russia is believed to maintain approximately 2,000 non-strategic warheads. It is not clear how many of these weapons are readily available for offensive use. Most are in central storage and are likely dedicated as much if not more to China than NATO.56 The United States has a few hundred low-yield warheads for short-range delivery. Past U.S. reductions of tactical nuclear weapons have not been conditioned on Russian reciprocity.

Ideally, the United States and Russia would agree to extend New START by a period of five years, as allowed under the treaty, and begin talks on further reductions that also address obstacles that have stymied progress in the past, such as missile defense and the nuclear arsenals of other nations. A follow-on to New START could also set limits on tactical nuclear weapons and U.S. and Russian intermediate-range ballistic missiles and ground-launched cruise missiles once prohibited by the INF Treaty. But even if such talks did begin, which appears unlikely in the near term, these talks could last years.

In the meantime, Washington should not give Moscow veto power over the appropriate size and composition of U.S. nuclear forces. Nor should it give Moscow an easy excuse to maintain a similarly bloated arsenal aimed at the United States and its allies. A decision to reduce to 1,000 deployed strategic warheads would put the United States in a stronger position to pressure Russia to rethink some of its expensive nuclear recapitalization projects and reduce its deployed strategic nuclear warheads. Perhaps more intriguingly, a U.S. willingness to reduce its arsenal could lead China to take a less passive approach to nuclear disarmament and more openly discuss the size, composition, and operations of its nuclear forces.57

While U.S.-Russian relations are currently strained, the decisions the United States is making now about rebuilding the nuclear arsenal are decisions that will be with it for decades to come. Decisions about force needs must consider the longer term and must weigh the opportunity costs.

A number of objections are often raised against further reducing the U.S. nuclear arsenal. One is that such cuts would reduce the U.S. ability to target adversary nuclear forces in an attempt to limit, or even preclude, the threat these forces could pose to the United States and its allies. But the United States does not need to place such a large emphasis on “counterforce” to maintain a credible deterrent. Even if the United States wanted to limit the damage Russian or Chinese nuclear forces could cause, it could not meaningfully do so without inviting a devastating nuclear response. By targeting primarily adversary leadership and war-supporting industrial targets, the United States could still hold at risk assets valued by adversaries, reduce the number of nuclear weapons, and lessen reliance on prompt nuclear strikes.58 In any event, a U.S. force of 1,000 deployed warheads would still provide significant counterforce capabilities.

Another objection is that further cuts would be a signal of weakness in the face of a more confrontational Russia and assertive China, both of whom are upgrading their nuclear arsenals. But this is not a reason to maintain a nuclear force in excess of U.S. security requirements. If Washington and Moscow are not deterred by 1,000 deployed nuclear weapons deployed on multiple types of delivery systems, what logic presumes 1,550 would make a difference? In the case of China, even after dropping to 1,000 deployed strategic warheads, the United States would still enjoy a 10–1 advantage.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and South Korean President Moon Jae-in

South Korean President Moon Jae-in meets with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit in
Singapore, November 15, 2018. (Photo: Republic of Korea)

Some critics also claim that further U.S. nuclear force reductions would drive allies that depend on the U.S. nuclear “umbrella” to either capitulate to U.S. adversaries or reconsider their non-nuclear-weapon status and seek their own arsenals. Such concerns merit closer inspection given the retaliatory potential of even 1,000 deployed strategic nuclear weapons, as well as the maintenance of superior U.S. conventional forces. Moreover, for a non-nuclear-weapon state, such as South Korea or Japan, to openly build a nuclear arsenal would be a dramatic renunciation of its commitment not to do so under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The political costs of such a decision would be huge and likely provide fewer benefits than continuing to rely on U.S. security commitments. Furthermore, rather than express opposition to further nuclear force reductions, many U.S. allies in Europe and Asia have not only repeatedly called on the United States and Russia to extend New START, but also to achieve even deeper reductions below the limits established by the treaty.

Reassurance has always been a function of capabilities and commitment. Allies and partners are understandably concerned about the threats a more aggressive Russia and China pose to their security. These concerns are being exacerbated by President Trump’s repeated assaults on the value of the U.S.-led alliance system and uncertainty in key allied capitals about what U.S. policy actually is on important foreign policy issues.59 But the concerns of allies cannot be ameliorated by placing greater emphasis on nuclear threats and weapons.60 The United States can continue to assure its allies and partners as it reduces its nuclear arsenal, maintains second-to-none conventional forces, and, most importantly, strengthens political relationships through reaffirmations of the value of alliances, stronger economic and cultural ties, and stepped-up dialogue.

The Flawed Case for New Low-Yield Weapons

The shortcomings in the Trump NPR’s rationale for the development of additional low-yield nuclear options are too numerous to count.

The claim that Russia has lowered the threshold for the first use of nuclear weapons is hotly disputed.61 While Russia appears to rely more heavily on nuclear weapons for its security than the United States due to its overall conventional inferiority and concerns about U.S. missile defenses, Russia’s official nuclear doctrine does not support the claim that it has adopted an “escalate to win” doctrine. However, even if Moscow has done so, this is likely a result of Moscow’s concerns about the conventional imbalance.

Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten

Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, testifies for the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington, D.C. March 20, 2018. (DoD photo by EJ Hersom)

Regardless, adding a third and fourth low-yield warhead option to the U.S. arsenal is a solution in search of a problem. “I’m very comfortable today with [the] flexibility of our response options,” Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said in March 2017 as the 2018 NPR was getting underway. “Our plans now are very flexible.”62

The United States already possesses hundreds of low-yield warheads, including nuclear gravity bombs stationed in Europe in support of NATO, as part of the air-leg of the triad and plans to invest over $150 billion in then-year dollars in the coming decades to ensure these warheads can penetrate the most advanced air defenses. This investment includes the purchase of an upgraded low-yield B61 gravity bomb, a new fleet of stealthy air-launched cruise missiles armed with refurbished low-yield capable W80 warheads, a new fleet of stealthy strategic bombers (the B-21), and a new fleet of stealthy dual-capable F-35A fighter aircraft. If current and planned air-launched options cannot deter or respond to Russian limited nuclear use, why are taxpayers being asked to spend scores of billions of dollars on these systems?

Inexplicably, the NPR fails to cite an intelligence assessment demonstrating that Russia might believe the United States would be self-deterred from using the weapons in its current arsenal (including higher yield nuclear or conventional weapons) in response to a limited Russian nuclear attack. As John Gower, a retired rear admiral from the British Royal Navy, has written, the argument that high-yield nuclear weapons lack credibility as a deterrent against limited use, though seductive, is ultimately deceptive.63 “It is not necessary that an adversary must be 100 percent certain you will respond as you indicate,” he notes, “but the unacceptable nature of the damage he risks incurring means that he must be 100 percent certain you will not retaliate before he decides to break the taboo.

Current low-yield warheads: (deployed and non-deployed)

Warhead Number in U.S. stockpile
B61 (mod 3 and 4) 300
W80-1 528
Total existing U.S. low-yield warhead stockpile 828

New low-yield warheads proposed by Trump

Warhead Number to be built (estimated)
Low-yield Trident D5 24–48
New SLCM warhead 350
Total estimated new low-yield warheads 400

If Russian President Putin were to take the momentous decision to cross the nuclear threshold first—on a limited basis or otherwise—it would likely be because he perceives the survival of the Russian state to be at risk or he believes Russia has a greater stake in the conflict or crisis that precipitates such use, perhaps due to divisions among NATO allies. Contrary to the NPR, which stated that Russia might contemplate using nuclear weapons first at “lower levels of conflict,” Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in January 2019 that a Russian decision to use nuclear weapons first would be driven by “the threshold they think the Kremlin would be at risk.”64 Additional U.S. low-yield nuclear options are unlikely to be effective in the face of these motivations. In fact, what is more likely to convince Putin that he could get away with limited first use are statements by President Trump questioning the value of NATO and other U.S. alliances.

