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March 26, 2013

Nuclear Deterrence, National Security, and Budgetary Savings
Posted by The Editors

2012-01-06-NucleardistributionThis post is written by Katie McBee, a researcher at NSN

The argument for reducing excess nuclear arms often focuses on enhancing the
nonproliferation regime. However, while less discussed, the financial benefit
of nuclear reductions is significant, especially in the wake of sequestration.
The exact amount of savings possible depends upon the specific reductions made, but easily reaches the billions.

But determining safe, smart levels of reductions first requires thinking about the legitimate national security role of American nuclear forces. Throughout the nuclear age, the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear forces has been providing deterrence. Given the size and expense of U.S. nuclear forces the key question is: what special advantages in terms of deterrence does such an overwhelming nuclear arsenal give the U.S.? The answer: not much. The U.S. can obtain the same benefits of a massive nuclear arsenal with fewer warheads while simultaneously redirecting some savings from nuclear reductions towards more pressing security matters, thereby enhancing national security.

The U.S. numerical advantage in nuclear weapons is overwhelming compared to any conceivable competitor or bad actor state by a grossly excessive margin. According to the Ploughshare’s World Nuclear Stockpile Report, the United States possesses 7,700 nuclear weapons, including strategic and nonstrategic warheads, warheads in reserve, and retired warheads awaiting dismantlement. This is 7,460 more weapons in total than China -- which possesses an estimated 240 weapons. Russia possesses 1,499 deployed strategic, 1,022 nondeployed strategic and 2,000 tactical nuclear warheads. While the U.S. only has 500 tactical nuclear warheads in comparison, it outweighs Russia’s strategic warheads arsenal with 1,722 deployed strategic and 2,800 nondeployed strategic warheads.   

While the nuclear arsenal of the U.S. and Russia appear too close for comfortable U.S. nuclear reductions, the Obama administration has no intentions of undertaking immediate or unilateral nuclear reductions without the involvement of the only U.S. peer in terms of nuclear capabilities, Russia. The administration continually demonstrates this stance. The New START entered into force in February 2011 limits the U.S. and Russia each to 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads by 2018. And deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said on January 31 of this year that President Obama “believes that there’s room to explore the potential for continued reductions, and that, of course, the best way to do so is in a discussion with Russia.”

Furthermore, overwhelming U.S. nuclear superiority thus far has not prevented so-called rogue states, such as Iran and North Korea, from developing or maintaining nuclear programs in the first instance. Iran has neither gained the capability to produce a bomb nor made the decision to do so, according to a recent National Intelligence Estimate. However, U.S. nuclear deterrence capabilities have yet to produce any tangible results as Iran continues to be evasive and secretive about their nuclear program. Pyongyang recently declared that “they [North Korea’s nuclear weapons] cannot be disputed… as long as the U.S. nuclear threat and hostile policy persist.” This statement is in addition to the common acceptance that North Korea is not a rational state, a characteristic needed for traditional nuclear deterrence.  Therefore not only does the overwhelming U.S. nuclear superiority not act as a deterrent against so-called rogue states, it can actually inflame their desire to protect their own sovereignty against a perceived U.S. nuclear threat.    

These cases show that today’s nuclear arsenal is a relic of the Cold War and no longer fulfills national security needs. Nowhere is this truth more clear than in the case of the risk posed by non-state actors. The National Security Strategy identifies terrorists buying, building, or stealing nuclear weapons as the chief national security concern in the context of nuclear weapons. Non-state actors generally do not respond to deterrence in the same ways as states responsible for large swaths of territory and national populations. For these reasons, the National Security Strategy goes on to recognize the limited benefits of nuclear deterrence capabilities in dealing with non-state actors, “Our efforts to contain these dangers are centered in a global nonproliferation regime…”

If such a large nuclear stockpile is of such low value with regards to competitor states, rogue states and non-state actors, one wonders: what is it good for? Not much, it turns out. Indeed, U.S. defense strategists have already recognized this reality. The National Defense Strategy states that, “It is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force, which would reduce the number of nuclear weapons in our inventory as well as their role in U.S. national security strategy.” Furthermore, Chairman of the Armed Services Committee Senator Carl Leven noted in mid-2012 that nuclear weapons are “totally useless.”

This conclusion prompts the questions: how can the U.S. cut spending on nuclear weapons in a safe and secure manor that would provide savings that could be redirected towards more pressing national security objectives?

