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"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Author, "African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement
July 1, 2020
Shannon Bugos

Will Biden and Putin Restart Talks on Strategic Stability & Arms Control?

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For Immediate Release: June 14, 2021

Media Contacts: Daryl Kimball, executive director, 202-463-8270 ext. 107; Kingston Reif, director for disarmament policy, 202-463-8270 ext. 104; Shannon Bugos, research associate, 202-463-8270 ext 113

The June 16 summit in Geneva between President Joe Biden and President Vladimir Putin is a pivotal opportunity to begin to reduce the risk of nuclear conflict, enhance stability, and get back on track to reduce their bloated and very dangerous nuclear stockpiles.

Amid rising tensions and growing nuclear competition between the world’s two largest nuclear-weapon states, nuclear risk reduction and disarmament discussions have been pushed to the back burner. Both countries are spending tens of billions a year modernizing and upgrading their massive nuclear stockpiles. Russia has wantonly violated several arms control and nonproliferation agreements, is developing new nuclear weapons delivery systems that echo some of the worst excesses of the Cold War, and may be increasing its total warhead stockpile for the first time in decades.

The strategic relationship has been further complicated by the development and fielding by each side of emerging technologies, such as offensive cyber and hypersonic weapons, and new advances in U.S. missile defense systems.

In February, Biden and Putin wisely agreed to extend for five years the only remaining treaty limiting the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals: the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). But unless Washington and Moscow make progress in the next few years on new nuclear arms control agreements, there will be no agreed-upon limits on U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons for the first time since 1972.

Mutual Interest in "Strategic Stability"

While there are many areas of disagreement between the two governments, both sides have expressed a common interest in renewing a serious dialogue on maintaining “strategic stability.”

As established in earlier bilateral agreements and previous summit communiques, such dialogue aims to ensure that neither side has an incentive to use nuclear weapons first or has an incentive to build up its nuclear forces.

Today, however, each side has a different view on what threatens strategic stability and what issues should be the focus of such talks and future potential arms control arrangements.

On June 10 National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said: “We believe the starting point for strategic stability talks should be the very complex set of nuclear arms issues that face our two countries….Whether additional elements get added to strategic stability talks in the realm of space or cyber or other areas, that’s something to be determined as we go forward.”

Conversely, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reiterated this month Russia’s support for “a comprehensive approach and taking into account all, without exception, factors influencing strategic stability in our dialogue with the United States. I mean nuclear and non-nuclear, and offensive and defensive weapons.”

To be effective, the discussions need to amount to more than brief exchanges of grievances, as was the case during the Trump years. Instead, as many nuclear security and disarmament experts and organizations, including the Arms Control Association, have suggested, the dialogue needs to be regular, frequent, and comprehensive. It should set the stage for actions and agreements that meaningfully reduce the nuclear risk.

As a tangible step to help defuse tensions and provide some positive momentum, a wide range of experts and former senior officials are also calling on the two presidents to reaffirm the common-sense statement issued by Gorbachev and Reagan at their 1985 summit that: “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”

Next Steps on Arms Control

Initiating strategic stability talks is overdue and essential. Achieving new agreements to reduce nuclear excess will be even more challenging.

To make progress before New START expires in 2026, they will need to pursue solutions that:

  • achieve deeper, verifiable reductions in the total number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads and delivery systems;
  • address nonstrategic (i.e., tactical) nuclear weapons;
  • put in place constraints on non-nuclear weapons that impact the strategic balance, such as long-range missile defenses; attempt to mitigate the negative impacts on stability that could ensue from the collapse of the INF Treaty; and
  • seek to broaden the arms control and disarmament dialogue to include other nuclear-armed states, particularly China, France, and the United Kingdom.

In 1979, during the depths of the Cold War, then-Senator Joe Biden told an Arms Control Association gathering that “pursuing arms control is not a luxury or a sign of weakness, but an international responsibility and a national necessity.”

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Background for Reporters Covering the Geneva Summit

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Projected Cost of U.S. Nuclear Arsenal Rises

June 2021
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

The United States will spend a total of $634 billion over the next 10 years to sustain and modernize its nuclear arsenal, according to the latest projection by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). The estimate is 28 percent higher than the previous 10-year projection released in 2019 and could exacerbate concerns about the necessity and the sustainability of the current nuclear modernization effort amid what experts predict will likely be a flat defense budget in the coming years.

The CBO report, published May 24, includes the projected costs to sustain and modernize U.S. delivery vehicles, warheads, and their associated infrastructure across a range of programs that are managed by the Defense Department and the Energy Department’s semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). The report estimates that the $634 billion in planned spending in fiscal years 2021–2030 will consume 6.0–8.5 percent of projected total spending on national defense during those years.

The 2019 CBO report had forecast total U.S. spending on nuclear forces at $494 billion through 2028 and estimated that the annual cost during those years would be 5–7 percent of the national defense budget. (See ACT, March 2019.) 

Of the $140 billion increase in spending identified in the 2021 report, the CBO attributed 36 percent, or about $50 billion, to an increase in spending on nuclear weapons during the eight years, from 2021 to 2028, that overlap in both estimates.

Another 50 percent or so of the increase results from inflation and from the fact that the 2021 report begins and ends two years later than the previous projection, the CBO calculated. The other 15 percent reflects the estimated cost of growth beyond projected amounts. 