Other arguments made in support of the necessity of additional low-yield weapons also miss the mark. A low-yield SLBM is not necessary to promptly strike time-perishable targets. If military action has already started in the European theater and Russia uses a low-yield nuclear weapon to seek to end a conflict it believes NATO would win conventionally, it is likely that the United States would have had sufficient time to forward deploy forces, including conventional and nuclear fighters and bombers, to provide a prompt response.

The claim that a new SLCM is necessary to provide an assured theater strike option and serve as a hedge against Russian or Chinese advances in antisubmarine warfare capabilities is unconvincing. The United States is already planning to invest scores of billions of dollars in the B-21, LRSO, and F-35A to address the air defense challenge. A new SLCM would make it more difficult for an adversary to eliminate U.S. sea-based nuclear forces in the event of a major, unforeseen breakthrough in anti-submarine warfare capabilities. But ICBMs and bombers exist in part to guard against such a scenario. Meanwhile, the Navy is unlikely to be pleased with the additional operational and financial burdens that would come with re-nuclearizing the surface or attack submarine fleet. Arming attack submarines with nuclear SLCMs would also reduce the number of conventional Tomahawk SLCMs each submarine could carry. In other words, a new SLCM would be a costly hedge on a hedge.

Ultimately, attempting to mimic Russia by developing more low-yield options would play into Moscow’s hands, since it can match NATO in the nuclear sphere. The main deterrence challenge Russia poses to the alliance is not nuclear. That means the United States should continue to invest in maintaining its overall conventional edge, buttress defenses as needed on NATO’s eastern flank where Russia has local conventional superiority, and more effectively defend against and respond to Russia’s use of disinformation, propaganda, and cyber tools to undermine western democratic institutions.

Redundancy Within the Obama-Era Recapitalization Program

The nuclear recapitalization plan that the Trump administration inherited from the Obama administration already included excessive amounts of redundancy.

For example, the Defense Department argues that replacing the current ALCM with the LRSO will extend the range of strategic bombers, ensure bombers can penetrate enemy airspace as adversaries enhance and expand their air defense capabilities, and allow individual bombers to strike more than one target with nuclear weapons at once.

But it is important to remember that the United States first fielded a nuclear ALCM in the early 1980s at a time when the country did not have stealth bombers or advanced conventional cruise missiles. This is not the case today.

The range of America’s existing strategic bombers is being extended by increasingly advanced long-range conventionally-armed air-launched cruise missiles. The planned introduction of at least 100 B-21 bombers, which will be able to carry the upgraded low-yield B61-12 gravity bomb, conventionally armed cruise missiles such as the extended range Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM-ER), and electronic warfare capabilities for air defense suppression, will further enhance the range and flexibility of the bomber leg of the triad.65 Together these improvements will make the bomber leg much more formidable than it is today.

Still, some experts worry that attempting to drop a nuclear gravity bomb over a heavily defended target is too risky and might not succeed. They argue that if the United States ever used a nuclear weapon, the most prudent and least escalatory option would be to fire a nuclear-armed cruise missile from a safer standoff distance.

If this concern is to be believed, then the United States should buy the LRSO instead of the B61-12. But over $4.5 billion has already been sunk into the B61- 12 to date, or over half of the current projected cost of the program.

USS Virginia (SSN 774)

USS Virginia (SSN 774) cruises through the Bay of Naples in Italy Jan. 7, 2010. Virginia is on deployment in the U.S. 6th Fleet area of responsibility. (DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class William Pittman, U.S. Navy/Released)

Moreover, if the Air Force believes the stealth capabilities of the B-21 could be compromised soon after it is deployed, then it is reasonable to question the service’s strategy for buying the bomber in the first place. For its part, U.S. Strategic Command does not appear concerned about the long-term survivability of the B-21. As Gen. Hyten told Congress in July 2017, “It’s not the survivability of the bombers, it’s the ability of the bombers to access targets.”66 By this Hyten means that whereas bombers armed with the B61 can only attack one target at a time, the LRSO provides each bomber the ability to attack multiple targets at one time.

It is not surprising that military planners would want many different ways of attacking a target. But the weapons associated with the other two legs of the nuclear triad–SLBMs and ICBMs–can penetrate air defenses and strike targets anywhere on the planet with high confidence. The United States possesses more warheads for these missiles than does Russia and could upload hundreds of warheads to its deployed ballistic missiles and bombers. In addition, the Navy’s sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missile is also a highly capable and continually improving conventional standoff weapon, and it has an even longer range than the JASSM-ER.67

The sea-based leg of the triad is generally considered to be the most important leg due to the invulnerability of ballistic missile submarines underneath the ocean, the accuracy and promptness of SLBMs, and the fact that a single submarine, which currently can carry as many as 160 thermonuclear warheads, is capable of inflicting unacceptable damage on an adversary. Roughly 70 percent of U.S. accountable warheads under New START are fielded on Ohio-class submarines.

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)

An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic
missile (ICBM) is launched during an operational test
at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, September 5,
2016. The NPR calls for replacement of all three legs of
the nuclear triad, including fielding the Minuteman III
replacement, the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent,
beginning in fiscal year 2028. (Photo: U.S. Strategic Command)

ICBMs, however, do not provide unique nuclear strike capabilities not already provided by other legs of the strategic triad. For example, a 1993 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found “no operationally meaningful difference in time to target” between the ICBMs and SLBMs.68 Moreover, to use ICBMs against targets in China or North Korea, the missiles would have to overfly Russia. This targeting inflexibility problem greatly diminishes the utility of ICBMs outside a nuclear conflict with Russia, since overflying Russia to attack other states risks nuclear retaliation from Russia.

The main role of ICBMs today is to act as a target set —a “sponge”—that would require Russia to expend a large portion of its arsenal to try to eliminate them in the event of an all-out war, and as a hedge against an unforeseen problem with or vulnerability to the SLBM force. Though tensions between the United States and Russia have been on the rise over the past several years, the likelihood of a massive Russian surprise attack against the United States remains extremely low. Regardless, it is far from clear why maintaining 400 deployed ICBMs and purchasing a new missile with new capabilities, as opposed to continuing to rely on the existing Minuteman III missiles, is necessary to perform the sponge and hedge functions.

In addition to redundancy within the triad, the Obama administration also planned to continue the forward deployment of tactical B61 nuclear bombs in Europe, despite the fact that the military mission for which these weapons were originally intended— stopping a Soviet invasion of Western Europe because of inferior U.S. and NATO conventional forces—no longer exists. The Trump NPR augments the role of these weapons, and NATO followed suit at its July 2018 summit meeting in Brussels.69

When asked in 2010 if there is a military mission performed by U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe that cannot be performed by either U.S. strategic nuclear or conventional forces, Gen. James Cartwright, then vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, flatly said: “No.” In fact, it is highly unlikely that the weapons could be successfully used, thereby undermining their deterrent effect. According to former Air Force General Robertus C.N. Remkes, “any attempt to use the B-61 will be challenged by the visibility of the many actions required to prepare the weapon and the crews for such an attack. The intended target nation of such an attack under the current planning scenarios will likely have many hours and even days to prepare its defenses and complicate matters for NATO target planners.”70

Given their nearly non-existent military utility, the main rationale for keeping U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe is as a political symbol of the U.S. commitment to NATO, particularly to the newer members that border Russia.71 However, this justification is also weak. U.S. nuclear forces do provide assurance to NATO allies in Europe that the United States is prepared to respond by using these weapons in the event of a nuclear attack against the alliance. But the heavy lifting of the nuclear component of extended deterrence is done by central strategic forces based in the United States and under the oceans, not the estimated 150 forward-deployed tactical nuclear weapons stored in bunkers in five NATO countries in Europe.

Even then, nuclear weapons are just a small piece of a much larger assurance puzzle, the biggest pieces of which are rooted in other elements of U.S. power. A more rational approach would be to rely instead on the strategic nuclear forces of alliance members and enhance information sharing and consultations about these forces.72 A willingness on the part of the United States to remove its nuclear weapons from Europe could incentivize Russia to share more information about its non-strategic nuclear forces and consider limitations on them.73 At the very least, Russia would no longer be able to point to U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe as a reason to take no action on its nonstrategic nuclear weapons.