Over the next decade the U.S. Department of Defense and Department of Energy will spend between $352 and $392 billion on strategic nuclear weapons programs. The diminishing returns associate with nuclear deterrence in today’s security environment coupled with this hefty investment raise the question: what cuts can be made to the nuclear arsenal that would preserve national security deterrence and provide for federal budget savings needs?  

Nuclear reductions based on the lack of legitimate national security benefits and excessive spending has widespread, bipartisan support. Heritage Foundation reminds us that President Ronald Reagan was a nuclear abolitionist, demonstrating the Republican legacy behind nuclear reduction. Congressman Edward J. Markey (D-Mass), a senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, along with 44 other House Democrats submitted a letter to Senate and House leadership calling for nuclear arsenal cuts for reasons including, “It makes us less safe by preventing investment in the systems that our soldiers need most.” The Four Horsemen, wrote, “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons” advocating nuclear reductions. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell agrees that there is a great incentive to reduce the quantity and that the current expenses take away from more pertinent national security programs. And the Nuclear Posture Review published by the Department of Defense focuses on reduction and drives President Obama’s nuclear policy. Despite the widespread, bipartisan support it is still underrepresented in the rapport concerning nuclear reductions. Clearly, more attention needs to be given to the options available for reductions that benefit both national security and budget needs.  

Given the widespread support for some form of nuclear reductions in order to match federal budget spending needs and 21st century national security threats, what are the reduction options? There is no single answer, instead there is no shortage of options including these three that range from most to least significant reductions: 

  1. In May 2012 General (ret.) Cartwright and other Global Zero members recommended the most extensive nuclear reduction. They proposed a nuclear arsenal of 500 to 900 total nuclear warheads. This includes transforming the nuclear triad into a nuclear dyad by eliminating the Minuteman land-based ICBM force. And further reducing the dyad to include ten Trident ballistic missile submarines armed with 720 strategic missiles warheads and eighteen B-2 bombers armed with 180 gravity bombs. Only half of each of these weapons systems would be deployed at a time. The B-52 heavy bombers would be dismantled or converted to carry only
    conventional weapons. Additionally, all tactical nuclear weapons would be
    eliminated. Conservatively, this 10-year agenda would reduce spending on
    nuclear weapons by $100 billion.  
  2. A similarly extensive rout is provided by the Sustainable Defense Task Force of the Commonwealth Institute. It concludes that reductions to the nuclear arsenal could save $139.5 billion over the next decade. This is a two step solution. First, reduce the US nuclear arsenal to save $113.5 billion. This requires reducing the U.S. nuclear warhead total to 1050, 1000 deployed and 50 in store; limiting launchers to 160 Minuteman missiles and 7 Ohio-class SSBNs, with an official total of 328 launchers;
    adapting the nuclear “dyad” by retiring bomber aircrafts; and ending work on
    the Trident II missile. Second, limit the planned modernization of the nuclear
    weapons infrastructure and reduce research activities to save an additional $26
    billion. These two steps add up to a substantial total of $139.5 billion in
    budget savings over the next decade.   
  3. Even modest reductions can have sizable saving benefits. Nuclear reductions recommended by Daryl Kimball and Tom Collina of the Arms Control Association include four options that would translate into major budget savings in the billions over the next decade. First, reduce the existing Ohio-class nuclear-armed submarines from 14 to 10 boats and set a limit of 8 new nuclear-armed submarines saving 18$ billion. Second, delay the development of the new $68 billion nuclear-armed strategic bomber fleet and save $18 billion. Third, trim the land-based intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force from 450 to 300 and save around $360 million in the coming fiscal year and $3-4 billion in the next decade. Finally, they urge the White House and Congress to show greater budgetary discipline in the B61 bomb life extension program (LEP). If all these steps are implemented, the U.S. could save a minimum of $39 billion over the next decade, while maintaining the nuclear triad.   

The savings from any of these options would be significant. They present the opportunity to make safe, smart budget cuts between 10.48 to 63.3 percent of 67.16 percent of the total Department of Defense and Department of Energy budget. During a time of tough budget cuts and the looming sequestration, it is essential that the U.S. make smart budget decisions that will best attend to national security objectives fit for 21st century threats. As demonstrated above, the excessive nuclear arsenal does not fall under these objectives. 

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