The percentage increase of the nuclear weapons budget administered by the Energy Department is “substantially higher” than that for the Defense Department, the report said, with Energy Department costs “projected to total $229 billion, or 36 percent more than CBO estimated in 2019, whereas [Defense Department] costs are projected to total $406 billion, or 25 percent more than CBO estimated in 2019.” 

Congress appropriated $15.4 billion for NNSA nuclear weapons activities in fiscal year 2021, a nearly 25 percent increase above the previous year’s appropriation. (See ACT, March 2021.) Modernization costs for nuclear command, control, communications, and early-warning systems increased by $17 billion, to $94 billion, over 10 years in the latest CBO report.

Within the triad of nuclear delivery systems, projected spending on the U.S. fleet of ballistic missile submarines increased significantly, with the CBO putting the total price tag at $145 billion over 10 years, which is a $38 billion increase from the previous CBO estimate. The CBO attributed some of the increase to higher operating costs for the current fleet and plans to operate some of the submarines longer than initially planned. 

The cost of U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles is projected to grow to $82 billion over 10 years, $21 billion more than the 2019 projection. The CBO said that was due primarily to the difference in time periods covered by the reports. 

In addition, the CBO report estimates that the United States will spend $53 billion over the next 10 years on strategic bombers. The CBO notes that the estimate only covers a quarter of the costs of the B-52 bomber and the new B-21 bomber because the rest of the costs are assigned to the bombers’ conventional, not nuclear, mission. If the full cost of B-52 and B-21 bombers were included, the total cost of nuclear forces would be $711 billion, including cost growth. 

CBO projections are based on the plans reflected in the fiscal year 2021 budget requests that the Defense and Energy departments under the Trump administration submitted in February 2020, “provided those plans did not change or experience any cost growth or schedule delays.” The CBO also assumed that the Pentagon would move forward with directives listed in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, such as the fielding of a new sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM), although this program is believed to be under review by the Biden administration. (See ACT, April 2021.) 

The CBO report said that the estimate of the costs of the SLCM and its warhead of about $10 billion from 2021 to 2030 “is highly uncertain; in fact, it is still not clear whether the program will be pursued at all and, if so, what the design and development schedule will be.”

The United States will spend $634 billion over the next 10 years to sustain and modernize its nuclear arsenal, up 28 percent over the last estimate, the Congressional Budget Office says.

New ICBM Interceptor to Cost $18 Billion

June 2021
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

A new U.S. interceptor intended to counter limited intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) strikes from North Korea or Iran could cost nearly $18 billion over its lifetime, according to the Defense Department’s independent cost assessment office. The new estimate comes amid continued questions about the future of the U.S. homeland missile defense mission and is at least 36 percent more than the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) had suggested. 

The price tag for the Next Generation Interceptor, intended to knock down North Korean missiles in space as part of U.S. homeland defense system, is projected to cost at least 36 percent more than earlier projections. It will replace the cancelled Redesigned Kill Vehicle (shown) program. (Photo: Raytheon)The Pentagon said in April that the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office estimates the cost of the Next Generation Interceptor (NGI) at $17.7 billion. That figure represents $13.1 billion for up-front costs, including the purchase of 10 developmental interceptors; $2.3 billion for 21 operational interceptors; and $2.3 billion for operations and support costs over the life of the interceptors. 

The average cost to develop and purchase the 31 interceptors amounts to $498 million per interceptor, according to the CAPE office. The cost to purchase the 21 operational interceptors is $111 million per interceptor. 

The Pentagon in March awarded two research and development contracts for the interceptor to Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. (See ACT, April 2021.) The CAPE estimate “reflects the system development acquisition plan to carry two NGI contractor teams through Critical Design Review…at which point the [MDA] will down-select to a single vendor to proceed with the remaining development, testing, and production efforts,” Pentagon spokesperson Christopher Sherwood told Inside Defense in an April 27 statement. 

The NGI emerged after the Pentagon in 2019 cancelled the program to design an upgraded kill vehicle, the Redesigned Kill Vehicle (RKV), for the already existing interceptors that are part of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system. (See ACT, October 2019.) The MDA planned to deploy the RKV beginning in 2021 atop 20 new interceptors in Alaska to augment the existing fleet of 44 interceptors there and in California. The RKV was also intended to replace the aging kill vehicles atop the current fleet.

The agency spent a total of $1.2 billion on RKV development at the time the program was cancelled, according to a 2019 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. 

The Defense Department hopes to begin fielding the NGI in fiscal year 2028 in silos at Fort Greely, Alaska. The department is not currently planning to replace the existing 44 interceptors, which have been plagued by development problems and testing failures, with the NGI but rather to supplement them with 20 of the new interceptors to bring the fleet total to 64 interceptors. 

Independent assessments put the cost to purchase the newest versions of the existing ground-based interceptors at $90–100 million per missile. The CAPE estimate of the NGI cost is higher than the MDA estimate of $11.3 billion for the program, the GAO said in an April 28 report.

The high price tag to acquire the NGI has raised concerns from some members of Congress. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), citing the shortcomings of the existing 44 interceptors and current plans to field just 21 NGIs, said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on May 12 that “[i]t’s not at all clear to me that spending billions of dollars on additional interceptors is the right call.” 

The Pentagon is planning to extend the life of the existing ground-based interceptors pending the deployment of the NGI in 2028. MDA Director Adm. Jon Hill said on May 12 that the life extension effort will increase the reliability of the interceptors “to kind of bridge that gap between when we’ll actually deploy the first NGI.”