Whether one supports or opposes the current policy, the complete withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe over time by political and financial default can’t be ruled out. It remains to be seen whether all of the five NATO host nations will commit to spend the political capital and economic resources necessary to replace their aging dual-capable aircraft. Germany has notably yet to do so.74

Excess NNSA Infrastructure

The Trump NPR’s open-ended commitment to unleashing a nuclear weapon buildup whenever the United States wishes also lacks a compelling rationale.

For example, there is no need to rush to expand the U.S. capability to produce plutonium pits, the nuclear cores of warheads, since the NNSA can use pits from dismantled weapons if more are needed to sustain the arsenal. Approximately 15,000 excess pits and another 5,000 in strategic reserve are already stored at the Pantex Plant near Amarillo, TX.75 The Energy Department announced in 2006 that studies by Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos National Laboratories show the pits of most U.S. nuclear weapons “will have minimum lifetimes of at least 85 years,” which is about twice as long as previous official estimates.76 Plutonium pits in the existing stockpile now average around 40 years old. The Senate version of the fiscal year 2019 energy and water appropriations bill directed NNSA to submit an updated estimate of the “minimum and likely lifetimes for pits in current warheads and the feasibility of reusing pits in modified nuclear weapons.”77

Furthermore, neither the NPR nor the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan explain why it is necessary to develop new warheads for U.S. ballistic missiles. The final version of the energy and water bill signed by President Trump in September 2018 called on the NNSA to produce a report estimating the cost of a possible less expensive alternative to the current plan to replace the W78, such as a life extension program similar to that performed on the W76 SLBM warhead.78 The W76 life extension program, which will complete production at the end of fiscal year 2019, extends the life of the most prevalent warhead in the U.S. stockpile for 30 years at a cost of roughly $4 billion in then-year dollars.

The Pantex Plant

The Pantex Plant, near Amarillo, Texas, is the primary facility for the final assembly, dismantlement, and maintenance of
nuclear warheads in the United States. (Photo: National Nuclear Security Administration)

The subsequent NNSA report, which was delivered to Congress in December 2018, determined that a simpler life extension program for the W78 would cost about the same, roughly $8.5 to $14.5 billion in then-year dollars, as replacing the warhead with the W87-1 and not meet military requirements.79 But the agency did not detail how it arrived at this conclusion. The W76 life extension program refurbished far more warheads than a W78 refurbishment would and the two warheads are nearly the same age.

Nor does the NPR provide a reason for sustaining the high-yield B83-1 gravity bomb. If North Korea has built new hardened or deeply buried targets, it is far from clear why these targets cannot be held at risk by other higher-yield nuclear weapons, such as W88 warheads carried by SLBMs. Moreover, it is hard to imagine a scenario in which the benefits of detonating a megaton-class warhead on the Korean peninsula would outweigh the massive human casualty and environmental impacts.

As the costs and scope of the Obama administration’s plans to recapitalize the arsenal began to grow during the administration’s second term, numerous Pentagon and NNSA officials warned about the affordability and execution challenge they posed. “We’re looking at that big bow wave [of nuclear weapons spending] and wondering how the heck we’re going to pay for it,” Brian McKeon, former principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, said in October 2015. “[A]nd probably thanking our stars we won’t be here to have to answer the question.”80

The Trump NPR’s proposals to develop new nuclear capabilities and infrastructure will exacerbate the challenge. Withdrawal from the INF Treaty and the possible demise of New START with nothing to replace it could do the same. A reckoning is coming, the result of a massive disconnect between budgetary expectations and fiscal reality.81 The recapitalization project cannot be sustained without significant and sustained increases to defense spending—which are unlikely to be forthcoming—or cuts to other military priorities. And the White House, Pentagon, and NNSA are in denial about the challenge.

U.S. Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby

U.S. Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, gives a briefing and answers questions for the media on events within the Department of Defense, the Middle East and Africa during his weekly press conference at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., Oct. 3, 2014. (DoD photo by Glenn Fawcett/Released)

The risk of trying to recapitalize nearly the entire arsenal at roughly the same time is that less money will be spent on each individual modernization program, thereby increasing the time and cost required to complete each one. The absence of reasonable planning will also result in more suboptimal choices when hard decisions become inevitable.82 The current path is an irrational and costly recipe for diverting funds from other defense programs or buying fewer new nuclear delivery systems and reducing the size of the arsenal. The longer military and political leaders continue to deny this reality, the worse off America’s nuclear deterrent and armed forces will be.

The Third Wave of Nuclear Modernization: Unique Challenges

Compared to the first two waves of nuclear modernization spending, several factors are poised to make the third recapitalization effort more challenging.

Whereas the first two waves lasted roughly a decade, the third appears likely to need twice as long to complete. This is due in part to the fact that it now takes longer to buy new weapons systems than it did in the past. Today’s systems are typically more complex, and the Pentagon purchasing bureaucracy is more risk-averse.83

In addition, the rising cost of the nuclear mission during the third modernization wave is scheduled to overlap with large increases in projected spending to replace and augment conventional forces.84 In addition to continuing with plans to modernize legacy conventional weapons systems, the Trump administration is also pursuing new initiatives to maintain America’s dominant military position against Russia and China. The administration wants to accelerate the development of hypersonic weapons, new types of missile defenses, and a new military department focused on space.85 Each of the services are also calling for more force structure. The Navy wants more ships, the Air Force wants more aircraft squadrons, and the Army wants more troops.86

While Congress approved a major increase to defense spending in fiscal year 2018 relative to the previous year, the Pentagon’s own projected spending between fiscal year 2019 and 2024 merely keeps pace with inflation, which means real defense spending would flatline, not increase, in the years ahead.87 Replacing the U.S. nuclear arsenal is not a one-, two-, or three-year project. It will require at least 15 years of sustained increased spending. The budget requirements have been steadily increasing in recent years, but the biggest bills are slated to arrive starting in the early 2020s. According to the report of the National Defense Strategy Commission published in November 2018, which assessed the Pentagon’s 2018 National Defense Strategy, “available resources are…insufficient to undertake essential nuclear and conventional modernization simultaneously and rectify accumulated readiness shortfalls.”88

The Pentagon proposes to find savings by shedding weapons that do not contribute to countering Russia and China and through a process of finding efficiencies.89 But it remains to be seen how big the funding shifts to counter Moscow and Beijing will be—to say nothing about whether Congress will approve cuts to legacy weapons systems ill-suited to great power conflict. Past efficiency proposals have rarely been realized, been too small, or only been accomplished after an upfront investment first.90

To make matters worse, defense spending during the Cold War was under less pressure in general than it is today. The Pentagon now has to contend with new internal budgetary challenges such as rapidly rising health care and compensation costs. According to one recent analysis, “just maintaining the size of the force will likely necessitate two to three percent growth above inflation in” the military personnel and operations and maintenance budget accounts.91

Most importantly, the overall federal fiscal outlook is grim. The latest CBO estimates project that “federal debt held by the public is projected to grow steadily, reaching 93 percent of GDP in 2029 (its highest level since just after World War II) and about 150 percent of GDP in 2049—far higher than it has ever been.”92 This will increase pressure to slash discretionary spending, including on defense.

“Our continued plunge into debt is unsustainable and represents a dire future threat to our economy and our national security,” cautioned Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats in March 2018.93

Representative Adam Smith

Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) questions witnesses during a hearing in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill April 12, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, congressional caps on discretionary spending return in fiscal years 2020 and 2021.94 Without amendment, these could force large reductions in national defense spending, relative to the total sought for those two years by the Trump administration.