Meanwhile, the April GAO report highlighted roadblocks to the Pentagon’s plans as of the end of the Trump administration for a new layered homeland missile defense approach that would augment the GMD system with the Aegis system, specifically the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIA interceptor, and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, which is designed to defeat short- and intermediate-range missiles.

The GAO found that the GMD system’s fire control and engagement planning currently “does not take into account any other interceptor systems” and that managing engagement among multiple interceptor systems requires a “more cohesive integration with overall battle planning” than exists at this time. The agency also found that the existing ground-based interceptor has “hardware constraints that limit communication opportunities with ground systems while in flight.”

The GAO said “more development work is needed for the [Aegis] SM-3 Block IIA to support a layered homeland defense capability” and that this effort “could introduce considerable cost, schedule, and performance uncertainty to a program that has just entered initial production.”

The Pentagon in November 2020 conducted a successful first intercept test of the Aegis SM-3 Block IIA against an ICBM target. (See ACT, December 2020.) “This was not an operational test, however, and it was executed under highly favorable conditions,” the GAO noted.  

Furthermore, the GAO said that “there are a number of significant upgrades and steps to address obsolescence that would be needed to enhance THAAD’s performance and make it capable of performing” as part of the layered homeland defense.

The MDA requested $274 million in fiscal year 2021 to adapt the Aegis missile defense system and the THAAD system, to provide an additional layer of defense against limited ICBMs threats. But Congress poured cold water on the proposal and provided $49 million only for limited concept studies, a decrease of $225 million from the budget request. (See ACT, January/February 2021.)

 

Amid continued questions about the future of the U.S. homeland defense mission, the cost of a new interceptor to counter North Korean and Iranian missiles could cost 36 percent more than expected.

U.S. Will Not Rejoin Open Skies Treaty

June 2021

The Biden administration has officially notified Russia that the United States will not seek to rejoin the 1992 Open Skies Treaty.

A U.S. OC-135 reconnaissance aircraft. (Photo: Department of Defense)Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman informed Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov of the administration’s final decision on May 27, the Associated Press reported. A State Department spokesperson later confirmed the news and attributed the decision to “Russia’s failure to take any actions to return to compliance” with the treaty.

Washington had raised concerns that Moscow is in violation of the treaty because it has limited the distance for observation flights over the Kaliningrad region to no more than 500 kilometers from the border and prohibited missions over Russia from flying within 10 kilometers of its border with the conflicted Georgian border regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Ryabkov criticized the U.S. decision as “another political mistake, inflicting a new blow to the European security system” in remarks on Friday to the Russian news agency Tass. “We gave them a good chance, but they failed to take it. They continue to circulate fallacies about Russia’s alleged violations of the treaty, which is completely absurd,” Ryabkov said.

When the Trump administration withdrew the United States from the accord in November 2020, President-elect Joe Biden condemned the withdrawal and expressed support for the treaty, although he stopped short of committing to reenter the agreement. Once he took office, the Biden administration opened a review of “matters related to the treaty” and held consultations with U.S. allies and partners earlier this year. (See ACT, March 2021; December 2020.)

Moscow, meanwhile, launched domestic procedures in January for withdrawing from the treaty. The State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, approved legislation supporting the move May 19; the upper house, the Federation Council, is expected to vote on the bill June 2. The bill will require Russian President Vladimir Putin’s signature. Once submitting official notice to states-parties, Moscow would kick-start the six-month period before the withdrawal takes place.

Entering into force in 2002, the Open Skies Treaty permits each state-party to conduct short-notice, unarmed observation flights over the others’ entire territories to collect data on military forces and activities.—SHANNON BUGOS

The Biden administration has officially notified Russia that the United States will not seek to rejoin the 1992 Open Skies Treaty.

Biden, Putin to Meet in June

June 2021

U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet on June 16 in Geneva, the two countries have announced.

“The leaders will discuss the full range of pressing issues, as we seek to restore predictability and stability to the U.S.-Russia relationship,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki on May 25. “We expect they will spend a fair amount of time on strategic stability, where the arms control agenda goes following the extension” of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), she said.

The Kremlin statement also emphasized that the two will discuss “problems of strategic stability.”

Washington and Moscow agreed in February to extend the treaty for five years. (See ACT, March 2021.)

Biden expressed in April his hope that, after the two leaders meet, “the United States and Russia could launch a strategic stability dialogue to pursue cooperation in arms control and security” that would build on the New START extension. 

The United States will pursue “arms control that addresses all Russian nuclear weapons, including novel strategic systems and nonstrategic nuclear weapons,” Robert Wood, U.S. representative to the Conference on Disarmament, told the conference on May 11. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov commented the same day that discussions must “consider the problems of strategic stability, taking into account all factors and systems without exception, offensive and defensive, which have a direct influence on this strategic stability.”

Biden first proposed the idea of a summit with Putin in April. (See ACT, May 2021.) A May 19 meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Lavrov in Reykjavik and a May 24 meeting between National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev in Geneva helped pave the way for the official summit announcement.—SHANNON BUGOS 

U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet on June 16 in Geneva, the two countries have announced.

Biden Budget Should Support More Cost-Effective, Stabilizing, Saner Nuclear Strategy

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Experts Available for Comment on Fiscal Year 2022 Budget Request

For Immediate Release: May 27, 2021

Media ContactsKingston Reif, director for disarmament policy, 202-463-8270 ext. 104; Shannon Bugos, research associate, 202-463-8270 ext. 113

(Washington, D.C.)—The Biden administration is set to release its fiscal year 2022 national defense budget request May 28. The request is expected to continue forward with most, if not all, of the Trump administration’s excessive plans to sustain and modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Failure to adjust the existing approach would be a disappointing missed opportunity to put the modernization effort on a more cost-effective and stable footing while ensuring a strong deterrent.

The United States is planning to spend $634 billion over the next decade to sustain and modernize its arsenal, according to a Congressional Budget Office report published Monday. This is an increase of $140 billion, or 28 percent, from the previous 10-year projection. The major uptick in spending will compete with other national security priorities, such as strengthening pandemic defense and response and augmenting U.S. conventional military capabilities, amid what most experts believe will be a flat defense budget over the next several years.

During the campaign, President Biden said the United States “does not need new nuclear weapons” and that his “administration will work to maintain a strong, credible deterrent while reducing our reliance and excessive expenditure on nuclear weapons.” Biden is right. Current U.S. nuclear weapons policies exceed what is necessary for a credible nuclear deterrent, and the financial and opportunity costs of the current modernization plan are rising fast.

The Biden administration’s topline discretionary budget request released in April said that “While the Administration is reviewing the U.S. nuclear posture, the discretionary request supports ongoing nuclear modernization programs while ensuring that these efforts are sustainable.” But several current U.S. nuclear modernization efforts do not meet the “sustainable” criterion.

As the Government Accountability Office noted in a report published May 6, “every nuclear triad replacement program—including the B21, LRSO, GBSD, and Columbia class submarine, and every ongoing bomb and warhead modernization program—faces the prospect of delays due to program-specific and DOD- and DOE-wide risk factors.”

Meanwhile, projected spending on nuclear warheads and infrastructure at the Energy Department’s semi-autonomous National Nuclear Security Administration has ballooned to $505 billion, according to the agency’s 25-year plan published in December. That represents a staggering increase of $113 billion from the 2020 version of the plan.

The Trump administration’s nuclear weapons policies and spending plans demand a fundamental rethinking.

The Biden administration had little time to prepare the fiscal year 2022 budget request. A forthcoming review of U.S. nuclear policy and posture will evaluate existing policies and spending plans in more detail. In keeping with President Biden’s views, the review should pursue a nuclear posture that is more stabilizing, supports the pursuit of additional arms control and reduction measures designed to enhance stability and reduce the chance of nuclear conflict, and frees up taxpayer dollars for higher priority national and health security needs.

Experts Available:

  • Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy, [email protected], 202-463-8270 ext. 104
  • Shannon Bugos, research associate, [email protected], 202-463-8270 ext. 113

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Experts Available for Comment on Fiscal Year 2022 Budget Request

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Smarter Options on U.S. Nuclear Modernization

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Monday, May 17, 2021
2:00 - 3:30pm Eastern time

The debate about how the United States should approach nuclear modernization is once again a hot topic in Washington ahead of the imminent release of the Biden administration’s fiscal year 2022 budget request and as the administration prepares to begin a more comprehensive review of U.S. nuclear policy.

The United States is planning to spend at least $1.5 trillion over the next several decades to maintain and upgrade its nuclear arsenal. The biggest bills for this effort are slated to hit over the next 10 to 15 years and poised to pose a growing challenge to other security and military priorities amid what most experts believe will be flat defense budgets over the next several years.


Competing demands such as combatting climate change and strengthening pandemic defense and response capabilities illustrate the importance of examining more cost-effective alternatives to sustaining the arsenal while ensuring a strong deterrent, enhancing stability, and pursuing additional arms control measures.

While the Trump administration expanded the role of and spending on the arsenal, the Biden administration in its interim national security strategic guidance released in March said: “We will take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, while ensuring our strategic deterrent remains safe, secure, and effective and that our extended deterrence commitments to our allies remain strong and credible.”

The Biden administration also quickly agreed with Russia a five-year extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) without conditions and pledged to “pursue new arms control arrangements.”

The expert speakers addressed how the Biden administration should approach the nuclear modernization effort, alternatives to building a new fleet of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) via the ground-based strategic deterrent (GBSD) and the W87-1 warhead replacement programs, the challenges facing the National Nuclear Security Administration’s warhead and infrastructure modernization plans, and the relationship between nuclear modernization and arms control diplomacy.

Speakers included:

  • Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.)
  • Steve Fetter, associate provost and dean, University of Maryland, and a former assistant director in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy
  • Sharon Weiner, associate professor, American University, and a former program examiner with the National Security Division of the White House Office of Management and Budget
  • Amy Woolf, specialist in nuclear weapons policy, Congressional Research Service

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Speakers addressed how the United States should approach nuclear modernization ahead of the Biden administration’s fiscal year 2022 budget request and its comprehensive review of U.S. nuclear policy.

Responses to Common Criticisms of Adjusting U.S. Nuclear Modernization Plans

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Volume 13, Issue 3, May 18, 2021

With the Biden administration set to release its fiscal year 2022 budget request May 27 and conduct a more comprehensive review of nuclear policy later this year, the debate about how the United States should approach nuclear modernization has reached a fever pitch.