Additionally, future bipartisan political support for increasing nuclear weapons spending is fragile and far from assured in the future, especially with respect to the new weapons proposed by the Trump NPR. Now in the majority in the House following the 2018 midterm elections, Democrats are likely to conduct more aggressive oversight of the administration’s nuclear policy and spending proposals. Rep. Adam Smith (DWA), the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has repeatedly made it clear that he believes the United States has more nuclear weapons than it needs for its security and can realistically afford.95 The power of the purse in the House provides Democrats with greater leverage to push back against the Trump administration’s controversial nuclear weapons policy and spending goals.96

Finally, support for replacing the nuclear arsenal inside the Pentagon could wane. In recent years, both uniformed and civilian defense officials have repeatedly stated that the nuclear modernization plan is the number-one priority among all other competing modernization necessities.97

However, such support is not assured moving forward. Over the past 18 months, the Pentagon has rapidly reoriented its thinking toward long-term competition with Russia and China, thereby elevating the relevance of conventional modernization.98

At the end of the second modernization wave, budget and political pressures, as well as changes in the strategic environment following the collapse of the Soviet Union, led to significant reductions in the number of new nuclear delivery systems that were ultimately purchased. For example, the Air Force initially sought 244 B-1 bombers but ended up buying only 100, and in 1993, the B-1 stopped participating in the nuclear mission altogether. Similarly, the planned purchase of 132 B-2 bombers was curtailed to 21. And despite plans to build 24 Ohio-class submarines, the Navy ended production after building 18 boats, four of which were subsequently converted to a conventional role.99

Disarmament by Default

The Trump NPR acknowledges that the cost to upgrade the nuclear arsenal is “substantial,” but claims the bill is affordable because the high point of spending on nuclear weapons will be no more than 6.4 percent of Pentagon spending, a lower percentage than during the Cold War. Or as former Defense Secretary James Mattis frequently stated, “We can afford survival.” And yet these statements obfuscate the severity of the nuclear budget problem facing the U.S. government.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis meets with Canada’s Minister of Defense Harjit Sajjan Feb. 6, 2017, at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. (DOD photo by Air Force Tech. Sgt. Brigitte N. Brantley)

The NPR estimate curiously does not include any of the major costs NNSA must incur to upgrade nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure. Despite significant budget increases over the past two years, the long-term viability of NNSA’s plans is highly questionable. According to a GAO report issued in April 2017, the NNSA plans Trump inherited from Obama “do not align with its budget, raising affordability concerns.”100 Former NNSA administrator Frank Klotz said in a January 2018 interview prior to the release of the Trump NPR that the agency was already “working pretty much at full capacity.”101 And former NNSA Deputy Administrator Madelyn Creedon has noted: “Historically, neither Congress, the Department of Defense, nor the Office of Management and Budget have shown an inclination to fully fund the NNSA program of record, let alone the new initiatives such as those outlined in the 2018 NPR report.”102

The NPR estimate also does not appear to account for the potential for significant cost growth. Unanticipated cost growth is a feature of most Pentagon acquisition programs, but because the key nuclear modernization programs are so large, variances in cost estimation can have especially significant effects.103 Nor does the review address the additional billions of dollars that would be needed in the event of a decision to keep production lines open to build additional nuclear missiles and bombers or establish additional lines to develop ground-launched, intermediate-range cruise and ballistic missiles in a world without any negotiated constraints on Russian strategic nuclear and intermediate-range forces.

Regardless, six percent of a budget as large as the Pentagon’s is still an enormous amount of money. By comparison, the March 2013 congressionally-mandated sequester that reduced national defense spending (minus exempt military personnel accounts) was seven percent. Military leaders and lawmakers repeatedly described the sequester as devastating.104

The bottom line is that the current recapitalization plans are unlikely to be executable. The Trump NPR offers no plan to pay for the rising price tag to replace the triad and upgrade conventional forces. As Gen. Robert Kehler, the former head of U.S. Strategic Command, bluntly put it in November 2017, “I am skeptical that we are capable of remaining committed to a long-term project like this without basically messing with it and screwing it up.”105

Indeed, a possible, if not likely, outcome is that the current plans will collapse under their own weight, forcing reductions in U.S. nuclear forces based on fiscal and political pressure rather than on strategic decisions—but not before hundreds of millions or even billions of taxpayer dollars are squandered.

In addition to being unnecessary and unsustainable, the policies and spending plans outlined in the Trump NPR and pursued by the administration since could increase the risks of unintended escalation and miscalculation, undermine strategic stability, accelerate global nuclear competition, and threaten U.S. conventional advantages.

A New Technological Arms Race

Though the Cold War-era numerical nuclear arms race is over, the U.S. nuclear recapitalization program is part of what some experts have described as “a dynamic technological nuclear arms race.”106 Not only is this new arms race different than its Cold War predecessor, it could also be more dangerous.107 Despite significant reductions in the overall number of nuclear weapons, all of the world’s nine nuclear-armed states are, to varying degrees or another, devoting vast sums of money to replace, upgrade and, in some cases, expand the size and lethality of their nuclear arsenals and delivery systems. Past, present, and planned U.S. efforts to sustain and replace the existing arsenal have increased and will continue to increase the military capability of the weapons across key attributes such as stealth, accuracy, range, speed, hard-target kill, and yield flexibility.108 The more capable weapons being produced as a result of this new arms race, particularly more accurate and stealthier lower-yield weapons, could lower the threshold for nuclear use in a crisis or war.

President Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the Federal Assembly at Moscow’s Manezh exhibition centre on March 01, 2018. (Photo: YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images)

These developments are inconsistent with the obligations of the five declared nuclear-weapon states under the NPT’s Article VI requirement to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.” The 2009 final report of the bipartisan Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States observed that other “nations may not show the nuclear restraint the United States desires or support nonproliferation efforts if the nuclear weapon states take no further agreed steps to decrease their reliance on nuclear arms.”109

To complicate matters further, technological change and advances in conventional weapons and associated doctrines for their use pose new escalatory risks, including to the nuclear level, and threaten to erode nuclear stability.110 Russia and the United States, as well as China, are all seeking to apply such technologies as artificial intelligence, robotics, boost glide vehicles, and cyber, among others, to offensive military use. In addition, Washington and Moscow are expanding their missile defenses, an issue which helped to stymie reductions below New START levels during the Obama administration, and pursuing next generation technologies to improve their defensive capabilities. Beijing is also developing a missile defense architecture. All three countries have demonstrated anti-satellite capabilities.

These advances will likely put new strains on strategic and crisis stability, by reducing decision and warning time, increasing the odds of arms racing in the development of these weapons and capabilities to counter them, and reducing the likelihood of further nuclear arms reduction agreements. Indeed, Russia has attributed its pursuit of several new and exotic strategic weapons systems, including nuclear-armed hypersonic glide vehicles, globe-circling, nuclear-powered cruise missiles, and very long-range nuclear torpedoes, to concerns about the open-ended and unconstrained development of U.S. missiles defenses. Russia claims that these systems wouldn’t be limited by New START because they don’t use ballistic flight trajectories.

A Cold Shoulder to Arms Control

Unlike the Obama administration, the Trump administrations plan to rebuild the arsenal is not accompanied by a proactive arms control and nonproliferation agenda aimed at reducing nuclear weapons risks.

Arms control only gets a brief mention at the end of the 2018 NPR and it is a generally dismissive mention at that. The document passively states that “the United States will remain receptive to future arms control negotiations if conditions permit” and to negotiations that “advance U.S. and allied security, are verifiable, and enforceable.” No previous nuclear arms control agreement has included enforcement measures. The review offers next to nothing in the way of proposals to address proliferation challenges, ameliorate emerging challenges to strategic stability, and pursue disarmament steps. In addition, the review expresses opposition to U.S. ratification of the CTBT even though the United States decided more than a quarter-century ago to halt nuclear explosive testing and there is no technical need to resume nuclear testing. No reason or justification for rejecting the goal of CTBT ratification is provided.