The nation is planning to spend at least $1.5 trillion over the next several decades to maintain and upgrade nearly its entire nuclear arsenal. This explosion of spending comes at a time when a devastating global pandemic has redefined how many Americans think about security, China’s growing role on the global stage poses multifaceted challenges, and most experts believe that the U.S. defense budget will remain flat over the next several years.

While the Trump administration expanded the role of and spending on the arsenal and turned its back on arms control as a national security tool, the Biden administration in its interim national security strategic guidance released in March said that it “will take steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, while ensuring our strategic deterrent remains safe, secure, and effective and that our extended deterrence commitments to our allies remain strong and credible.”

The Biden administration smartly and quickly agreed with Russia to a five-year extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) without conditions and pledged to “pursue new arms control arrangements.”

But there is more work to do. Current U.S. nuclear weapons policies exceed what is necessary to deter a nuclear attack from any U.S. adversary, and the financial and opportunity costs of the current nuclear modernization plan are rising fast.

The Biden administration’s topline discretionary budget request released in April said that “While the Administration is reviewing the U.S. nuclear posture, the discretionary request supports ongoing nuclear modernization programs while ensuring that these efforts are sustainable.” But there are several modernization efforts that do not meet the “sustainable” criterion.

The administration can and should move the United States toward a nuclear strategy that will continue to ensure an effective nuclear deterrent, reflects a narrower role for nuclear weapons, raises the nuclear threshold, is more affordable, and supports the pursuit of additional arms control and reduction measures designed to enhance stability and reduce the chance of nuclear conflict.

Below are responses to several common arguments advanced by the supporters of the nuclear weapons status quo against proposals for adjusting the current U.S. nuclear modernization plan so that it is less costly and more conducive to efforts to reduce nuclear weapons risks. 


Claim: Nuclear weapons don’t actually cost that much.

Response: The reality is that the financial cost to sustain and upgrade the U.S. nuclear arsenal is growing increasingly punishing. President Trump’s fiscal year (FY) 2021 budget request of $44.5 billion for nuclear weapons was a 19 percent increase over the previous year.

Though the sunk costs to date have been relatively minimal, spending on nuclear weapons is slated to increase dramatically in the coming years. In contrast, the topline national defense budget will likely be flat at best. (The Biden administration’s FY 2022 defense topline request does not keep pace with inflation.) Nearly the entire arsenal is slated for an upgrade and/or replacement at roughly the same time, and the bulk of the modernization portion of the cost will occur over the next 10 to 15 years.

One oft-heard claim in support of the status quo is that even at its peak in the late-2020s, spending on nuclear weapons is affordable because it will only consume roughly 6.4 percent of total Pentagon spending. But this figure is misleading for several reasons. The estimate, which was prepared to inform the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, is now nearly 4 years old. The projection also does not include spending on nuclear warheads and their supporting infrastructure at the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a semiautonomous Energy Department agency whose nuclear weapons activities are part of the national defense budget. Since the end of the Obama administration, NNSA weapons activities spending has grown by roughly 70 percent. When NNSA spending is included, nuclear weapons already accounted for 6 percent of the total FY 2021 national defense budget request.

Program cost overruns and likely schedule delays are poised to exacerbate the financial challenge. Last year, the NNSA requested an unplanned increase of $2.8 billion relative to earlier planning. The agency’s 25-year plan published in December showed that projected spending on nuclear weapons activities has risen to $505 billion. That is a staggering increase of $113 billion from the 2020 version of the plan.

The scope and schedule goals for the nuclear modernization effort are highly aggressive and face major execution problems. As the Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted in a report published in May, “every nuclear triad replacement program—including the B21, LRSO, GBSD, and Columbia class submarine, and every ongoing bomb and warhead modernization program—faces the prospect of delays due to program-specific and” Defense and Energy Department “wide risk factors.” Extending the schedule for these programs will increase their cost.

The growing price tag of the nuclear mission is coinciding with Pentagon plans to recapitalize large portions of the nation’s conventional force. The last time the United States simultaneously modernized its conventional and nuclear forces in the 1980s, it did so alongside an increasing defense budget, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work recently noted. “With such increases, the Pentagon did not have to trade conventional capability for nuclear forces,” Work points out, but “unless something changes, that will not be the case this time.”

Indeed, in order accommodate the multi-billion dollar unplanned budget increase in FY 2021 for the NNSA, the Navy was forced to cut a second Virginia-class attack submarine from its budget submission. Congress ultimately added the second Virginia back to the budget, but the episode illustrates the significant threat that spending nuclear weapons spending poses to other national security and military priorities.

As the cost of nuclear weapons continues to rise, the choices that are made about what not to fund to pay for them are going to get more difficult, especially amid a flat defense budget. And the longer the government waits to make those hard choices, the more suboptimal they are going to get.

Claim: Adjusting U.S. nuclear force structure and modernization plans in the face of growing Russian and Chinese nuclear threats would be unwise.

Response: The Biden administration is undoubtedly inheriting a less hospitable security environment than what existed when President Obama left office in 2016. On the nuclear front, Russia and China are modernizing their arsenals, developing new weapon capabilities, and, according to U.S. intelligence estimates, projected to increase the size of their nuclear warhead stockpiles over the next decade.

But this does not mean the United States should follow suit – or maintain a nuclear arsenal in excess to what is needed for deterrence.