Since the release of the NPR and the arrival of arms control skeptic John Bolton as National Security Advisor, the Trump administration has withdrawn from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the Iran nuclear deal), plans to withdraw from the INF Treaty, and, so far, failed to take Russia up on its offer to begin discussions about an extension of New START and resume a regular dialogue on strategic stability.111

Prior to joining the Trump administration, Bolton called New START “an execrable deal” and urged Trump to abrogate the agreement.112 Administration officials have stated that they have plenty of time to make a decision on whether to extend the treaty and will take several issues into account.113 These include Russia’s manufacturing of concerns about U.S. compliance with the treaty, whether Russia would agree to limit the new strategic weapons systems it is developing, and Russia’s compliance with other arms control agreements.114

While New START appears to be in serious jeopardy, the U.S. military and intelligence community continue to stress the national security benefits of the treaty. Without the INF Treaty and New START, there would be no legally-binding, verifiable limits on the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals for the first time since 1972. The collapse of the U.S.-Russian arms control architecture would mean Russian nuclear forces would be unconstrained, our insight into Russian nuclear force structure and modernization would be curtailed, and the incentives to engage in costly nuclear competition would be magnified.

National Security Advisor John Bolton, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, President Donald J. Trump, and Vice President Mike Pence

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo poses for a photo with (L to R) National Security Advisor of the United States John
Bolton, President Donald J. Trump, and Vice President Mike Pence before his swearing-in ceremony at the U.S. Department
of State in Washington, D.C., on May 2, 2018. (Photo: State Department/Public Domain)

The Dangers of New Low-Yield Weapons

In addition to being unnecessary, new low-yield weapons could increase the risk of nuclear conflict.

As former White House official Lynn Rusten notes, “new low-yield nuclear weapons would not ‘raise the bar’ for nuclear use; they would lower it because they increase the contingencies and planning for use and fuel the illusion that a use of nuclear weapons could remain limited and not escalate into a large-scale nuclear exchange.”115 The belief that a nuclear conflict could be controlled is dangerous thinking. The fog of war is thick, the fog of nuclear war would be even thicker. Large or small, nuclear weapons are extremely blunt instruments, both in terms of their destructive power and the taboo associated with the fact they have not been used in 70 years.

Placing greater emphasis on low-yield options could also have the perverse effect of convincing Russia that it could get away with limited nuclear use without putting its survival at risk. According to Creedon, who served during the Obama administration as assistant secretary of defense for global strategic affairs before joining NNSA, “Signaling that a low-yield weapon would be used to respond to low-yield weapon use might persuade Russia to lower the nuclear threshold, thus risking nuclear war-fighting.”116

In the case of the proposed low-yield SLBM warhead, given that U.S. strategic submarines currently carry SLBMs armed with higher-yield warheads, how would Russia know (or discriminate) that an incoming missile armed with a low-yield warhead was not actually armed with high-yield warheads? How would it know that such limited use would not be the leading edge of a massive attack, especially if the targets would not be battlefield targets but targets of high-value to the Russian leadership, as some have claimed? The answer is that Russia would not know, thereby increasing the risks of unintended escalation.

Firing a single low-yield warhead from a strategic submarine could also undermine the survivability of the most important leg of the U.S. nuclear triad, which would be at a premium in the event of a nuclear conflict. As Creedon notes:

“The sea leg of the nuclear triad is the most survivable leg in large part due to the ability of Ohio-class submarines to be invisible in the open ocean. Launching a high-value D5 missile from a ballistic missile submarine will most likely give away its location. China and Russia are expanding their ability to detect a missile launch and will be able to locate a U.S. submarine if it launches a D5 missile. Is having a low-yield warhead worth the risk of exposing the location of a ballistic missile submarine at sea?”117

Former Department of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz with Madelyn Creedon former principal deputy administrator for NNSA

Former Department of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz with
Madelyn Creedon former principal deputy administrator
for NNSA, August 11, 2014. (Photo: DoE photographer, Ken Shipp)

The United States has never before armed ballistic missiles with a low-yield warhead. The proposal to do so in the NPR brings into play new scenarios for how the United States might use prompt-strike, long-range SLBMs, including against battlefield targets, which require further examination and analysis. It also could prompt Russia and China to deploy low-yield warheads on ballistic missiles, an outcome the United States should want to avoid.

During the George W. Bush administration bipartisan majorities in Congress killed administration proposals to develop a variable yield “robust nuclear earth penetrator” and put a conventional warhead on Trident missiles citing concerns about need, usability, and unintended escalation.118 These same concerns also apply to the low-yield SLBM and SLCM proposals.

What makes the Trump administration’s proposal to develop additional low-yield nuclear weapons even more concerning is that the 2018 NPR envisions a greater role for nuclear weapons against a wider range of threats. Unlike the previous administration, the Trump administration defines the “extreme circumstances” under which the United States would consider nuclear use more broadly to include “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks” against “U.S., allied or partner civilian population or infrastructure, and attacks on U.S. or allied nuclear forces, their command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities.” Threatening nuclear retaliation to counter new kinds of asymmetric attacks would lower the threshold for nuclear use, increase the risks of miscalculation, and make it easier for other countries to justify excessive roles for nuclear weapons in their policies. Such threats are also unlikely to be proportional and therefore would be difficult to make credible.

Nuclear Cruise Missiles, ICBMs, and the Risks of Accidental Nuclear War

The plans to augment the role of nuclear-armed cruise missiles and replace the ICBM force raise additional stability concerns.

Proponents of the LRSO claim that it would simply sustain an existing capability—not expand that capability. In reality, the LRSO is likely to have greatly enhanced capabilities relative to its predecessor, and will be mated to the B-52, B-2 and B-21 bombers, whereas the current ALCM can only be delivered by the B-52.119 U.S. nuclear stealth bombers have never carried stealthy nuclear cruise missiles.

The LRSO raises serious questions about stability that have yet to be fully explored. Some sources claim that the Pentagon is envisioning potential uses for the new cruise missile that go beyond “the original mission space” of the ALCM, namely in limited nuclear war-fighting contingencies involving China.120 Furthermore, as stressed by William Perry, President Bill Clinton’s defense secretary, and Andrew Weber, a former assistant secretary of defense, “cruise missiles are a uniquely destabilizing type of weapon” due to the fact that “they can be launched without warning and come in both nuclear and conventional variants.”121

Former Secretary of Defense William Perry

Former Secretary of Defense William Perry speaks at the Arms Control Association’s press briefing on the growing risks posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile capabilities, December 5, 2017. (Photo: Allen Harris/Arms Control Association)

Deploying nuclear-armed SLCMs on U.S. surface ships or attack submarines would pose similar problems. Currently the Navy only fields conventional Tomahawk SLCMs. By adding nuclear SLCMs to the mix, any use of conventional Tomahawks, especially in a conflict with another nuclear-armed state, would inherently send a nuclear signal. This would diminish the utility of the missiles and boats that carry them in a conventional conflict and increase the potential for miscalculation.

The NPR claims that the administration would consider forgoing the development of a new nuclear SLCM, which would take nearly a decade to field, if Moscow “returns to compliance with its arms control obligations, reduces its non-strategic nuclear arsenal, and corrects its other destabilizing behaviors.” This requirement is so sweeping that it lacks any realistic negotiating value. Moreover, instead of compelling a change in Russian behavior for the better, a new SLCM could prompt Russia (and China) to build more intermediate-range nuclear weapons systems, including weapons on land in violation of the INF Treaty. As Rusten points out:

“Russian investments in new intermediate-range strike capabilities appear driven by perceptions of vulnerability to U.S. and NATO prompt-strike and missile defense capabilities. Compounding Russia’s perceived vulnerabilities will prompt more countermeasures, not submission. By what logic should the United States fuel an incipient arms race by pursuing nuclear weapons systems it does not need?”122

The vulnerability and risks of accidental launch associated with U.S. land-based ICBMs have long been debated. Given their vulnerability in fixed though hardened silos, the United States retains plans to launch ICBMs under attack before adversary missiles could destroy them to guard against a “disarming” first strike. This means the president might have only three to six minutes to decide how to respond after an incoming attack is detected. Though the risk of accidental launch is low, early warning systems have in the past experienced false alarms and some experts are increasingly worried that a third-party cyber-attack could trigger a false alarm.123

The Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine USS Tennessee (SSBN 734)

The Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine USS Tennessee returns to its homeport at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Ga., following a routine patrol mission on October 17, 2018. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

Meanwhile, the Air Force is planning to replace the Minuteman III ICBM with a more capable and accurate missile to overcome advancing adversary defensive measures. Gen. Robin Rand, the former commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, told Congress in 2016 that:

“Improved ICBM capability and accuracy has the benefit of providing ICBM strike planners the weaponeering options of either achieving a higher probability of effect on a given target; using fewer warheads per target while still achieving the desired level of effect and thus allowing more targets covered; or provide opportunities to potentially reduce yield size while still achieving the desired level of effect.”124

This suggests the United States is seeking to improve the counterforce warfighting capabilities of the ICBM force.