China’s much smaller nuclear arsenal has grown only modestly over the past decade. While the Defense Department projects that China may at least double its arsenal over the next decade, it estimates Beijing’s current arsenal to be in the low-200s. Should China’s nuclear stockpile double, it would still be many times smaller than the current U.S. stockpile of about 3,800 warheads. Relative to the many challenges China poses to the United States and its allies, the Chinese nuclear challenge is not among the most pressing.

With respect to Russia, in 2013, the Obama administration determined the security of the United States and its allies could be maintained while pursuing up to a one-third reduction in deployed nuclear weapons below the level of 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and 700 deployed delivery systems as stipulated by New START.

The case for a one-third reduction in deployed strategic forces remains strong. The size of the Russian strategic nuclear force has not changed since then and remains lower than that of the United States. What nefarious opportunities would Moscow be able to exploit in the face of a U.S. nuclear arsenal by 2030 consisting of, for example: 1,000-1,100 deployed warheads on 10 ballistic missile submarines, 300 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and at least 60 long-range bombers; two low-yield warhead delivery options; and 1,500-2,000 warheads in reserve?

The Biden administration should seek to make further reductions in the U.S. arsenal in concert with Russia, as well as bring China off the arms control sidelines. But it should not give Moscow or Beijing veto power over U.S. force adjustments as further reductions will not compromise U.S. national security. Decisions about force needs must take into account the long-term funding challenges posed by maintaining the U.S. arsenal at its current size and consider the opportunity costs.

After all, planned U.S. spending on nuclear weapons poses a major threat to security priorities more relevant to countering Moscow and Beijing and assuring allies, such as pandemic defense and response as well as pacing China’s advancing conventional military capabilities.

As Adm. Philip Davidson, the former head of Indo-Pacific Command, put it earlier this year: “The greatest danger to the future of the United States continues to be an erosion of conventional deterrence.” How does cutting attack submarines to pay for cost overruns at the NNSA address this greatest danger? How does replacing conventional sea-launched cruise missiles on attack submarines with a planned fleet of new nuclear cruise missiles address this greatest danger?

Claim: Adjusting U.S. nuclear modernization plans won’t save money.

Response: Supporters of the current modernization approach claim that the only choice is to proceed full steam ahead with the status quo or allow the U.S. nuclear arsenal to rust into obsolescence. This is a false choice. Adjusting long-standing and more recently adopted nuclear planning assumptions would enable changes to the current nuclear modernization effort and could produce scores of billions of dollars in savings to redirect to higher priority national security needs.

Of course, pressure on the defense budget cannot be relieved solely by reducing nuclear weapons spending, as a significant portion of the overall cost of nuclear weapons remains fixed. That said, changes to the nuclear replacement program could make it easier to execute and ease some of the hard choices facing the overall defense enterprise.

For example, reshaping the spending plans consistent with an up to one-third reduction in deployed nuclear warheads could save at least $80 billion through 2030 while still allowing the United States to maintain a nuclear triad. Such an amount would, for example, be more than enough to fulfill Indo-Pacific Command’s request earlier this year for $22.7 billion to augment the U.S. conventional defense posture in the region through fiscal year 2027 via the Pacific Deterrence Initiative.

Claim: The Minuteman III missile system can’t be life extended again.

Response: ICBMs are the least valuable, least essential, and least stabilizing leg of the nuclear triad. What the nation invests to sustain ICBMs should reflect this reality. Spending approximately $100 billion to buy a new ICBM system over the next 10-15 years and billions more on an upgraded ICBM warhead and the production of plutonium pits for the warhead fails to reflect the limited utility of ICBMs.

The United States currently deploys 400 ICBMs across five states. Supporters argue that the ICBM force presents an attacker with hundreds of targets on the U.S. homeland and is a hedge against a potential future vulnerability in the sea-based leg of the triad. However, even if one supports these arguments, there are cheaper options than going forward with the ICBM replacement program, called the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) program.

Past independent assessments indicate that it is possible to extend the life of the existing Minuteman III missiles beyond their planned retirement in the 2030 timeframe, as the Defense Department has done before, by refurbishing the rocket motors and other parts.

In 2017, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected that deferring the new missile portion of GBSD by two decades, extending the life of the Minuteman III missiles, and proceeding with refurbishment of the system’s command and control infrastructure as planned could save $37 billion (in 2017 dollars) through the late 2030s. The option value of this approach would be significant as the Pentagon seeks to navigate the daunting conventional and nuclear modernization bow wave that is now upon it.

Defense officials have put forward several arguments against extending the Minuteman III based on the program analysis of alternatives conducted in 2014, but all of the arguments merit greater scrutiny.

The Defense Department claims that the price to build and operate a new missile system would be less than the cost to maintain the Minuteman III. But it seems the Pentagon arrived at this conclusion by comparing the total life-cycle cost of the two options through 2075. Since Minuteman III missiles cannot be extended for the full period, the department assumed a new missile eventually would be needed. Might comparing the two options over a shorter period produce a different answer? The CBO’s analysis suggested the answer is yes.

The Pentagon also argues that a new missile is essential to maintain the current force of 400 deployed ICBMs. While true that there eventually will not be enough Minuteman III motors to maintain a force of 400 ICBMs at the current rate of testing, this problem can be solved by reducing the number of deployed missiles to, say, 300. How did 400 deployed ICBMs through 2075 become a sacrosanct requirement for a modernization decision covering half a century? Furthermore, future arms control agreements could result in the need for fewer ICBMs in the U.S. arsenal, and presidents can also change military requirements to call for fewer ICBMs.

In addition, defense officials say that the ICBM leg of the triad requires new capabilities that the Minuteman III cannot provide, such as additional target coverage and the ability to penetrate advancing adversary missile defenses. These are curious claims.

First, what and how many targets are Minuteman III missiles unable to hit? Targets in China or North Korea that would require overflying Russia? Can these targets not be hit by other U.S. nuclear capabilities, notably the best mobile intercontinental-range missile on the planet: the Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missile?

Regarding the missile defense concern, is this a 2030 problem or a 2075 problem? Are the Russians and Chinese on the verge of unlocking the secret to intercepting scores of hypersonic ICBMs armed with decoys and countermeasures – a secret the United States has been unable to unlock? When the Russians express similar concerns about unconstrained U.S. missile defenses posing a threat to the credibility of their nuclear deterrent, U.S. officials dismiss their concerns as paranoia.

These are questions that need far more compelling answers before proceeding full steam ahead with GBSD. There is no evidence the Pentagon has studied the extension option across a wider range of parameters than those considered in 2014. Adm. Charles Richard, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, conceded in April that the Pentagon “may be able to chart,” a life extension of the Minuteman III, “but there is an enormous amount of detail that has to go into that.” The Pentagon appears to have no choice but to consider alternatives. According to the GAO, GBSD “program schedule delays are likely.”

Might continuing to rely on the Minuteman III system beyond the 2030s entail some technical risk? Yes. Would it be preferable to replace the aging Minuteman III supporting infrastructure, which in many cases relies on parts that are no longer made, in one fell swoop rather than via incremental upgrades? Probably. Would a common configuration for all launch facilities, which GBSD would provide, make maintenance easier? Yes. Would new missiles built to accommodate future technology upgrades be easier to maintain in the long run? Yes.

But while building a new ICBM system might be preferable, it is not essential. Not given the limited utility of ICBMs. Not given the enormous cost of the GBSD program. Not given the availability of the extension and the incremental upgrade option. Not given other pressing priorities amid a flat defense budget. And not given that future arms control agreements could reduce U.S. nuclear forces.

Claim: Adjusting U.S. nuclear modernization plans would undermine the assurance of allies amid allied concern about the threats posed by Russia and China and the strength of the credibility of the U.S. commitment to their security.

Response: The Trump administration attempted to buttress extended deterrence with new nuclear capabilities and more ambiguous language about when it might consider the use of nuclear weapons. These changes do not appear to have assured allies, which suggests that the assurance challenge is more of a political “software” than a military “hardware” problem. Moreover, the most proximate threat Russia and China pose to allies comes from non-nuclear and asymmetric “grey-zone” capabilities that are harder to deter and more likely to lead to conflict escalation. Improving conventional deterrence and alliance cohesion would be more appropriate for this problem than greater reliance on nuclear weapons.

The United States can continue to assure its allies and partners as it reduces the role of nuclear weapons in its strategy, maintains second-to-none conventional military forces, and, most importantly, strengthens political relationships through reaffirmations of the value of alliances, stronger economic and cultural ties, and stepped-up dialogue that tie the United States more closely to the security of its allies.

As former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy Elaine Bunn recently put it:

“The precise make up...of the nuclear force [is] not likely to have the greatest impact on allies’ views of extended nuclear deterrence. That's about the overall relationship, the peacetime consultations, the crisis management exercises. It’s about that whole web of interactions that we have with allies. And so as long as there’s a baseline of an effective nuclear arsenal, I think if we are confident in our nuclear deterrence capabilities then with right consultation allies will be too.”

Claim: Adjusting U.S. nuclear modernization plans would reduce U.S. leverage to achieve new arms control agreements.

Response: First, a close examination of the history of U.S.-Russian arms control raises doubts about the strength of the link between increased U.S. spending on nuclear weapons and arms control success. For example, the U.S. and NATO decision to field new ground-launched nuclear missiles in Europe in the early 1980s is often cited as being essential to convincing Moscow to agree to the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty prohibiting such weapons. But the actual fielding of the new weapons beginning in 1983 prompted Moscow to walk out of arms control talks. The talks did not resume until 1985 following the major political change in the Soviet Union that accompanied Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascension to leader.

Second, even if the modernization program were an effective bargaining chip, the chip can’t be cashed in anytime soon. The program won’t produce an appreciable number of new delivery systems until the late 2020s at the earliest. Third, the Trump administration’s repeated threats to build up the U.S. nuclear arsenal did not force the current Russian and Chinese leadership to capitulate to maximalist U.S. demands for a new arms control agreement.

Fourth, an up to one-third reduction in deployed strategic forces would still leave the United States with ample nuclear capability with which to trade as part of new arms control arrangements with Russia (or in the future China). Even after such a reduction, the United States would retain rough parity with Russia in the number of strategic delivery systems and warheads. Moreover, while past strategic nuclear arms control agreements have included equal ceilings on strategic forces, some agreements have included ranges for the ceilings.