Supporters of retaining and recapitalizing the ICBM leg of the triad argue that eliminating ICBMs would drastically reduce the number of U.S. targets an adversary would need to destroy in a disarming first strike from over 500 to less than ten.125 While the United States would still retain SSBNs at sea in the event of such an attack, ICBM advocates claim that it would be unwise to rely on the invulnerability of submarines in perpetuity given advances in possible detection technologies.

But some former government officials, military leaders, and prominent experts call for eliminating ICBMs due to their lack of a unique mission and the risk they could trigger an accidental nuclear war. These voices include Perry and Gen. Cartwright. “As we make decisions about which weapons to buy, we should use this simple rule,” they wrote in a November 2017 op-ed advocating the elimination of ICBMs and ALCMs. “If a nuclear weapon increases the risk of accidental war and is not needed to deter an intentional attack, we should not build it.”126

Eliminating ICBMs would also remove the targets for a large portion of Russian ICBMs. As strategist Thomas Schelling put it in 1987:

“If we unilaterally dismantled our land-based missiles, we would instantly deprive a large part of the Soviet land-based missile force for its raison d’être. It might look to them as if they had much less to preempt. They actually would not, because the U.S. missiles they might have preempted were redundant in the first place. …So if we cannot dismantle their land-based missiles by negotiation, we may gain a lot by dismantling their targets instead.”127

Other skeptics of the value of ICBMs note that even if ICBMs are retained, keeping a launch-under-attack policy is unnecessary and dangerous.128 Given the size, accuracy, and diversity of U.S. forces, the remaining nuclear force would be more than sufficient to deliver a devastating blow to any nuclear aggressor. The survivability of the U.S. system and sea-based leg of the triad means that U.S. leaders have time to consider how to respond to even a massive nuclear attack. No U.S. leader should be put in a situation that could lead to the use of nuclear weapons in a matter of minutes based on false information, however small the risk.

The Risks of New Warheads

NNSA’s plans to develop new ballistic missile warheads has prompted concerns about compromising confidence in the reliability of the arsenal. The original plan for the IW-1 proposed using parts from two different existing warheads that have never been used together. A newly built W78 warhead, even if it is not interoperable, could introduce unwelcome doubts about reliability into an otherwise well-tested and reliable stockpile.129

In addition, the NNSA’s plans to expand the infrastructure for plutonium pit production could raise significant safety and environmental problems. Safety problems at Los Alamos forced the lab to stop production of plutonium pits from 2013 to 2016. Significant safety lapses in the plutonium operations at Savannah River also have been documented in recent internal government reports, according to a 2018 report by the Center for Public Integrity.130

Damaging Opportunity Costs

Prioritizing an excessive nuclear improvement program could compromise investments in conventional capabilities and other critical national security programs. In this context it is useful to compare the looming spending binge on nuclear delivery systems and their supporting infrastructure to overall Pentagon acquisition spending, as these are the areas of the budget where dollars are likely to be most directly in competition. The CBO estimated in 2017 that by the early 2030s, spending on nuclear weapons would peak at a mammoth 15 percent of the Pentagon’s total acquisition costs in the early 2030s, more than triple the current share.131

At a service level, the opportunity costs are particularly stark. The Navy has repeatedly warned that the projected $128 billion cost to develop and purchase 12 new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarines will devastate its shipbuilding budget.132 Similarly, the Air Force’s new ICBM program will compete with other service priorities, such as the F-35 and new tanker programs.

At the NNSA, increased spending in recent years on warhead life extension programs has led to cutbacks in funding for critical stockpile surveillance work and the Stockpile Stewardship Program, which assesses and certifies the reliability of the stockpile in the absence of nuclear testing, as well as the agency’s efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism and proliferation.133

Every dollar Washington spends to maintain a bloated nuclear arsenal is a dollar that cannot be spent on conventional military capabilities more relevant to countering Russia and China and assuring U.S. allies. It is not in the U.S. interest to engage in a tit-for-tat race with the Russians to rebuild an excessively large nuclear force, particularly if it comes at the expense of needed conventional improvements, especially programs to maintain military readiness and a technological edge with regard to Russia and China.



  1. Kingston Reif and Kelsey Davenport, “Trump’s Threat to Nuclear Order,” War on the Rocks, October 12, 2017. Located at: https:// warontherocks.com/2017/10/trumps-threat-to-nuclear-order/.

Unnecessary Excess:

  1. “Factsheet: Nuclear Weapons: Who Has What at a Glance,” Arms Control Association, last updated June 2018. Located at: https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/Nuclearweaponswhohaswhat.
  2. Kingston Reif, “No Arms Control Advances in U.S.-Russian Talks,” Arms Control Today, September 2018. Located at: https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2018-09/news/arms-control-advances-us-russiantalks.
  3. Hans M. Kristensen & Robert S. Norris, “Russian nuclear forces,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 4, 2018. Located at: https:// thebulletin.org/2018/05/russian-nuclear-forces-2018/.
  4. Kingston Reif and Victor Mizin, “A Two-Pronged Approach to Revitalizing U.S.-Russia Arms Control,” The Deep Cuts Commission, July 2017. Located at: http://deepcuts.org/publications/workingpapers/#c1951.
  5. Bruce Blair with Jessica Sleight and Emma Claire Foley, “The End of Nuclear Warfighting: Moving to a Deterrence-Only Posture,” Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University, September 2018. Located: https://www.globalzero.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/anprExecSummary.pdf.
  6. Robin Emmott, “Trump’s Portrayal of NATO in crisis carries risks for alliance,” Reuters, July 13, 2018. Located at: https://www.reuters.com/ article/us-nato-trump-analysis/trumps-portrayal-of-nato-in-crisis-carriesrisks-for-alliance-idUSKBN1K3286.
  7. Jon Wolfsthal, “America Can’t Fix Its Problems With New Nukes,” Foreign Policy, June 6, 2017. Located at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/06/06/america-cant-fix-its-problems-with-new-nukes/.
  8. Kristin Ven Bruusgaard, “Here’s Why U.S. Tactical Nukes Are a Bad Idea,” The National Interest, December 10, 2018, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/heres-why-us-tactical-nukes-are-bad-idea-38372.
  9. Gen. John Hyten, “Military Reporters and Editors Association Conference – Keynote Speech,” March 31, 2017. Located at: https://www.stratcom.mil/Media/Speeches/Article/1153029/military-reporters-andeditors-association-conference-keynote-speech/.
  10. John Gower, “The Dangerous Illogic of Twenty-First-Century Deterrence Through Planning for Nuclear Warfighting,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 6, 2018. Located at: https:// carnegieendowment.org/2018/03/06/dangerous-illogic-of-twentyfirst-century-deterrence-through-planning-for-nuclear-warfightingpub-75718.
  11. U.S. Congress, Senate, Select Committee on Intelligence, “Worldwide Threats,” January 29, 2019. Located at: https://www.intelligence.senate.gov/hearings/open-hearing-worldwide-threats.
  12. The Defense Department has begun development of an “extreme range” version of the JASSM that would have an even longer range than the JASSM-ER. See John Tirpak. “Lockheed Martin Developing “ExtremeRange” JASSM Variant,” Air Force Magazine, September 13, 2018. Located at: http://www.airforcemag.com/Features/Pages/2018/September%20 2018/Lockheed-Martin-Developing-Extreme-Range-JASSM-Variant.aspx.
  13. U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Armed Services, “United States Strategic Command Programs: Hearing before the Senate Committee on Armed Services,” April 4, 2017. Located at: https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/hearings/17-04-04-united-states-strategic-commandprograms.
  14. David Hambling, “Tomahawk Missiles Will Get Twice as Deadly By Blowing Up Their Own Fuel,” Popular Mechanics, January 15, 2016. Located at: https://www.popularmechanics.com/military/weapons/news/ a18994/tomahawk-missiles-fuel-air-explosion/.
  15. U.S. Government Accountability Office, “The U.S. Nuclear Triad: GAO’S Evaluation of the Strategic Modernization Program,” June 1993. Located at: https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO/T-PEMD-93-5.
  16. Monica Montgomery, “NATO Presses Stand on Nuclear Weapons,” Arms Control Today, September 2018. Located at: https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2018-09/news/nato-presses-stand-nuclear-weapons.
  17. Steve Andreasen and Isabelle Williams, “Options for NATO Nuclear Sharing Arrangements,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, 2011. Located at: https://www.nti.org/media/pdfs/NTI_Framework_full_report.pdf?_=1322694001?_=1322694001.
  18. Kingston Reif, “U.S. Nukes in Europe Are Useless,” Real Clear Defense, September 4, 2014, https://www.realcleardefense.com/ articles/2014/09/05/us_nukes_in_europe_are_useless_107414.html.
  19. Steve Andreasen, “Rethinking NATO’s Tactical Nuclear Weapons,” Survival, October/November 2017. Located at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00396338.2017.1375225.
  20. James Doyle, “Better Ways to Modernise the U.S. Nuclear Arsenal,” Survival, August/September 2016. Located at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00396338.2016.1207946.
  21. Bojan Pancevski, “In Germany, a Cold War Deal to Host U.S. Nuclear Weapons Is Now in Question,” The Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2019. Located at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/in-germany-anger-at-trumpthrows-cold-war-nuclear-pact-into-question-11549976449.
  22. “Groups Release Key DOE Documents on Expanded Plutonium Pit Production, DOE Nuclear Weapons Plan Not Supported by Recent Congressional Actions,” Nuclear Watch New Mexico, May 31, 2018. Located at: https://nukewatch.org/pressreleases/PR-Pit-ProductionDocs-5-31-18.pdf.
  23. James Sterngold, “Doubts cast on need for new nukes / Study finds plutonium may last twice as long as expected,” SF Gate, November 15, 2006. Located at https://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Doubts-cast-onneed-for-new-nukes-Study-finds-2466709.php.
  24. U.S. Congress, Senate, “Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill, 2019,” May 24, 2018. Located at: https://www.congress.gov/115/crpt/srpt258/CRPT-115srpt258.pdf.
  25. U.S. Congress. “The Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2019.” September 21, 2018. Located at: https://www.congress.gov/115/bills/hr5895/BILLS-115hr5895enr.pdf.
  26. Cohen, “NNSA: New GBSD Warhead Plan Costs Slightly More Than Refurbished Option.”

Unsustainable Excess:

  1. Aaron Mehta, “Is the Pentagon’s Budget About To Be Nuked?” Defense News, February 5, 2016. Located at: https://www.defensenews.com/2016/02/05/is-the-pentagon-s-budget-about-to-be-nuked/.
  2. Kingston Reif and Mackenzie Eaglen, “The Ticking Nuclear Budget Time Bomb,” War on the Rocks, October 25, 2018. Located at: https:// warontherocks.com/2018/10/the-ticking-nuclear-budget-time-bomb/.
  3. Rick Berger, “How much will America spend on nukes in the next decade?” American Enterprise Institute, January 25, 2019. Located at: https://www.aei.org/publication/how-much-will-america-spend-onnukes-in-the-next-decade/.
  4. Reif and Eaglen, “The Ticking Nuclear Budget Time Bomb.”
  5. Todd Harrison, “Defense Modernization Plans Through the 2020s: Addressing the Bow Wave,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, January 2016. Located at: https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/legacy_files/files/publication/160126_Harrison_ DefenseModernization_Web.pdf.
  6. Aaron Mehta, “3 thoughts on hypersonic weapons from the Pentagon’s technology chief,” Defense News, July 16, 2018. Located at: https://www.defensenews.com/air/2018/07/16/3-thoughts-onhypersonic-weapons-from-the-pentagons-technology-chief/; Paul Sonne, “Pentagon looks to adjust missile defense policy to include threats from Russia, China,” The Washington Post, March 2, 2018. Located at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/ pentagon-looks-to-adjust-missile-defense-policy-to-include-threats-fromrussia-china/2018/03/01/2358ae22-1be5-11e8-8a2c-1a6665f59e95_story.html?utm_term=.29f3ef004a8d; “U.S. Space Force estimated to cost $13 billion in first five years: memo,” Reuters, September 17, 2018. Located at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-military-space/us-space-forceestimated-to-cost-13-billion-in-first-five-years-memo-idUSKCN1LX2GZ.
  7. David B. Larter, “US Navy to add 46 ships in five years, but 355 ships won’t come for a long time,” Defense News, February 12, 2018. Located at: https://www.defensenews.com/smr/federal-budget/2018/02/13/ us-navy-to-add-46-ships-in-five-years-but-355-ships-is-well-over-thehorizon/; Stephen Losey, “Air Force calls for 74 more squadrons to prepare for possibility of war against major power,” Air Force Times, September 17, 2018. Located at: https://www.airforcetimes.com/news/ your-air-force/2018/09/17/air-force-calls-for-74-more-squadrons-toprepare-for-possibility-of-war-against-major-power/; Michelle Tan, “Chief: ‘The Army needs to get bigger,” Army Times, October 8, 2017. Located at: https://www.armytimes.com/news/your-army/2017/10/09/ chief-the-army-needs-to-get-bigger/.
  8. Mackenzie Eaglen, “Defense budget peaks in 2019, underfunding the National Defense Strategy,” American Enterprise Institute, May 17, 2018. Located at: https://www.aei.org/publication/defense-budget-peaksin-2019-underfunding-the-national-defense-strategy/.
  9. National Defense Strategy Commission, Providing for the Common Defense, United States Institute of Peace, November 13, 2018. Located at: http://usip.org/publications/2018/11/providing-common-defense.
  10. Todd Harrison and Seamus P. Daniels, “Analysis of the FY 2019 Defense Budget,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, September 2018. Located at: https://www.csis.org/analysis/analysis-fy2019-defense-budget.
  11. Reif and Eaglen, “The Ticking Nuclear Budget Time Bomb.”
  12. Harrison and Daniels, “Analysis of the FY 2019 Defense Budget.”
  13. U.S. Congressional Budget Office, “The Budget and Economic Outlook: 2019 to 2029,” January 2019. Located at: https://www.cbo.gov/ system/files?file=2019-01/54918-Outlook.pdf.
  14. Josh Gerstein, “Intelligence official warns Trump administration on national debt,” Politico, February 13, 2018. Located at: https:// www.politico.com/story/2018/02/13/trump-national-debt-intelligenceofficials-407255.
  15. Brendan W. McGarry, “The Defense Budget and the Budget Control Act: Frequently Asked Questions,” Congressional Research Service, July 13, 2018. Located at: https://fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/R44039.pdf.
  16. “‘Nothing Endangers the Planet More Than Nuclear Weapons,’” Kingston Reif interview with Rep. Adam Smith, Arms Control Today, December 2018. Located at: https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2018-12/ features/nothing-endangers-planet-more-nuclear-weapons.
  17. Kingston Reif, “Smith, Inhofe Clash on Nukes,” Arms Control Today, January/February 2019. Located at: https://www.armscontrol.org/ act/2019-01/news/smith-inhofe-clash-nukes.
  18. Aaron Mehta, “Mattis Enthusiastic on ICBMs, Tepid on Nuclear Cruise Missile,” Defense News, January 12, 2017. Located at: https://www.defensenews.com/space/2017/01/12/mattis-enthusiastic-on-icbms-tepidon-nuclear-cruise-missile/.
  19. Reif and Eaglen, “The Ticking Nuclear Budget Time Bomb.”
  20. Lawrence Korb and Adam Mount. “Setting Priorities for Nuclear Modernization,” Center for American Progress, February 2016. Located at: https://cdn.americanprogress.org/wp-content/ uploads/2016/02/03053017/NuclearArsenal2.pdf.
  21. U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Department of Energy: Continued Actions Needed to Modernize Nuclear Infrastructure and Address Management Challenges,” February 6, 2018. Located at: https:// www.gao.gov/products/GAO-18-374T.
  22. Aaron Mehta, “As Trump seeks new nuke options, weapons agency head warns of capacity overload,” Defense News, January 23, 2018. Located at: https://www.defensenews.com/space/2018/01/23/as-trumpseeks-new-nuke-options-weapons-agency-head-warns-of-capacityoverload/.
  23. Madelyn Creedon, “A Question of Dollars and Sense: Assessing the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review,” Arms Control Today, March 2018. Located at: https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2018-03/features/question-dollarssense-assessing-2018-nuclear-posture-review.
  24. Reif and Eaglen, “The Ticking Nuclear Budget Time Bomb.”
  25. Howard McKeon and James Inhofe, “Forced budget cuts a disaster for military,” CNN, February 20, 2013. Located at: https://www.cnn.com/2013/02/20/opinion/inhofe-mckeon-budget-cut-military/index.html.
  26. Jon Harper, “Nuclear Triad: Pentagon Taking Steps to Modernize Global Strike Weapons,” National Defense Magazine, November 3, 2017. Located at: http://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/articles/2017/11/3/ nuclear-triad-pentagon-taking-steps-to-modernize-global-strike-weapons.