Fifth, Moscow has identified constraints on U.S. non-nuclear weapons, such as missile defense and advanced conventional strike capabilities, as priority conditions for further Russian nuclear cuts, especially cuts to Russia’s new “novel” strategic range delivery systems and large stockpile of non-strategic nuclear warheads. The success or failure new arms control talks will rise or fall in large part based on how these issues are addressed, not whether, for instance, the United States builds a new ICBM.—KINGSTON REIF, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy, and SHANNON BUGOS, research associate

Description: 

Current U.S. nuclear weapons policies exceed what is necessary to deter a nuclear attack from any U.S. adversary, and the financial and opportunity costs of the current nuclear modernization plan are rising fast. Here are responses to several common arguments advanced by the supporters of the nuclear weapons status quo against proposals for adjusting the current U.S. nuclear modernization plan so that it is less costly and more conducive to efforts to reduce nuclear weapons risks. 

Russia Puts Open Skies Withdrawal Process Into Motion

Russia Puts Open Skies Withdrawal Process Into Motion Russia formally started the process for withdrawing from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty in May, further dampening prospects for the embattled agreement. Russian President Vladimir Putin submitted to the State Duma May 11 a bill to withdraw Russia from the treaty. With the U.S. withdrawal from the accord last year, “serious damage was inflicted upon treaty compliance and its role in promoting confidence building measures and strengthening transparency,” the bill reads . “A threat to the national security of the Russian Federation has emerged.”...

U.S. Hypersonic Glide Vehicle Fails Test


May 2021
By Kingston Reif and Shannon Bugos

A long-anticipated, first booster flight test of the Air Force’s air-launched hypersonic boost-glide vehicle, known as the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), failed on April 5.

U.S. Air Force crews secure the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW) under the wing of a B-52H bomber at Edwards Air Force Base, California, in 2020. The first booster flight test of the ARRW, an air-launched hypersonic glide vehicle, failed when it took place in April. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)The test vehicle was meant to launch from a B-52 bomber, but “the test missile was not able to complete its launch sequence,” and the bomber returned to Edwards Air Force Base in California, according to an Air Force statement.

The test followed seven captive-carry flight tests, in which the aircraft carries the vehicle but does not release it, during 2019 and 2020. The April test, which was delayed from a scheduled December 2020 date, was intended to assess booster performance and simulate the separation of the booster from the boost-glide vehicle.

“The ARRW program has been pushing boundaries since its inception and taking calculated risks to move this important capability forward,” said Brig. Gen. Heath Collins, the program executive officer for weapons and director of the armament directorate at the Air Force Materiel Command, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. “While not launching was disappointing, the recent test provided invaluable information to learn from and continue ahead. This is why we test.”

The Air Force plans to achieve an initial operating capability for the program in fiscal year 2022. Congress appropriated $387 million for it for fiscal year 2021.

The program is one of several prototype hypersonic boost-glide vehicle development programs underway at the Pentagon. The Army and the Navy have teamed up on the development of a common hypersonic glide-body vehicle, which conducted a successful flight-test experiment in March 2020. (See ACT, April 2020.) The Army plans to use the vehicle on mobile ground platforms in its Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon program, while the Navy aims to pair it with a submarine-launched booster system for its Conventional Prompt Strike program.

Congress in fiscal year 2021 appropriated $861 million for the Long-Range Hypersonic Program and $768 million for the Conventional Prompt Strike program.

Hypersonic weapons travel at least five times the speed of sound. Hypersonic boost-glide vehicles are distinguished from traditional ballistic missiles by their ability to maneuver and fly at lower altitudes.

The ARRW test followed the release of a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on March 22 that called for the Pentagon to clarify the roles and responsibilities of the 78 or more U.S. government organizations involved in hypersonic weapons development.

The GAO identified 70 efforts to develop hypersonic weapons and related technologies across the Defense Department in collaboration with the Energy Department and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, at a projected price tag of about $15 billion from fiscal years 2015 through 2024. “Without clear leadership roles, responsibilities, and authorities,” says the GAO report, the Defense Department “is at risk of impeding its progress toward delivering hypersonic weapon capabilities and opening up the potential for conflict and wasted resources as decisions over larger investments are made in the future.”

The report added that defense officials describe “their development approach as acknowledging and accepting technology risk early in the program in order to achieve an operational hypersonic capability sooner, in line with [Defense Department] modernization priorities and in accordance with senior leaders’ guidance.”

Pentagon officials have given varying rationales for rushing forward with development. One involves keeping pace with China and Russia as they build similar weapons. Others include augmenting U.S. conventional war-fighting capabilities to defeat the air and missile defenses of advancing adversaries and to destroy time-sensitive targets.

Some experts have warned that new hypersonic weapons could increase the risk of rapid escalation in a conflict or crisis. (See ACT, January/February 2018.)

The GAO report also highlighted sharp cost increases in two hypersonic weapons programs in particular, the ARRW and Conventional Prompt Strike programs, and the “ambitious” and “difficult to achieve” flight-test schedules for U.S. hypersonic weapons programs.

“Current plans call for as many as 40 flight tests over the next 5 years,” says the report, and the Defense Department relies on one long-range flight-test corridor that cannot handle such a busy schedule.

“If programs are unable to conduct as many flight tests as they planned, they will be forced to either proceed to an operational capability with fewer tests (and thus less knowledge), or to accept the delay, with schedule and cost consequences,” according to the report.

The test vehicle was unable to complete its launch from a B-52 bomber, a setback as the Air Force hastens to make the weapon operational in fiscal year 2022.

 

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