Unsafe Excess:

  1. Hans M. Kristensen, “Nuclear Weapons Modernization: A Threat to the NPT?” Arms Control Today, May 2014. Located at: https:// armscontrol.org/act/2014_05/Nuclear-Weapons-Modernization-AThreat-to-the-NPT.
  2. Benjamin Zala, “How the next nuclear arms race will be different from the last one,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 2, 2019. Located at: https://thebulletin.org/2019/01/how-the-next-nuclear-armsrace-will-be-different-from-the-last-one/.
  3. Hans M. Kristensen, “Nuclear Modernization, Enhanced Military Capabilities, and Strategic Stability,” presentation to Arms Control Association annual meeting, June 6, 2016. Located at: https://fas.org/ nuke/guide/usa/Brief2016_ACA.pdf.
  4. “America’s Strategic Posture: The Final Report of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States,” United States Institute of Peace, 2009. Located at: https://www.usip.org/ publications/2009/04/congressional-commission-strategic-postureunited-states.
  5. Michael Klare, “The Challenges of Emerging Technologies,” Arms Control Today, December 2018. Located at: https://www.armscontrol.org/ act/2018-12/features/challenges-emerging-technologies.
  6. Kingston Reif, “Arms control on the brink,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, November 1, 2018. Located at: https://thebulletin.org/2018/11/arms-control-on-the-brink/.
  7. John Bolton, “Trump’s New Start With Russia May Prove Better Than Obama’s,” The Wall Street Journal, February 13, 2017. Located at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/trumps-new-start-with-russia-may-provebetter-than-obamas-1486941073.
  8. Kingston Reif, “Republican Senators Back New START,” Arms Control Today, October 2018. Located at: https://www.armscontrol.org/ act/2018-10/news/republican-senators-back-new-start.
  9. For more on Russia’s concern’s about U.S.compliance with New START, see Kingston Reif, “As INF Treaty Falls, New START Teeters,” Arms Control Today, March 2019. Located at: https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2019-03/news/inf-treaty-falls-new-start-teeters. Regarding Russia’s development of new kinds of strategic offensive arms, New START envisioned the possible development of such weapons during the period of implementation of the treaty. Article II of the treaty states: “When a Party believes that a new kind of strategic offensive arm is emerging, that Party shall have the right to raise the question of such a strategic offensive arm for consideration in the Bilateral Consultative Commission.”.
  10. Lynn Rusten, “The Trump Administration’s ‘Wrong Track’ Nuclear Policies,” Arms Control Today, March 2018. Located at: https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2018-03/features/trump-administrations-wrongtrack-nuclear-policies.
  11. Creedon, “A Question of Dollars and Sense: Assessing the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review.”
  12. Ibid.
  13. Tom Collina, “Trump’s New ‘Low-Yield’ Nuclear Weapon: Two Bad Ideas Rolled Into One,” The National Interest, March 10, 2018. Located at: https://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/trumps-new-low-yieldnuclear-weapon-two-bad-ideas-rolled-one-24806.
  14. Kingston Reif, “New Cruise Missile Capability Debated,” Arms Control Today, January 2016. Located at: https://www.armscontrol.org/ ACT/206_0102/News/New-Cruise-Missile-Capability-Debated.
  15. Ibid.
  16. William J. Perry and Andy Weber, “Mr. President, kill the new cruise missile,” The Washington Post, October 15, 2015. Located at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/mr-president-kill-the-newcruise-missile/2015/10/15/e3e2807c-6ecd-11e5-9bfe-e59f5e244f92_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.0f792c588c37.
  17. Rusten, “The Trump Administration’s ‘Wrong Track’ Nuclear Policies.”
  18. Bruce G. Blair, “Why Our Nuclear Weapons Can Be Hacked,” The New York Times, March 14, 2017. Located at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/14/opinion/why-our-nuclear-weapons-can-be-hacked.html.
  19. U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, Committee on Armed Services, Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, “Fiscal Year 2017 Budget Request for Department of Defense Nuclear Forces,” March 2, 2016. Located at: https://docs.house.gov/Committee/Calendar/ByEvent.aspx?EventID=104619.
  20. Matthew Kroenig. “The Case for the US ICBM Force,” Strategic Studies Quarterly, Fall 2018. Located at: https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/ Portals/10/SSQ/documents/Volume-12_Issue-3/Kroenig.pdf.
  21. William J. Perry and James E. Cartwright, “Spending less on nuclear weapons could actually make us safer,” The Washington Post, November 16, 2017. Located at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/ opinions/spending-less-on-nuclear-weapons-could-actually-makeus-safer/2017/11/16/396ef0c6-ca56-11e7-aa96-54417592cf72_story.html?utm_term=.49e524a01c5f.
  22. Thomas C. Schelling, “Abolition of Ballistic Missiles,” International Security 12, no. 1 (Summer, 1987): 179-183, DOI: 10.2307/2538923.
  23. Robert Einhorn and Steven Pifer, “Meeting U.S. deterrence requirements,” The Brookings Institution, September 2017. Located at: https://www.brookings.edu/research/meeting-u-s-deterrencerequirements/.
  24. Tom Collina, “The Unaffordable Arsenal: Reducing the Costs of the Bloated U.S. Nuclear Stockpile,” Arms Control Association, October 2014. Located at: https://www.armscontrol.org/reports/TheUnaffordable-Arsenal-Reducing-the-Costs-of-the-Bloated-US-NuclearStockpile.
  25. “Nuclear Negligence,” The Center for Public Integrity. Located at: https://apps.publicintegrity.org/nuclear-negligence/.
  26. U.S. Congressional Budget Office, “Approaches for Managing the Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2017 to 2046.”
  27. Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Columbia (SSBN-826) Class Ballistic Missile Submarine Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” October 23, 2018, Congressional Research Service. Located at: https:// fas.org/sgp/crs/weapons/R41129.pdf.
  28. Creedon, “A Question of Dollars and Sense: Assessing the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review.”

U.S. Nuclear Excess

The projected cost of the proposed U.S. nuclear spending spree is staggering and it is growing. The United States currently plans to spend nearly $500 billion, after including the effects of inflation, to maintain and replace its nuclear arsenal over the next decade. Over the next 30 years, the price tag is likely to top $1.5 trillion and could even approach $2 trillion. This report describes the ways in which this level of spending is unnecessary, unsustainable, and unsafe. It outlines three realistic options to reduce spending on nuclear weapons while still maintaining a devastating nuclear deterrent. The report also recommends key steps Congress can take to enhance affordability and improve its understanding of the underlying policy assumptions and long-term budget challenges.

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